Magical thinking: The high priestess of 'hell, no'
Cosmic energies are stock-in-trade for Marianne Williamson, the most improbable candidate for the Democratic 2020 US presidential nomination, writes Siobhán Brett
There are many factors that might stand between a Democratic candidate for president and the third Democratic debate, which takes place early next month. One might, as California representative Eric Swalwell put it while dropping out, "no longer see a path forward to the nomination".
A candidate might also fail to reach the donor threshold: 130,000 individual donors, with a minimum of 400 in 20 states. Or it might be opinion polling that trips up a presidential hopeful: candidates also need two per cent in at least four qualifying polls.
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But Marianne Williamson, the 67-year-old author and self-help guru, doesn't like to think in terms of donors, dollars or declarations of support. In recent times, she has suggested that "powerful forces" on the left are working to keep her away. Williamson, who materialised on the political circuit with a certain wizardry at the start of the year, trades in cosmic energies. She raised the "dark psychic force of the collectivised hatred" in the first debate, referring to a tone set by President Trump.
At the Iowa State Fair earlier this month, Williamson, her voice hoarse, referred to "amoral economic forces that lead inevitably to immoral consequences".
In a crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates - a puzzling 24 individuals are still in the running, at last count - Williamson, despite still polling at less than one per cent, has stood out.
On stage, and in the race, she resembles nobody else. In the June debate, among anxious, grinning newcomers, familiar names like Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke, and people who have tried before, like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, Williamson was beguiling, a sort of groovy Good Witch of the North character, constantly extolling the power of love.
In a muted turquoise blazer, her wispy not-brown-not-grey hair in a middle part, she sounded like an actress in a 1950s movie. But Williamson spoke in full, mostly positive, mostly rational sentences, the content of which took her audience by surprise.
Later that week, in a car on the way to a barbecue at Rockaway Beach in New York, friends and I replayed YouTube clips of her appearance. In the comments, she was alternately hailed as "our new wine aunt overlord", a "hippy crackpot" and "a strung-out Lois Lane".
But the capacity to entertain cannot be underestimated in the US presidential election, and Williamson, although she does not seem to set out to do it, entertains. When asked what the first thing she would do when she took office, Williamson solemnly replied: "My first call is to the prime minister of New Zealand, who said that her goal is to make New Zealand the best place in the world for a child to grow up. And I would tell her: 'Girlfriend, you are so on', because the United States of America is going to be the best place in the world for a child to grow up."
Is it possible that somebody so dippy and distracting, so hell-bent on the topic of compassion, could be dangerous? Sure it is. A writer for the website Jezebel recently referred to Williamson as "85pc good and 15pc 'Oh no'". The power of love, as her many vocal critics point out, can only go so far. The sharp discomfort felt about Williamson exists because she does not seem to believe in any limitation.
As intrigue about her candidacy and mystical mien increased, so too did warnings about positions Williamson has taken on vaccinations (she called vaccine mandates "draconian" and "Orwellian") and depression and anti-depressants (alluding to overprescription and suggesting links between medication and suicide, raising "the pharmaceuticalisation of normal human despair").
"It's very hard to get people to agree to take medication to begin with," Jessica Gold, a psychiatrist and Assistant Professor at Washington University in St Louis, told Time magazine earlier this month. "To have extra people being factors in that decision with incorrect information is not particularly helpful."
During the second debate - in which she made trenchant speeches on gun safety, racial inequality, the case for reparations, the insidiousness of large corporate donors - Williamson's who-is-she quality made her the most-searched candidate in 49 out of 50 American states. Only residents of Montana searched more for their governor, who is also still in the running. Those willing to descend into a Williamson internet rabbit hole found themselves in a maze-like warren. She is closely associated with Oprah, Deepak Chopra and Alanis Morissette, who wrote a song for Williamson's run for Congress in 2014. She officiated the 1991 wedding of the late Elizabeth Taylor.
In recent interviews, Williamson has mentioned her 1997 book - one of at least nine - Healing The Soul Of America. Her books are about God, spiritual citizenship, women as goddesses, "the mystical power of intimate relationships" and making miracles.
Williamson again and again references things many people are hungry for: ethics, conscience, remorse, moral leadership, "rambunctiousness of the American spirit", "a fearless moral inventory".
With each late-night TV interview, she has tried to distance herself from reckless past pronouncements on medicine and healthcare.
A lot of what she says sounds palatable. "Hell, no," became her refrain during the Iowa State Fair speech. She outlined things in the past to which different groups and generations of people said "hell, no": the king of England, slavery, the suppression of women, institutionalised white supremacy in the American South. Williamson looked out to the gathered audience from behind large sunglasses.
"It is time for you and me to say, very politely, very kindly, very stylistically: 'hell, no'. There are some things that must stop."
It's hard to imagine Williamson as anything other than, for a spell, the harmless curiosity candidate. Of course, stranger things have happened.