Andrew Yang claimed to be surprised that the media dubbed Tulsi Gabbard the first Asian American to run for the Democratic nomination. Of course Gabbard snagged this prize of the higher tokenism, first claimed by Patsy Mink in 1972. Yang may be doing better in the single-figure freakshow of the nomination race, but Gabbard looks better when encasing her policies in a tight wetsuit or engaging in Lycra-clad iron-pumping.
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) September 16, 2019
This is not all the Gabbard candidacy has set a-pumping. No Democrat so quickens the blood of the red-meat, male-voice choir of Buchananites and Bannonites. Their millennial youth cadre –– raised on porn and Twitter, attuned with almost Democratic acuteness to the optics of race and gender –– are especially aroused, alternately rubbing their thighs and stroking their keyboards in anticipation of Gabbard crossing over; not by the usual route, across the aisle as an internationalist moderate, but as an isolationist radical who might accelerate the collapse of Republican foreign-policy dogma. Les extrêmes se touchent, as they say in Hawaii.
Gabbard’s appeal to the edgy right runs deeper than anti-war credentials, cheery warnings that American foreign policy is controlled by a shadowy ‘war machine’, and a glib, amoral ‘realism’ that amounts to little more than an incoherent admiration of power. Nor, though she deploys her whitest pantsuit to rhetorical effect in televised debates and Twitter clips, is Gabbard a natural Democrat, at least in this unnatural era when the times, like Donald Trump’s nose, are perpetually out of joint. This is because her politics have less in common with Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders than with precursors who also would have struggled to cut a dash in a wetsuit –– spiritual politicians like Madame Blavatsky and Rasputin.
Gabbard isn’t a left- or right-wing politician. She is a spiritual revolutionary, defying the categories of material and contractual politics –– overcoming them, as Blavatsky and Nietzsche had it. Her positions fit no party template because they are what Peter Viereck called ‘metapolitics’. She wishes to overcome the intolerable binaries and compromises that have, as she rightly observes, gummed up the works of government and reduced swathes of the public to destitution, dependency and desperation. Being a modern Hawaiian rather than a 19th-century Bavarian, the voice of her inner authoritarian is as soft as the lining of her wetsuit. Still, it speaks quite clearly.
Like Gandhi and George Harrison, who were also promoted beyond their competence, Gabbard is influenced by a strange medley of self-help and pop-Hinduism. Hence Gandhi’s George Bernard Shaw routine in a dhoti, or George Harrison’s deeply spiritual objections to capital gains in ‘Taxman’. Hence too the paradoxes of Gabbard the soldier-pacifist who supports our troops but dog-whistles about the ‘war machine’; who smilingly shares apocalyptic visions of government failure and corruption from her lush Hawaiian garden; and who supports human rights but never says a harsh word about Bashar al-Assad.
It was squalid of Hillary Clinton to imply that Putin’s people were manipulating Gabbard as a ‘Russian asset’. In a season of universal political folly, every candidate is an asset to any rival power. No Russian or Chinese meddler has messed with the American system as successfully as a chorus of millionaires threatening war overseas and further legislation on public bathrooms at home. The blend of petty managerialism at home and delusional universalism abroad is a winning combination –– winning, that is, for Putin and Xi.
That blend also happens to be the recipe of religious cults like the one in which Gabbard was raised, and whose members she appointed to her campaign staff. This crankish background shapes the attitudes which make Gabbard a Democratic misfit, like hostility to homosexuality, gay marriage and Islam, fondness for Narendra Modi’s Hindu revivalism. Even the attitudes which might endear her to the Democratic left, her metapolitically mixed feelings about the Jews, have been a core feature of spiritual revolution from Blavatsky to Nietzsche, Gandhi to John Lennon.
Gabbard shares all this with the Buchananites and Bannonites, as well as a deeper urge for spiritual renovation, whether by Buchanan’s Christianity or Bannon’s seizing of the world-historical zeitgeist. She is, then, not marginal to American society: her spiritual insurgency comes from the heart and resonates, albeit oddly, in the Heartland. If she is not as deep as her paradoxes suggest, neither is she as shallow as the image she propagates.
The American crisis runs much deeper than politics and economics: it is a loss of purpose and meaning, in work and family as in international relations. If it seems odd that religion, the opioid of the people, should offer an alternative to pills and cage-fighting, that shows how far elite opinion has drifted from the rest of American society and its historic foundations. The secular self-actualizers of the Sixties, the heirs of Blavatsky and the Victorian ‘life reformers’, expelled monotheism from public life. Religious conservatives may see Gabbard as an ally in Christian restoration, but she is an institutional avatar of the Sixties’ revolution. Such is America: endless dreams, endless Awakenings.