‘A different type of vibe’: What does Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 run say about America?


Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, as she often does, suspected foul play. After Google searches for her name spiked following the first Democratic debate in June, her campaign sought to capitalize on the moment by buying ads on the platform – only to find its Google Ads account had somehow been suspended.

Gabbard, center, wearing a Hawaiian lei, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. (Photo : Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti)

So Gabbard, D-Hawaii, on Thursday announced a $50 million lawsuit against Google, alleging the tech giant was discriminating against her campaign. “Google (or someone at Google) didn’t want Americans to hear Tulsi Gabbard’s speech, so it silenced her,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit was one more example of how Gabbard, 38, is not like other Democratic presidential candidates: She’s a proud veteran, but one who harshly attacks U.S. military operations. She joined Republicans in criticizing President Barack Obama for not using the term “Islamic” in condemning terrorism. She has downplayed Robert Mueller’s special counsel report into Russian interference in the 2016 election and has resisted calls to impeach President Donald Trump.

Yet, the congresswoman has attracted more than 100,000 donors so far in her bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee. If Gabbard’s approach doesn’t fit into a traditional Democratic worldview, it in many ways matches this political moment: fractured, restless, sometimes untethered to either side of the left-right divide. Although she has struggled in the polls, Gabbard appears to embody a desire by some voters to break out of long-standing categories.

Her core message, that the United States needs to stop trying to police the world, helped her win enough backing to qualify for the first Democratic primary debate. Gabbard also will appear in the second faceoff later this week, and she has attracted supporters from the far left to the far right – an impassioned lot who see her as the only person in the field speaking truth.

Washington Post reporter Robert Costa interviews Gabbard during a Washington Post Live event on June 13.(Photo: Kaz Sasahara for The Washington Post)

“It’s a different type of vibe,” said Niko House, one of Gabbard’s most active supporters and the host of a YouTube channel on which he has “questioned the official narrative” on everything from Bill Cosby’s downfall to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “Tulsi has an appeal to emotion, an appeal to humanity.”

Lee Stranahan, a onetime reporter for the right-wing Breitbart website who works for the Russian state news agency Sputnik, is also a fan. “I think she’s being sincere – I don’t think she is pulling her punches,” said Stranahan, a former Trump supporter.

Many Democrats see Gabbard as a fringe figure, prone to unconventional stances and barely registering in the polls, making the upcoming debate potentially the last chance for her – and other low-polling presidential hopefuls – to make a splash. They dismiss her allegations of dark plots, and Google said her ad account was suspended automatically after flagging “unusual activity,” which would happen with any account.

But Gabbard casts her ability to appeal across the aisle as a strength. It’s evident in the reception she has had on alternative outlets, including in an interview in May with Joe Rogan, a former mixed martial arts fighter and comedian who hosts the widely popular podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

Rogan, who identifies as “way left” socially but conservative in other ways, let Gabbard talk for more than two hours on his show about her desire to topple the military-industrial complex. The podcast went live to Rogan’s millions of followers, whom he had already primed to love Gabbard.

“Tulsi Gabbard’s my girl. I’m voting for her. I decided – I like her,” Rogan said in an earlier podcast. “I give up. I’m not even paying attention to anything else.”

Last week, Gabbard joined the podcast “Outkick the Coverage,” on which she asserted that the structure of the debates was biased against her. She also blasted opponent Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as “not qualified” to be commander in chief.

“She’s got no background or experience in foreign policy, and she lacks the temperament that is necessary,” Gabbard told radio host Clay Travis, the author of “Republicans Buy Sneakers Too: How the Left is Ruining Sports with Politics.”

Still, it seems increasingly improbable that this unconventional approach will be enough for Gabbard to vault into the top tier of candidates. Her campaign has struggled to hit 2% in the polls, so she risks not qualifying for the next debates in the fall. For months, too, she has been without a campaign manager, a vacancy her team has insisted is the result of careful deliberation, not campaign dysfunction.

Her family has heavily pitched in. Her sister, Vrindavan, is a constant presence on the campaign trail, pinch-hitting on everything from travel logistics to social media posts, occasionally reminding Gabbard to eat between events. Gabbard’s husband, Abraham Williams, is the campaign’s videographer.

Gabbard’s iconoclastic message draws vocal opponents as well. Among other things, she’s been dogged by protesters who say she’s too close to India’s Hindu nationalists and the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Her most provocative move, though, came in 2017, when she met secretly with Syrian President Bashar Assad. She has since minimized reports that he used chemical weapons against his own people. Democrats and Republicans distanced themselves from her trip, and she has spent the ensuing years defending it.

If it’s not obvious why a lesser-known congresswoman, one ostracized by her own party, would run for president, Gabbard traces her decision to a text message that went out last January across her home state: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

It would be several minutes before Gabbard learned it was a false alarm. “The same thing ran across my mind that was running across everybody’s minds,” she said. “Immediately I’m thinking about, ‘Where’s my parents?’ You know, ‘Where are my brothers? Where are the kids? Where can they go? What can they do?’ ”

Gabbard began working the phones, dialing the head of Hawaii’s civil defense agency, who assured her the message was, in fact, a drill, albeit one that had been monumentally botched.

The scare deeply affected her. “To me that was a major turning point, in that I’ve got to be in a position where I can do something about this” nuclear threat, Gabbard said. “And the best position to do that is as president.”

Born in American Samoa, Gabbard spent most of her childhood in Hawaii, the fourth of five siblings – and the shyest, by her recollection – in a socially conservative household. At age 21, she became the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii state legislature.

Shortly afterward, she joined the Hawaii Army National Guard and eventually deployed to Iraq. While there, Gabbard was assigned to a field medical unit, where her daily tasks included going through a list of casualties first thing in the morning.

That exercise, she said, changed her.

“I really wondered how many of these politicians back in Washington who voted for this war are kept up at night worrying about all of these people who every single day were being hurt and injured and killed in Iraq,” Gabbard said. “Yeah, it made me angry.”

Upon returning to the United States, Gabbard decided to run for Congress.

In the middle of that campaign, she spoke briefly at the Democratic National Convention, opening her speech with a hearty “Aloha!”

The crowd loved her. She was a telegenic Iraq War veteran who would go on to defeat her Republican opponent with 81% of the vote, becoming the first Hindu and the first American Samoan member of Congress following her election in 2012. Along the way, she garnered reams of positive press, articles that inevitably wove in scenes of Gabbard surfing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told Vogue in 2013 that Gabbard was “an emerging star.”

But cracks soon began to appear in Gabbard’s relationship with the party. In criticizing Obama for avoiding the term “radical Islamic terrorism” – which he did to avoid stereotyping Muslims – Gabbard said it was important to identify one’s enemy.

She broke with most Democratic leaders again by backing Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for president in 2016. When he lost the primary to Hillary Clinton, Gabbard abruptly resigned as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee to fully support him.

Fans say that rejection of her party captured her political integrity. “She was essentially the promised one,” said House, the YouTube host. “She had a chance to capitulate to the will of the establishment for her personal gain … and she did the total opposite.”

The apostasy continued when she met with Trump, after he’d won but before he took office, at Trump Tower. Gabbard said she was hoping to affect his foreign policy.

“I wanted to make sure that I that I did my best to try to influence him,” she said. “Obviously he has done exactly the opposite of what I had hoped, and we find ourselves in the place that we’re in now, unfortunately, as a result.”

To this day, many at Gabbard’s events trace their support to her decision to quit the DNC in support of Sanders. At one of her largest events, a March meet-and-greet in Los Angeles, where 300 people packed a Koreatown church, many people sported “Bernie” pins and T-shirts, while a man outside blasted audio from a Sanders speech. If not for the leis and the “Tulsi 2020” signs, it would have appeared to be a rally for the senator.

House said he was inspired to endorse Gabbard after she appeared on his show, though he faced a “legitimate struggle” on whether to back Sanders as he had in 2016. Ultimately, he said he decided that Sanders’s supporters were now more a part of “the establishment.”

Other Gabbard fans say that they remain torn between her and Sanders, and that their ultimate goal is to get her on the Democratic ticket.

“There are a lot of Bernie supporters out there supporting Tulsi as well, because that’s the end ticket that a lot of us would like,” said Nathan Baker, who recently brought his two daughters, ages 8 and 10, to see Gabbard in Iowa. “I have a strong feeling she’s going to be our first female vice president and then our first female president. That’s what I’m rooting for.”



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