The first thing one notices about Marianne Williamson is her Southern accent. When she starts to speak, everyone around her is captivated. Long, luxurious vowels lifted straight out of a Hank Williams song glide gently out of her mouth. She often gives speeches composed of a smattering of disconnected thoughts and run-on sentences that leave her audiences transfixed. People enter into a sort of hypnotic fervor during her lectures and rallies. They come away from her events with a renewed sense of their role in the cosmic battle between good and evil, but also a deep sense of personal empowerment and loyalty. Her supporters know who the enemy is and they want to win. Is this starting to ring any bells yet?
She may not be a billionaire playboy or have a golden mop-top, but Williamson is a similar to the type of candidate that Trump was in the summer of 2015, a year out from the general election. Her candidacy is in large part predicated on the idea that, broadly, Americans voted for Trump because they wanted someone with no connections to the political establishment, not a conventional Washington swamp dweller. Williamson wants to offer the American people a leader who is positioned on the outside of the political establishment, just like Trump was in the summer of 2015. Coincidentally, Williamson also has ties to the Clintons. Remember, the Clintons attended Trump and Melania’s wedding in 2005. A decade before, the Clintons invited Williamson to Camp David after the Democrats suffered heavy losses in the 1994 midterm elections. Trump and Williamson also each ran for office in the past. Trump ran for President with the Reform Party in 2000, and Williamson ran for a Los Angeles congressional seat in 2014. But despite the fact that both candidates have long histories of involvement with politics, they sell themselves as unconventional, anti-establishment outsiders.
Trump aside, Williamson herself is anything but a conventional presidential candidate. A self-help guru raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, she effortlessly blends her policy proposals into a verbal potion of healing psychology, Christian humility, Eastern mysticism, new age wisdom, and hints of revolutionary socialism - all with a charming Texan twang. It makes sense that someone from the growing New Age communities of America would run for the highest office in the land, especially given the relatively recent surge in interest in New Age spirituality and self-help movements. Americans are suffering and want answers. Delivering comfort and answers has been the purview of spiritual gurus since time immemorial.
Of course, Trump is far from spiritual and flaunts his lack of introspection regularly. But even here there are some similarities between the two. After all, Trump does promulgate conspiracy theories in his speeches, like the Seth Rich theory and birtherism, and Trump’s supporters demonstrate a consistent love for conspiracies, such as Pizzagate and Qanon. Admittedly, Williamson has not shown much interest in conspiracies so far. So what is the connection? Both conspiracy theories and new age spirituality occupy the intellectual fringes of modern life. Both often include theories about the existence of aliens or multidimensional beings. Both often include religious elements and make predictions about future cataclysmic events. In fact, many conspiracy theories are spiritual in nature, such as UFO religions. Conspiracy theories even share cognitive similarities with new age spiritual beliefs. While Trump’s conspiracy theories do not tend to explicitly include spiritual components, a few of them have taken on religious frameworks. Like Williamson’s New Age movement, Trump’s conspiracy theories build communities of fringe believers and often place one person in the position of Messiah while placing other people in the positions of prophets, such as Qanon, or martyrs, such as Seth Rich.
While pre-2015-Trump did not have the same credentials as a preacher that Williamson has, by the summer of 2015, he had spent many years on stage in front of crowds of pilgrims looking for a leader with the keys to unlock success, wealth, and the American Dream. By now, Trump’s campaign rallies have given him a venue in which to master the role of the preacher. Williamson has been preaching for years. More similarities emerge upon further scrutiny of their speeches and sermons. Where Williamson offers new-age self-help in books with titles like The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Middle Age, Trump offers corporate self-help for entrepreneurs in his book The Art of the Deal. As many good preachers do, both candidates frame the challenges of the present era as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Williamson, like Trump, gives her audiences a populist vision a purpose by telling a story of an America at war with itself. Trump and Williamson both sell themselves as the candidate who will save us all from the apocalypse, though each candidate has a different take on what the apocalypse that we need saving from is. While Trump points to immigration as the cause of the apocalypse, Williamson points to climate change.
But perhaps the most salient commonality between Trump and Williamson is that they are both entertaining. Supporters love them as candidates because they are deeply ironic. The bizarreness of their candidacies is the critique of the American political system that people are looking for, and winning is a secondary goal. Trump and Williamson both represent a parody of American politics that in any other time would be a disqualification. In these times of surreal memes and comedy news, however, irony might just be the defining characteristic of a successful bid for the presidency. This media-savvy entertainment-oriented political strategy did not just appear in a vacuum. After all, Trump and Williamson both have deep ties to Hollywood and Television moguls, something which no other candidates can say. Williamson is most well known for her connection to Oprah, whom she advised spiritually, but she has been traveling in Hollywood circles for decades. As we all know, Trump owned the Miss America Pageant, was the host of the reality TV show, The Apprentice, and frequently cavorted with movie stars, fashion models, and other celebrities. Perhaps a career arch through Hollywood is a necessary condition for any candidate to perform well in today’s political media environment because of the way show business shapes a person into a caricature of themselves. Oprah certainly thought so when she delivered what seemed like a Presidential speech at the Golden Globe Awards in 2018. She has since appeared on many talk shows to tamp down speculation that she will run in 2020. But perhaps Williamson will act as a trial balloon for a future Oprah presidential campaign.
Of course, Trump and Williamson are not similar in every way. However, there is a strategy even in their differences. This is revealed by the fact that, where they differ, they do not simply lack commonalities; instead, they are the exact opposite of each other. While Trump uses fear to gain power, Williamson uses courage. Trump has a huge family, Williamson does not. Trump acts like a mafia boss, Williamson acts like a cult leader. Trump wants a wall, Williamson wants reparations on the order of $500 Billion. Tump is nostalgic while Williamson is futuristic. Trump sounds like our grandfathers, Williamson sounds like our grandmothers. Trump is about restoration, Williamson is about transformation. Trump is pro-corporate, Williamson is anti-corporate. Trump shames and condemns, Williamson forgives and encourages. Williamson wants to be the sugar to Trump’s salt, the love to Trump’s hate, and the angel to Trump’s demon.
Next time you hear Williamson Williamson speak, ask yourself the following questions: Who else was a conspiratorial fringe candidate a year and a half before the election? Who else spews out nonsense in public on a regular basis while captivating an audience by speaking to the deep truths of American life? Who else is a scam artist who robs people with both predatory business models (Casinos and Self-help) and also personal charisma? Who else came from a show-business background and has ties to the Clintons? Who else traffics in the simple emotional language of hatred and love, fear and courage, shame and confidence?
Williamson is not the only candidate who has positioned herself as a foil to Trump. Andrew Yang has also attempted to capture the outsider status that propelled Trump to victory. Like Williamson, Yang is not as polished as other more seasoned candidates. Like Trump, Yang is a wealthy businessman. Yang often says, “the opposite of Trump is an Asian guy who likes math.” While there is truth in Yang’s tag line, Williamson is a better analog to Trump on the Democratic side of the aisle for several reasons. For one thing, Yang is not a self-help guru, unlike Trump and Williamson. For another, Yang has no star power or connection to Hollywood, and his entertainment value as a candidate comes mostly from his supreme meme-ability online via his Yang Gang supporters and not from anything ironic that he brings to the race (he can himself be extremely awkward and boring in front of cameras), unlike Trump and Williamson. But beyond biographical dissimilarities, Yang is a different type of candidate than both Trump and Williamson because he is running as a centrist candidate, while Williamson is running as a Leftist and Trump ran as an independent Right-winger in 2016. This forces Yang to speak to both sides of the aisle in a way that requires nuance and clarity. Meanwhile, Trump launches off into vague, rambling diatribes on a regular basis and Williamson will often do the same but with better diction and complete sentences. Observers will recognize the idiosyncratic styles that both Yang and Williamson bring to the campaign trail as two attempts at Trump-flavored campaign strategies on the Left, but Williamson is clearly leaning into the Trumpian campaign mode more than Yang at this point.
The fact that at least two candidates in the Democratic field are borrowing from Trump’s 2016 campaign shows just how much Trump has fundamentally altered the type of candidates that Americans, especially Democrats, are willing to consider for the office of the President. It is no longer out of the question that media personalities and businessmen will run for the Democratic nomination. No matter what happens over the next few months, it will be interesting to see how Williamson Williamson performs against establishment politicians. Given the level of excitement that her campaign has generated in the aftermath of the Democratic primary debates this summer, she has clearly tapped into an unexpected openness to political styles that fall well outside the status quo on the Left. Williamson is not really a serious contender at this point in late summer. In contrast, by late summer in 2015, Trump had already secured a lead in the polls which he kept for the remainder of the election season. That is good evidence that Democrats are not yet ready to fully embrace fringe candidates the way the Republicans were in 2015. But things can change quickly, and there is no consensus candidate in the Democratic field yet. As Democrats explore options beyond the front runners, there is ample opportunity for Williamson to move up in the race. She is currently polling at less than 1% according to Real Clear Politics, but if Democrats end up discarding Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Harris, there is a good chance that Williamson would outshine the other middle-tier candidates like Beto, Booker, Yang, and Castro. As candidates drop out over the coming months and field shrinks, Williamson could also benefit from more screen time if she can make it to the next round of debates. Her Trumpian strategy is surprisingly effective, and with a little more time in front of voters, she could prove to be a formidable force on the campaign trail. If the Democrats give her a chance, they might have a Trump of their own to contend with in 2020.