What's Up With Tulsi Gabbard?
Unpacking the mystery behind the democratic candidate the far-right loves.
During Wednesday night’s debate, amid questions on paid family leave, #MeToo, and healthcare, Kamala Harris took on fellow candidate Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard, a democratic member of the House of Representatives from Hawaii, was asked about her criticism of former Secretary of State (and former presidential nominee) Hillary Clinton, in which Gabbard referred to Clinton as the “embodiment of corruption.” In her response, Gabbard mentioned that “our Democratic Party, unfortunately, is not the party that is of, by and for the people," a line that would soon go viral on right-wing Twitter.
When asked by moderators to respond to Gabbard’s comments, Kamala Harris eviscerated her, calling out questions that have been raised by candidates, pundits, and even Clinton herself about Gabbard’s candidacy: “It's unfortunate that we have someone on this stage … who during the Obama administration spent four years on Fox News criticizing President Obama," Harris said. Harris also added that Gabbard refused “to call a war criminal by what he is — a war criminal,” referring to the way Gabbard responded to questions about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this spring.
The moment immediately rose to the top of debate commentary on Twitter, and next-day water-cooler chatter. Some called it a win for Harris, others believed it was a crucial call-out moment in letting the public know Gabbard shouldn’t be on the debate stage (a tweet calling for her to be swapped out for Julián Castro, who hadn’t qualified for this round, went mini-viral), and throughout it all, there were people wondering why Harris bothered with the tongue-lashing at all: Who is Tulsi Gabbard, and why did she warrant such a powerful reaction?
Gabbard’s reputation as a democratic candidate for the presidency has been controversial since she launched her campaign, including right-wing support that has voters wondering why she’s running as a Democrat at all. Now more than ever, voters have to be vigilant in who they choose to support, and Gabbard’s background deserves a double-take. Here’s what you need to know about the candidate, including her “both-sides” reputation, the bizarre story behind her sister interloping on her Twitter account, and her unflappable dedication to white pantsuits.
When she was 21, Gabbard became the youngest woman ever elected to the state legislature, serving in the Hawaii State House. She later enlisted in the Hawaii Army National Guard, voluntarily deploying to Iraq. Later, in 2012, Gabbard won the 2nd Congressional District of Hawaii to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, and stepped down from her position as Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee in order to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election. (Sanders seemed to come to Gabbard’s defense in regard to Hillary Clinton’s October criticism of the candidate.)
Gabbard’s platform, according to Axios, includes supporting free community college tuition, breaking up big banks, and a “reduced military presence” in the Middle East. She does not appear to have a position on the Green New Deal, and has said she doesn’t want to eliminate private health insurance. Gabbard received criticism for a secret trip to Syria in 2017 to meet with Bashar al-Assad, who used chemical weapons against civilians. Gabbard also voted with Republicans on an Obama-era bill that required placing “extreme vetting” measures on refugees from Iraq and Syria, and had previously been against same-sex marriage and worked for anti-gay organizations (positions Gabbard has now apologized for).
The Intelligencer wrote that Gabbard has been close to the right-wing Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, whose party is “known for its ethnocentric views and its anti-Muslim sentiment.” Gabbard is Hindu, and was a guest of honor of “the extremist Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh” on a trip in 2014.
According to reporting from The Intelligencer, Steve Bannon, former advisor to President Donald Trump, counts himself as a big Gabbard fan. That landed her a meeting with incoming President Trump at Trump Tower following the 2016 election.
Her Presidential Campaign So Far
Thus far, Gabbard’s role in the democratic primary seems to be one of forceful chaos, sparking tensions wherever she can in ways that range from controversial to downright bizarre. In October, Gabbard threatened to boycott that month’s Democratic debate (to which a collective response seemed to be: okay). "The DNC and the corporate media are trying to hijack the entire election process," Gabbard said in a Twitter video at the time (she did not elaborate on how the process was “rigged,” and she did end up participating in the debate). Gabbard barely squeaked into the November debate securing a paltry 3% in recent polling though POLITICO reported that she had secured the 165,000 donors necessary to qualify.
In an even wilder plot twist, Gabbard’s sister (whom, The Cut reports, she lives with) live-tweets the debates — from Gabbard’s Twitter account — with her own commentary on favoritism and election-rigging (signing tweets with just her initial, "V"). In the past, Gabbard’s sister has called out networks for playing favorites with Elizabeth Warren, and did so again Wednesday night, coming to Andrew Yang's defense. (Weirdly, Gabbard’s campaign also seems to tweet from the account at the same time, signing their tweets TULSI2020.)
Gabbard also seems to wear similar white pantsuits repeatedly. As Vanessa Friedman wrote for The New York Times Thursday morning, it’s a choice that seems strategic. Friedman mentioned that, previously, Clinton wore a white pantsuit at the 2019 Democratic National Convention, and Democratic congresswomen made headlines for wearing all-white to the State of the Union in 2019, a nod to the women's suffrage movement. Gabbard’s feels different. “It sets someone apart, rather than joining others together,” wrote Friedman. “It has connotations of the fringe, rather than the center.”
So, What’s Her Deal?
In October 2019, Zack Beauchamp of Vox wrote that Gabbard’s approach “has a handful of fans on the party’s left flank but has really found its base on the pro-Trump right, real-life proof the horseshoe theory of the political spectrum has actual merit.” Far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich said of Gabbard “she’s got a good energy, a good vibe. You feel like this is just a serious person. She seems very Trumpian.”
According to analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley, Gabbard’s support among women is “practically nonexistent.” Her supporters are overwhelmingly male, and are likely to have supported President Trump in 2016. Gabbard did an exclusive interview with right-wing extremist site Breitbart News, and regularly appears on FOX. In October 2019, Vice reported that Gabbard had racked up praise from the likes of The Daily Caller, and KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.
“Since Friday, media outlets and pundits across the pro-Trump internet have continued pumping out content in an apparent attempt to elevate a campaign polling in the low single digits,” wrote David Uberti for Vice. It’s been reported that experts have seen signs of “Russia’s propaganda machine” supporting Gabbard’s campaign.
Wednesday night, it was more of the same for Gabbard: Liberals squirmed at even seeing her on the stage, while right-wing and libertarian accounts continued to amplify her message — a likely sign of what’s to come if she remains in the race.