Marianne Williamson: the ‘leftwing Trump’ preaching the Politics of Love


As 20 candidates prepare for todays second Democratic presidential debate, Stefanie Marsh meets the celebrity self-help guru accused of being a dangerous wacko who just wants the United States to harness love

The left-wing version of Donald Trump perhaps soon to be his nemesis could well turn out to be a highly groomed and imposingly articulate best-selling author of spiritual books. Marianne Williamson was written off as a joke until last month when, almost 30 minutes into the televised Democratic debate, as if emerging from a pupa of deep meditation, she calmly blindsided Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and the entire line-up of career politicians beside her, with a solemn vow to harness love to defeat the fear-mongering president.

Within seconds the author of books such as The Age of Miracles and A Course in Weight Loss, the Tweeter of bon mots such as The power of your mind is greater than the power of nuclear radiation, and the advocate of what some Democrats are now describing forcefully as dangerous medical quackery was trending on social media. Now shes through to this weeks second round of debates, and there are a great many Americans who will be watching for her unpredictable contribution alone.

Williamson grew up in Texas, has lived most of her life in California and, in a bid to garner precious votes in the early caucus state of Iowa, recently took the unusual step of moving to its capital, Des Moines. But her accent is strangely borderless she doesnt so much speak as orate, in the low, deliberate, somewhat husky tones of a philosopher: the voice of, it was noted on Twitter, someone who just dumped Humphrey Bogart.

She knows shes not the safe choice, she says gravely, but I believe that this is a moment and situation where what some might consider a safe choice is the most dangerous choice we can make. Donald Trump is not a politician. Donald Trump is a phenomenon. And it will take a phenomenon to defeat him. She often talks about Trump the phenomenon in interviews, which neatly positions her as his diametric opponent. But will she be the phenomenon to beat Trump? Shes collected enough unique donations to make it back into the overcrowded field of Democrats but is polling at just half a per cent. Can conscious politics and conscious capitalism vanquish Trump? Nobody knows whos going to win. This is a very volatile moment in the United States. I am going to do my best to be the Democratic nominee, and if Im not a nominee Im going to do my best to support who is.

Some might consider a safe choice is the most dangerous choice we can make: Williamson with John Hickenlooper at the first Democratic presidential debate, 27 June, Miami, Florida. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I first met Williamson last October, in a too-noisy caf in London, around the corner from where her daughter lives. Nine months is a long time in politics: Williamson was just a lowly world-famous self-help author and lecturer then a name youd probably know if you were into Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins or Louise Hay, or if you were going through the kind of personal crisis where even ultra-rationalists find themselves drawn to the mind, body, spirit aisle of bookshops.

A room-mate of the actor Laura Dern in her 20s, Williamson had transformed herself into Hollywoods spiritual darling by her mid-30s. Shes unique among the Democratic candidates in having been both Oprah Winfreys spiritual adviser and the officiator at Elizabeth Taylors eighth and final wedding at Neverland (where Michael Jackson was best man). The actor Jeff Bridges donated $2,050 to her campaign in May. Williamson is said to have advised Hillary Clinton prior to Clintons re-election to the Senate in 2006, teaching her the word channelling, which Clinton then used on the campaign trail. It shows how much American politics has absorbed the language even the ideology of New Age thinking that, six years later, Bill Clinton said his wife was known to commune with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Williamson is 67, single, and her daughter is 29 thats all shell share about her private life. Professionally, self-help guru is not a description she would use. The day I met her, she was taking a day off midway through the European leg of a speaking tour Love America en route to Dublin, then the continent. I found myself sitting across the table from a poised and serious woman, a strange hybrid of Lauren Bacall and a Jungian therapist.

I dont think of myself as a self-help guru and I do not think anybody who has actually heard me talk or read my books thinks of me as flaky, she told me sternly. Forbes magazine, which has quoted her a lot over the years, describes her as a businesswoman, but she says she sees herself as a spiritual teacher (of 35 years standing), an activist, an entrepreneur, a bestselling writer, a woman, a mother, an American and a Jew.

Good cause: Williamson with David Hockney at an Aids charity party. Photograph: Richard Perry/Sygma via Getty Images

Nine months on from that conversation, what Williamson has decided to do about Trump is to become president herself. She calls me on the road, living out of a suitcase, she says not dissimilar to her usual existence, though shes now preaching the Politics of Love to the as-yet-unconverted. People mock her love-can-beat-Trump message but dont actually dislike it.

Shes had time to reflect on her performance at the debate and the impact she made. I cant really complain about some of the mockery. I mean, some of it has been hilarious. Very little of it was malevolent and a lot of it is quite fascinating. Politics is a long-form conversation. Its a journey. Its not a one-night debate.

One of the more memorable moments in Williamsons stage time came when candidates were asked to name the person theyd call first as president. Biden and Harris stared on in astonishment at Williamsons reply: The prime minister of New Zealand, who said 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. Williamson became the most Googled candidate on the second night of the 2020 Democratic debates. Some people think Im absolutely bonkers, she laughs.

Like her foes on the far right, Williamson calls for a new kind of politics, but shes been accused by some on the left of being a Republican-funded plant. What I would say is, true, there are a lot of Republicans who like what Im saying, she says. There are many people who voted for Trump who say they would vote for me. I think if anything, that would make me more attractive to Democratic voters as a nominee.

Its a delightful image angry Trump voters casting off the presidents hate-filled message to embrace Williamsons mantras of peace, love and mindfulness. But its the left-wing establishment she wants to disrupt just as thoroughly. The Democratic party is seen as too cool. Too cool to use words like patriotism and morality. I think thats been very damaging to us politically.

The biggest test to her campaign came when she described mandatory vaccination policies as draconian and Orwellian. There was an outcry George Orwell died of TB. Although she later apologised, her claim that she supports vaccinations came with the caveat when they are called for. Its unclear what her policy would be. Im not anti-vaccine, she tells me quite angrily, after an article in the Daily Beast calls her a dangerous wacko. I am pro-science. I have never told anyone to pray away their disease[] I regret, however, calling it draconian or Orwellian. The government must always come down on the side of public safety.

What about when she said, The Aids virus is not more powerful than God? I would hope, she says, that if youre writing an article you might have read my books. Integrative medicine means body, mind and spirit. In todays world, she says, the three are no longer considered separate even by the mainstream. An oncologist is likely to be the first person to tell someone to go to one of those spiritual support groups. Its not a fringe activity. If someone does a meditation or a prayer with someone regarding the boosting of their immune system, it is in no way to denigrate or to argue against or to criticise medicine. That is absurd. Ive never said anything like that. Ive never written anything like that and my entire career proves otherwise.

She says drug companies pathologise unhappiness, a claim that some have furiously interpreted as: Depression is all in your head, and argues that antidepressants are an exploitative, money-making scheme. Then Williamson went further. How many public personalities on antidepressants have to hang themselves before the FDA does something? she Tweeted last June, when the designer Kate Spade killed herself. Big Pharma cops [sticks] to what it knows, and the average person stops falling for this? The tragedies keep compounding. The awakening should begin.

Depression, stress and unhappiness are big themes in her work, as one would expect, and there are plenty who have read her books who say shes changed, if not saved, their lives. But does she really think people who have been prescribed antidepressants should come off them? Isnt that dangerous? Over the past few years, she says, the psychopharmacological and pharmaceutical industries have medicalised depression. Now, Im not saying there is no such thing as mental illness, but I am saying there is a spectrum of normal human despair that is not mental illness. When someone you love dies, when you go bankrupt, lose something professionally, go through a divorce thats very painful but its not a mental illness, and can be better addressed through spiritual rather than pharmaceutical means.

A day or two after the Democrat debate, Williamson was trending again, this time because she had been left out of a Vogue magazine shoot by Annie Leibovitz dedicated to all the women running for president. Williamson responded by retweeting the picture with her face Photoshopped into it and a Facebook post: The framers of the constitution did not make Vogue magazine the gatekeeper of Americas political progress. The Vogue editor responsible was hauled up on morning talk shows to defend the magazines decision on the basis that Williamson, unlike her five female rivals, is not a member of Congress.

Williamsons CV has nothing obviously presidential to recommend it. The daughter of a naturalised Russian immigration lawyer and a homemaker mother, she grew up in Houston, the youngest of three children, and was a teen protester against the Vietnam war, with a rebellious streak and ambitions to be an actor.

In her 20s she found herself living an aimless party life in New York when a gift from her then boyfriend changed her life and career. It was a book by the psychologist Helen Schucman, a self-study spiritual curriculum called A Course in Miracles, the greatest miracle of all being full awareness of loves presence. Williamson found it inspiring and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked at the Philosophical Research Society library. Here, she was invited by its president to lecture about what shed learned studying Schucman.

Williamson began to build on Schucmans ideas. Her quasi-religious talks and books began to attract Hollywoods attention. Shirley MacLaine, Cher and Bette Midler absorbed her lessons on forgiving your parents, saving the world and why death does not exist. David Geffen, then the richest film mogul in the world, became a key supporter. When her work gained traction in the 1980s among gay men with Aids, Geffen donated $500,000 to help set up Project Angel Food, a free meal service for men and women too unwell to shop and cook for themselves. David Hockney, Diane von Furstenberg and Kim Basinger joined the honorary advisory board of a subsequent charity. The last time she was as talked about as she is now was probably in 1991, when, at 38, she was profiled in Vanity Fair as guru of the moment.

She has written 12 books, four of them bestsellers. The last one, Tears to Triumph, sold 3m copies when it was published in 2016. The names of her books coupled with the calibre of celebrities (including members of the Kardashian clan) who supported her failed 2014 congressional bid in California led even the Democrat incumbent, Henry Waxman, to dismiss her as too woo for a more serious career in Washington. That failure weighed heavily on her, though she sees the criticism of her as gendered. Im hardly the first woman whose career and contribution is seen differently because of my sex, she says, and its true that the respected philosopher John Gray, who endorsed her candidacy, for example, never gets called a self-help guru.

So what are her policies? There follows a long shopping list of Democrat ideals, starting with a massive infusion of hope and economic opportunity into the sinews of American civilisation. She would repeal the 2017 tax cut which gave 83 cents in every $1 to the richest individuals and corporations. Id stop the corporate subsidies, such as the $20bn that went to the fossil fuel companies in one year alone. I want to see a $15-an-hour minimum wage. I want to see Medicare for all. She wants to reverse climate change and give citizenship to Americas 11m undocumented immigrants.

As a speaker she has millions of adoring followers, but the majority are women. Does she think her message can appeal to men? Theres a saying in publishing, she says: the wives buy the books and their husbands read them. In politics, she adds: Angela Merkel is liked by men in Germany, so my sense is that there are many instances where the fact that the leader is a woman has not created a misogynist backlash even though I think misogyny was definitely involved in the defeat of Hillary Clinton. And so when President Trump said, Make America Great Again there are so many dog whistles in that statement. What is the great American that hes talking about, exactly? It implied to a lot of people an America where the men ran the show and the women stood there and looked pretty.

She says that Trumps recent Go back Tweets are out of every fascists playbook. How does love deal with an auditorium full of Trump voters chanting Go back? Williamson built a career on helping others work through their personal crises, but can she convince the nation to apply her skills to an entire demographic? Come 2020, will we be watching her lead America in a televised group mindfulness meditation? Laugh all you want, then remember whos president.

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