Marianne Williamson has garnered fervent online attention in the months since her first debate appearance in Miami. Her every action has been the talk of Twitter and once more she found herself the most Googled candidate tonight. Many people act like the internet is all that matters…so how well does this support translate into the real world?
Judging by the attendance at the Williamson watch party I showed up to in America’s biggest city…not particularly. I was the seventh person to slink into the back of a small experimental theater space in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, two doors down from a psychic. Twenty-four chairs had optimistically been laid out by the host, the theater’s artistic director. The tenth attendee was a small dog with ludicrous two-tone bangs in a sweater, who yapped disapprovingly at regular intervals throughout the night. It was still less annoying than John Delaney.
Many of those gathered were Marianne’s disciples from her earlier career as a spiritual adviser, who freely discussed the ‘life-changing nature’ of her program. Some had brought their own wine. ‘Before it gets warm…come drink it,’ said one lady, placing a chilled bottle of white next to the Two-Buck Chuck on the table beneath the screen.
Williamson was frustrated after the first debate that she didn’t get much speaking time, and told me that in Detroit she would have to adopt a more assertive approach: ‘Well I would try, I’d say things like “ah-ah!” and I need to learn, that’s what my plot has to be for the next time. “I’m talkin’! Did you hear me? I’m talkin’!” I gotta learn how to do that.’
Unfortunately for her, CNN had switched up the format, meaning that assertiveness and interruptions would result in a candidate’s speaking time being docked. Therefore she had to stand idly by and watch as Jake Tapper played action figures with the other candidates, pitting them up against each other in manufactured conflicts.
To her credit, in the brief moments she was granted, Williamson made the most of her time. Meme-friendly mantras made her popular a month ago and her opening statement hinted that she would be sticking to what she knew:
‘…an amoral economic system has turned short-term profits for huge multi-national corporations into a false god. And this new false god takes precedence over the safety and the health and the well-being of we the American people and the people of the world and the planet on which we live.’
So far, so Lovecraft. But she also started to show flashes of the assertiveness she had lamented lacking in Miami. Don Lemon cut her off midway through her popular spiel about America having a ‘sickness care rather than a healthcare’ system. ‘I hope you’ll come back to me this time,’ Williamson intoned.
‘She’s the only one who says something that matters,‘ the lady who had offered wine earlier said to the room during the first commercial break. The dog in the sweater was non-committal.
Though the CNN moderation attempted to give the evening’s discussion the gravitas of a Twitter spat (Jake Tapper was hosting, what did you expect?), the 10 candidates were remarkably united when it came to tackling conglomerates like the fossil fuel corporations and healthcare giants. Strikingly, this is where Williamson really started to excel. Here’s how she answered a question about gun safety:
‘The issue of gun safety, of course, is that the NRA has us in a chokehold, but so do the pharmaceutical companies, so do the health insurance companies, so do the fossil fuel companies, and so do the defense contractors, and none of this will change until we either pass a constitutional amendment or pass legislation that establishes public funding for federal campaigns.
‘But for politicians, including my fellow candidates, who themselves have taken tens of thousands – and in some cases, hundreds of thousands – of dollars from these same corporate donors to think that they now have the moral authority to say we’re going to take them on, I don’t think the Democratic party should be surprised that so many Americans believe yada, yada, yada.’
This earned her first major applause line of the night, and not just in the sparsely populated Chelsea theater. She was channeling the twin spirits of Bernie and Liz Warren at the same time. Surely she couldn’t be a serious candidate?
Her rich run of form continued as she married a thoughtful response about the injustice of the Flint water crisis to some classic Williamsonesque soundbites:
‘I assure you, I lived in Grosse Pointe – what happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry, and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight – if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.’
How long have the American people been waiting for Donald Trump’s ‘dark psychic force’ to be acknowledged on CNN?
But her true highlight was just around the corner.
‘Why are you the best candidate to heal the racial divide in America?’, the CNN chyron read as Don Lemon grilled 10 white people. After Beto O’Rourke had affirmed his commitment to Sheila Jackson Lee’s reparations bill, Lemon quizzed Williamson on her plan, asking what made her qualified to assess what the descendants of slaves were owed.
Her reply was as eloquent as it was compassionate:
‘What makes me qualified to say $200 billion to $500 billion? I’ll tell you what makes me qualified. If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule, given that there was four million to five million slaves at the end of the Civil War, four to five – and they were all promised 40 acres and a mule for every family of four, if you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars. And I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult.
‘And I believe that $200 billion to $500 billion is politically feasible today, because so many Americans realize there is an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface, an emotional turbulence that only reparations will heal.’
The Fox Theater went wild. The eight people in the experimental theater were clapping too.
‘She knows her shit,’ a guy in front of me muttered under his breath, impressed.
The central theme of the night, as my colleague Daniel McCarthy describes, was poorly-polling heartland Democrats probing Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders about the feasibility of their progressive policies. Even here, Williamson was able to score some points:
‘I’ve heard some people here tonight, I almost wonder why you’re Democrats. You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people. That is what government should do. It should…all policies should help people thrive. That is how we will have peace…’
It’s difficult to imagine exactly what Montana governor Steve Bullock was expecting from his first debate, but I’m guessing he wasn’t expecting to be cracked across the skull by one of Williamson’s crystal balls.
Several pundits have opined about the entry threshold for the first two debates being too low. Houston in September will be a step up, and many won’t make the cut. Williamson is several polls and over 38,000 donors short…though she was over 40,000 away before Tuesday’s program.
If this is her last time on the DNC stage, it seems reasonable to ask whether she got a fair shake. ‘A Marianne Williamson staffer told me in Miami that when she visits the networks, reporters and producers sneer at her but the makeup artists always cry when they meet her,’ BuzzFeed‘s Ben Smith tweeted earlier. Perhaps even more of a reason to host a debate away from the major networks judging by tonight’s effort.
And who knows: maybe this was the moment the tide turns for Marianne Williamson. Maybe those nine will be drawn back to that theater come the fall. Maybe more than nine. Maybe that poor dog will have outgrown that awful haircut by then. Dark psychic energy is famously hard to predict.