Ever since Tulsi Gabbard, the four-term Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii, declared her intention to seek the US presidency in 2020, reaction from the American media has ranged from dismissive and condescending to outright disdainful. Her policy positions are almost entirely “progressive” by any conceivable measure, yet her most ardent antagonists have tended to be liberals and leftists offended by the very notion that she would even have the gall to consider running in the first place. Some conservatives, on the other hand, are cautiously intrigued. Her political identity is difficult to pigeonhole, as this confused reception reflects.
Understanding why Gabbard receives the hatred she does is a complicated task. But it largely stems from two key risks she’s taken during her young political career (she is only 37 years old). The first was in 2016, when she resigned from the Democratic National Committee and endorsed Bernie Sanders, the socialist insurgent then challenging Hillary Clinton’s coronation. Gabbard maligned Clinton’s foreign policy views as unacceptably hawkish, and some Democrats will never forgive her for this grave betrayal.
The other was her January 2017 trip to Syria, where she met with Bashar al-Assad. The mission was diplomatic in nature, and in keeping with Gabbard’s strident opposition to reckless US military interventionism—which had exacerbated an already hellish situation in that country. But predictably, Gabbard was castigated as Assad’s sympathiser and defender. The charge is groundless; she never said one praiseworthy thing about Assad. But the label stuck, and has been peddled so relentlessly that the only thing many Americans know about her is the scurrilous notion that she cozied up to a brutal dictator.
Then there is her personal background. Gabbard, the first Hindu ever elected to Congress, has often been hit by insinuations. Her friendly interactions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been construed as evidence that she is a supporter of Hindu nationalism, and one prominent publication, The Intercept, even went so far as to scour Gabbard’s list of donors for “names that are of Hindu origin.” Needless to say, such obviously inflammatory innuendos would not be tolerated with respect to donors who belonged to other religious or ethnic groups—and justifiably so. But Americans’ general ignorance of Hinduism has been leveraged to attack her, typically with the added implication that she is under the cultic spell of Hare Krishnas.
None of this is to say that Gabbard’s religious beliefs or diplomatic endeavours should be immune from criticism. As a presidential candidate, of course this is all fair game. But the intense, selective and frequently vitriolic scrutiny she receives suggests that elements of the political and media class see her as a threat—or at minimum, they are very uncomfortable with the way her presence in the 2020 race could illuminate tensions in the Democratic Party coalition.
FiveThirtyEight, the influential elections and “data” prognostication website, has officially designated her an “oddball”, while founder and chief prognosticator Nate Silver has announced that he would “not be serving readers well” were he to give Gabbard significant coverage. And in an infographic feature this week, the New York Times lauded the “history-making potential” of another female minority candidate, California Senator Kamala Harris—but declined to offer Gabbard the same identity-based plaudit. She was the first American Samoan ever elected to Congress, the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii legislature and the youngest woman ever elected to any state legislature. Yet rather than compliment her “history-making potential,” the Times instead chose to highlight Gabbard’s purported affinities for Assad, as well as her history of making anti-gay remarks as a teenager and young adult (which she has since thoroughly renounced.)
Going forward, the attacks launched against Gabbard will grow even more vociferous, especially if her appeal resonates with an as-yet malleable electorate. There will be allegations that she’s somehow in the thrall of the Kremlin—a delegitimising tactic now popular amongst large numbers of liberals, who for over two years have fixated endlessly on the perceived scourge of “Russian interference,” which they blame for electing Donald Trump. At least with respect to Gabbard, the charge makes no sense whatsoever, but that won’t stop her naysayers from flinging it. Indeed, good sense is an increasingly rare commodity among Democrats since Trump’s rise to power drove a high percentage of them insane.
She will also be denigrated as some sort of Trump accommodator, due mostly to the fact that she met with him at Trump Tower shortly after the 2016 election; the meeting’s purpose was to discourage the then president-elect from pursuing regime change in Syria. But ironically, Gabbard has turned out to be one of his most effective critics—not shrill or screechy, like so many other Democrats, but targeted and substantive.
Most recently she distinguished herself as the first 2020 candidate to unequivocally condemn the administration’s move to facilitate the ouster of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. This, like most of her other activities, will only alienate her further from the entrenched foreign policy establishment, as well as recalcitrant party elites. But it’s another risk which could endear her to voters—much to the dismay of scornful, dismissive journalists.
New York-based journalist and writer