The Democratic debate last night wasn’t actually America’s introduction to Marianne Williamson. She has multiple New York Times best-selling books and was a regular fixture on The Oprah Winfrey Show for many years. In 1997, Mother Jones covered her fame and charisma—and shift to a more political message—in a prescient (and slightly mocking) profile. But many “political junkies” apparently had different viewing and reading habits in the 1990s and early 2000s, and for them, Williamson is mainly a figure of fascination and fun.
Williamson was already the Meme Candidate for those too sophisticated for the Redditors’ Meme Candidate, Andrew Yang—the Chapo Trap House boys have engaged in some lighthearted ironical support for her, culminating in an actual interview with the candidate—and the post-debate reaction to her performance last night has largely hewed to people “in on the joke” riffing on her “breakout performance.” Yes, she has an inexplicable mid-Atlantic accent, like if Arrested Development’s Lucille 2 cured her vertigo with meditation and crystals. Yes, she unaccountably put New Zealand on blast. Yes, she said that Trump won with “fear” instead of “plans,” and that only emotional and spiritual appeals can defeat that fear—but, wait, is that one actually more ridiculous than anything Joe Biden claims about his plans to return America to 1972?
If you were going to imagine a Democratic version of Donald Trump, what would it look like? One version of this thought experiment produces someone who resembles Bernie Sanders—an “extremist” who riles up his base with unreasonable promises and threatens to tear the entire system down. But that is only superficially Trump-like.
We might say, instead, that a Democratic Trump would be a proper outsider, with a great deal of TV experience giving her both name recognition and some degree of respect among the “base” despite the “establishment” not taking her seriously. She may have been initially a fairly apolitical figure, but she is canny enough to understand that entering politics means not promising to be above the fray, but acting determined to defeat the villain occupying the White House. She could dabble in fringe views—she may even have a history of dubious tweets the elites send around to scoff at—but her pre-politics status as a mass pop cultural figure has the odd benefit of inoculating her against the political media’s attempts to define her as outside the mainstream.
If the superficial version of “Democratic Trump” resembles him aesthetically, the proper version would be closer to his opposite: Not just female but powerfully and unabashedly feminine, aiming her message not at the raging car dealer dad but the anxious Wellness Mom.
The ideal version of this is, of course, Oprah, but Oprah the person is too smart and comfortable to want to do something as disruptive and potentially brand-destroying as run for president. Marianne Williamson might represent the next-best thing. Compare the pre-2019 followings of Marianne Williamson—who is more likely to appear on the popular Goop Podcast than some niche TV show like Morning Joe—to that of small-town Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and tell me which one is the fringe candidate.
And while it is fun to scoff at her hokey spiritual woo and self-help bromides, it is easy to forget that hokey spiritual woo and self-help bromides are extremely powerful and popular among a massive subset of Americans, many of whom represent the exact sort of voters who decide Democratic primaries.
I’m not saying Marianne Williamson will be president someday. But I am saying that 2012 me, like “everyone else,” thought Donald Trump was a joke. As a wise woman once said: “From a mind filled with infinite love comes the power to create infinite possibilities.”