Meet the Candidates 2020: Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard surfing.jpg

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was one of the first Democratic presidential candidates to announce and was poised to be nothing more than an also-ran shit-stirrer with an amazing grey streak until early fall of 2019, when Hillary Clinton decided to make her public enemy #1. The move predictably gifted Gabbard’s campaign a polling and fundraising bump and brought to our attention some of the most exciting conspiracy theories of the cycle so far (though we were on the case back in August thanks to our Iowa roving!). People have since gone wild speculating that Gabbard is being propped up by Russia to run as a third party candidate, but with a platform that’s all over the map politically and no natural constituency, it’s unclear who this idea would appeal to besides maybe Clinton herself, who is enjoying complaining and it too much and currently the main person giving Gabbard enough air to make it happen. Either way, all of this drama has reinvigorated interest in Gabbard’s bizzaro biography and that’s what counts because the story of how we wound up with Tulsi Gabbard in the first place is a whopper. 

Wholesome-sounding Mike and Carol Gabbard moved from American Samoa to Hawaii with baby Tulsi and her three older siblings in 1983. She is the fourth of five kids, all primarily homeschooled, and her parents were for many years, among other things, former Vegetarian restaurateurs and the former owners of a shop called Hawaiian Toffee Treasures that, according to Mike’s website, “many people say was the best English toffee in the world.” What people say less often but should probably know is that the popular vegetarian restaurant Mike and Carol ran, The Natural Deli, was actually closed by picketers furious about Mike’s anti-LGBTQ activism.

See, it wasn’t all adorable toffee fun. The family was also involved in politics, and not always the good kind. Beyond his work as a local restaurateur, Mike, a current Hawaii state senator and former city councilman, built a political career on his opposition to all things gay. In the 80s he started an organization called Stop Promoting Homosexuality and was a follower of a weird fundamentalist Hare Krishna-esque cult led by a white American guy man named Chris Butler. Bulter and his followers seem to have really REALLY hated gay people and expended what is frankly an unnecessary amount of energy making dubious claims about homosexuality leading to bestiality and promoting gay conversion therapy. The movement had vague connections to Hinduism, sure, but stating that Tulsi was raised Hindu, which bios often do and which she now says she practices, is a stretch. Tulsi was raised in Butler’s movement, dubbed the “Science of Identity Foundation,” which sounds sinister because it was. Early on she worked with her dad on anti-LGBTQ causes and was vocally pro-life. She claims to have had a change of heart after serving in the Middle East and seeing what fundamentalist law can do to a society.

As for Gabbard’s political career, the basics go like this: Gabbard was elected to the Hawaii Legislature in 2002, at just 21 years old. At the time she was a Democrat but still very socially conserative - she ran on the idea of passing a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. After being deployed to Iraq and Kuwait in 2004 with her National Guard unit, Gabbard’s social positions began to change. She ran a successful bid for the Honolulu City Council before being elected to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District in 2012. It was the year of Obama pt. 2 and Dem spirits were high. Gabbard won her primary in a major upset (she’d begun the race trailing by 50 points) and was positioned by party leadership as a progressive star to watch. She got endorsed by fellow Hawaiian Obama, tagged by Nancy Pelosi and other bigwigs as the future of the party, and even got a convention speaking spot. Her military background and the fact that she was to be the first “Hindu” woman (quotes intentional) ever elected to Congress gave her a compelling backstory and early on she ran on a fashionable blend of economic progressivism and opposition to Bush’s neverending Middle East wars. It was all going swimmingly.

Things started to fall apart in 2014, when Gabbard began to pick foreign policy fights with the Obama administration and echo GOP talking points on Syria and Iran all over cable news. 2015 was a big year for ISIS, and Gabbard was keen to join Republicans in railing against the Obama administration for not being tough enough on “radical Islam,” a phrasing point being used at the time to demonize the religion itself instead of the many disparate fundamentalist political movements causing all the trouble. This era is when she made her most famous policy blunder - expressing something like support for Bashar al-Assad, the Russia-friendly (American educated!) Syrian Dictator who basically caused the Syrian civil war and is mostly famous in non-political circles for committing atrocities against his own people. Gabbard even sponsored a bill in Congress to cut off US support for the rebels fighting Assad. She also made some weird comments that made it sound like Putin was superior to Obama at #neverforgetting 9/11, like this tweet from 2015: “Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 and must be defeated. Obama won’t bomb them in Syria. Putin did. #neverforget911.” All in all, shit with her was getting weird. 

Gabbard endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016, but she didn’t share much with him on the foreign policy front other than an (earned) distrust of Hillary Clinton’s hawkish instincts. Then in 2017 she actually went and met with Assad, after which she began parroting his regime’s talking points on CNN and giving air to conspiracy theories expressing skepticism that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks he (allegedly but, like, definitely did) launch against his own people later that year. And if that wasn’t enough to earn her ire from the powers that be, she spent most of 2016 criticizing the DNC debate schedule. And that, in a non-nutshell, is how Tulsi made an enemy out of the DNC.

Gabbard might be the only person on earth who understands her platform, but when she referred to herself as a “dove” on regime change but a “hawk” on terrorism, that was as close as anybody has gotten. All of this is pretty weird because she’s fairly progressive on a lot of other stuff, endorsing at various points a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-all, and the Green New Deal. While some of the political left is split on whether she’s credible or insane, the far-left eggheads at Jacobin are notably not impressed, and they usually know what’s what.

Look, this is is not nearly all of it, but who has time? We didn’t even get into the bizarre role her sister plays on her campaign, the mystery of the ubiquitous Tulsi 2020 yard signs, the fact that nobody ever mentions her age even though she’s almost as young as Pete Buttigieg, and so much more. Honestly, just read this article for the rest. It’s long but amazing.