Politics

Marianne Williamson Wants Presidential Politics to Enter the New Age

I saw Marianne Williamson speak on Independence Day. In Washington, D.C., crowds gathered in a rainstorm to see tanks roll and to cheer on Donald Trump. In Concord, New Hampshire, a group of about seventy people convened at a performing-arts space called Phenix Hall to consider the politics of love. The Phenix is a majestic nineteenth-century theatre awaiting renovation and, perhaps, air-conditioning. It was a hot day for Concord, sunny and ninety degrees on Main Street, with its stolid Yankee Doodle Dandy red-brick buildings. The sidewalks were mostly deserted. The people of New Hampshire were out barbecuing, or setting up for fireworks, or up at a lake house listening to the call of the loons.

Inside the Phenix, the wooden floors were scratched and worn. The afternoon sun poured through the arched windows and the round portals above the wraparound balconies. In the absence of an HVAC system, the rush of fans filled the air. The hall was decorated as if for a wedding rehearsal: rental chairs, fairy lights, cocktail tables draped in white tablecloths and scattered with Marianne Williamson donation envelopes. Women in flowing batik dresses and thin men in shorts and sandals snacked from a platter of fruit and a platter of brownies; volunteers dispensed ice water from the bar. Pretty campaign volunteers handed out buttons that depicted Williamson’s face in wispy watercolor. Williamson’s portraitist, the British fashion illustrator David Downton, had emphasized the shadow of her cheekbones, the soft sweep of her bangs to one side, and the intensity of her smoky-eyed gaze. The look is reminiscent of the album cover of David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters.” The Marianne 2020 logo is as pink as a glass of Zinfandel.

Williamson, a nondenominational psycho-spiritual leader, who mixes references to Christianity with quotes from philosophers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Deepak Chopra, has based her Presidential candidacy on an unspoken premise: that the country might be experiencing an epidemic of mental illness. Actually, it’s not that unspoken: “We have a problem with the psychological fabric of our country,” a section on her campaign Web site, titled “The Issues Aren’t Always the Issue,” says. “A low level emotional civil war has begun in too many ways to rip us apart.”

If you were a therapist and America were your client—if it were your mandate to display forbearance and empathy in the face of insanity—you would attempt to discern the country’s trauma at its roots. Much has been made of Donald Trump as an insulting, mocking, narcissistic patriarch. Some children reject the mean dads in their lives; others, when Trump coos that they are “very fine people” and “incredible patriots,” feel a warm blanket of withheld acknowledgment. Trump has been on tour for most of his Presidency, and, for those who love him, his in-person gatherings are more than just political rallies, they are intense experiences of human connection, which offer a remedy for a culture of isolation. This sense of belonging is generated, in part, by the denigration of immigrants, the news media, Democratic politicians, women, and other people Trump perceives as his enemies. What Williamson presents is an alternative channelling of America’s id: instead of a politics of fear, a politics of love.

For her supporters, Williamson offers a spiritually inflected movement that could rival Trump’s in the realm of emotion—unlike the Democratic Party, whose political gatherings tend to carry about as much communal purpose as an elementary-school assembly. If the Republican Party is an abusive father, as Williamson once argued, in a blog post titled “An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton,” the Democratic Party is the mother who stands by and lets the abuse take place. The broad movement from which Williamson emerges has had many names: New Age, New Thought, New Spirituality, Human Potential, Higher Consciousness. It’s also a movement that has mostly been politically agnostic (probably because, in addition to purporting to help people, it is a profitable industry, with books, seminars, audio recordings, videos, and world tours). Even if Williamson is polling at less than two per cent, she represents something that feels new: the entrance of this spiritual movement into electoral politics. It’s like the time Bill Clinton went on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and played the saxophone and all the baby boomers went wild, but this time this audience is fans of Oprah’s “SuperSoul Sundays” who perhaps never thought of themselves as belonging to a demographic in search of political representation, until Williamson stepped in.

Williamson made her first big impression on the American public in the Democratic debates. In an interview after the second debate, Anderson Cooper compared her to an omniscient narrator in a play. He suggested that she resembled the stage manager of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”; she suggested that she was playing the part of a Greek chorus. She vibrated at a frequency that was different from her opponents’. Eyes flashing, she evoked the spectre of false gods and dark psychic forces, narrating a dire portrait of America as a country co-opted by multinational corporations, ignorant of the “dark underbelly” of its own history, forgetful of its “moral core,” and at the mercy of a President who has “reached into the psyche of the American people and harnessed fear for political purposes.” She looked into the camera and said, “Only love can cast that out.” Her performance made her the most-searched candidate in the country.

The esoteric lecture circuit has always held a place in American culture as a proving ground for experimental ideas, both good and bad. At times, watching Williamson, I thought of Henry James’s assessment of the feminist lecturer Verena Tarrant, in “The Bostonians”: “If it had been much worse it would have been quite as good, for the argument, the doctrine, had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was simply an intensely personal exhibition, and the person making it happened to be fascinating.”

Much of Williamson’s work has been addressed specifically to members of her own generation. She recalls boomer activism and reprimands boomer self-absorption. But younger people are drawn to her open references to spirituality. “For a lot of people around my age, there’s something unironically enchanting about Marianne Williamson’s rhetoric,” said Arshy Azizi, who was not quite yet a declared Williamson supporter but had come to the event at the Phenix to see what she might have to say. He was twenty-five years old and the recent recipient of a master’s degree in comparative literature from Dartmouth, in Hanover, New Hampshire. His cute Fourth of July outfit—a tank top with red piping, black wire-rimmed glasses, bluejeans, and white sneakers—would not have been out of place at a bar in Bushwick.

I asked Azizi to explain the nature of Williamson’s enchantment. “From the history of the founding of this nation, there’s a firm separation between church and state—which I don’t think any of us wants to meddle with—but I think that has made us think we don’t have to care for others on a moral basis at all,” he said. He was a student of German idealist philosophy. Hegel was on his mind. He told me that American political arguments often lack “a shared recognition of our moral responsibility to each other as a nation, and also to our environment.” Perhaps, in recent history, there was once some consensus about that moral responsibility, but it seems to have fallen away.

“We’ve always seen, historically, Presidents and politicians invoke God in the abstract sense,” Azizi continued. “They’re not talking about, per se, that specific sect of religion that they believe in but a kind of universal spiritual consciousness that we should all have, and I think that Marianne has taken that to a little more of an explicit grounding in her rhetoric. I think a lot of us are finding it a little bit more palatable than maybe we would have expected.”

“It’s all about love,” a retired teacher named Judi Lindsey said. “It’s all about changing from within, and then that changes everything.” Lindsey had become a follower of Williamson’s after reading three of her books and then seeing her speak at the Omega Institute, a retreat center in Rhinebeck, New York. She described herself as a spiritual person and said she was “one hundred per cent” behind Williamson’s candidacy. “It’s simple: people want to feel connected and valued and appreciated, and that’s what love is. And then all those other things fall into place, like the economy, and families.”

While we spoke, Williamson arrived. New Hampshire is not a state known for its glamour, and she cut a distinctive figure in the room. Williamson speaks with a Howard Hawks-movie accent and favors blazers in muted colors and shimmery eyeshadow. When Vogue excluded her from a photo shoot of female candidates, it was not only a slight of her politics but an oversight of the fact that she is, with the possible exception of Kamala Harris, the only fashion-forward candidate. For the first Democratic debate, Williamson wore a gauzy Armani blouse. In New Hampshire, the most eye-catching part of her wardrobe was a pair of two-toned harlequin-style silver-and-black stiletto heels. She wore these with fitted black pants, a black shirt, and a lilac blazer.

When Marianne first enters a room, she begins by making by making a gracious circle of the gathering, like a good hostess. She paused at each row of chairs, reaching out to hold hands and embrace people. It was impossible to know who was a friend and who was a reader of her books who had simply assumed an immediate intimacy. I spoke with a woman named Debra Smoller, a music teacher in her fifties, after she had gone up to Williamson and had a conversation that ended in an embrace. She wiped tears from her eyes.

She had first seen Williamson on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in 1992, when Smoller was young and living in Burlington, Vermont. She was at a low point in her life, and Williamson’s message about love had overwhelmed her. She went out and bought Williamson’s book “A Return to Love” that same day. I asked Smoller what was different about Williamson’s candidacy. Was Bernie Sanders not also a humanitarian?

“We need to look at ourselves,” she said. “We need to look at our morality, and children, and how we’re treating them in this country. She’s talking about that very thing: morality and love and ethics. Bernie’s talking about it, but almost like he’s just assuming that we would want better treatment of children and better treatment of students and their loan debt. He’s not asking us to look at our morality.”

I asked what Williamson had said to her just then, during their hug.

“I just was overcome when she came into the room,” Smoller said, her face still flushed with emotion. “I felt like I was seeing an old friend. I walked over and gave her a hug, and I told her that. I told her that she helped me a lot in a dark time. I loved what she said to me back, she said, ‘So here we are, we’ve grown up together, look what love can do.’ ”

You can’t get that from Joe Biden!

Marianne Williamson was, by her own recounting, a late bloomer. She grew up in a Jewish family, in Houston, and attended Pomona College for two years before dropping out. Her college roommate, the Hollywood producer Lynda Obst, remembers her as impressionable, enthusiastic, badly dressed, a little needy, and struggling to make friends. “She was a middle-class girl from Houston who was lost and wanted to be an actress,” Obst said. “I often say I regret having taught her to throw the I Ching.”

Williamson has often described participating in antiwar protests, but Obst doesn’t recall her doing so in college. Despite an interest in metaphysics, Williamson “had no hippie in her, and she wasn’t radical during the late sixties and seventies, when it was totally wonderful to be a radical,” Obst said.

But Williamson may have found the counterculture eventually, and memories of the time are hazy. Obst lost contact with her roommate after Williamson dropped out of Pomona and moved to New Mexico.“I left school to grow vegetables, but I don’t remember ever growing any,” she writes in “A Return to Love.” Obst recalls that Williamson showed up at her wedding, in 1974. (“I’m not sure I invited her.”)

Williamson was aimless in her twenties, moving from city to city, working temp jobs, and moonlighting as a cabaret singer. She began her journey as a spiritual leader after reading a 1976 text called “A Course in Miracles,” a three-volume “self-study program of spiritual psychotherapy” written by a psychologist named Helen Schucman, who believed she was channelling the voice of Jesus. In the early nineteen-eighties, Williamson began to teach the course the way that a professor of Russian literature would teach Dostoyevsky (as she once put it to Charlie Rose), showing people how to “relinquish a thought system based on fear and accept instead a thought system based on love”—words that one audience might find empty of meaning and another profound with possibility.

In 1984 or 1985, Obst’s friend, the producer Howard Rosenman, invited her to a church in Los Angeles to see a speaker who had begun ministering to the gay men of West Hollywood in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Obst was riveted by Williamson’s transformation, which she described as a hundred-and-eighty-degree difference from the person she had known. “She swept into the room like Indira Gandhi,” she recalled. “I couldn’t believe that my lounge-singer lost roommate was speaking to the entire gay community of Los Angeles.” As Williamson walked down the aisle to the pulpit, Obst says Williamson took her hand and said, “I always knew you would come.” (Williamson’s campaign said she does not recall this.)

It is gay men of a certain age who have the earliest memories of Williamson’s career as a spiritual leader. “We were in our twenties, like club kids, and then everybody got AIDS, and at that time it was a death sentence,” a retired San Francisco publicist named Stephen Kenneally told me. “It was really hardcore back then. People forget this stuff, but it was, like, ‘Hello, Mom, I’m gay and I have AIDS and I’m dying.’ That’s kind of how things went back then.”

Kenneally went to the Course in Miracles only once, to help a friend get there, in the early nineteen-eighties. Williamson was “talking about loving yourself, I mean, stuff that nobody talked about back then, but more specifically she was talking to people who were told that they weren’t loved by their family and friends, employers, politicians, hospitals.” He remembered that everyone was sick and staring at each other, and that Williamson commanded the stage. “I don’t remember that much, except that people were really uplifted,” he said. “It was more about that feeling of hope that she gave to all these people, and they all died.”

I asked if he went back, but he said he was not of Williamson’s demographic at the time. I asked him what that demographic was.

“People that had no hope,” he said.

“I see her in my mind’s eye like the Pietà, that’s how I see her,” Rosenman, the movie producer who took Obst to see Williamson speak, recalled. “We called it H.B.R.—handsome boys’ religion. Hundreds of boys, most of whom were affected but didn’t know it, really, would go to Marianne.” Rosenman went on to help Williamson create Project Angel Food, a nonprofit founded to serve meals to housebound AIDS and H.I.V.-infected patients, whose donors included Elizabeth Taylor, Barry Diller, and David Geffen. “Marianne was in Fire Island with the best of us in the seventies, playing tambourines and dancing,” Rosenman said. “She spoke in the argot of our talk; she knew the whole gay underground, how gay people talked. We felt that she was one of us.” When the men started falling ill, he said, “it was a living, walking Hell, and Marianne was at the center of it, helping everybody without regard.”

In time, Williamson’s demographic expanded. “I remember there was a rumor going around New York that a lot of models were attending her speeches,” the playwright Paul Rudnick told me. “I especially liked the idea of someone being a spiritual leader to models.” Rudnick, who wrote a character similar to Williamson in his 1994 play “Jeffrey,” saw her speak in the nineteen-nineties at Town Hall, in midtown Manhattan. A model sitting in front of him wore a tiny Prada backpack and took diligent notes.

“She really knew how to work the room,” Rudnick said. “The only part that bothered me was she did seem to be blaming people for their own illness, and, remember, this was at the height of the AIDS epidemic in America. She may have been well intended, but what she seemed to be saying was that a lack of love could lead to illness.”

Williamson’s prescription for sick people in her 1992 mega-best-seller, “A Return to Love,” includes writing a letter to one’s illness, and a response from the illness; she advises visualizing the AIDS virus “as Darth Vader, and then unzip his suit to allow an angel to emerge,” and “seeing the sickness as our own love that needs to be reclaimed.” She describes illness as “loveless thinking materialized” but says that the sick person cannot be blamed personally, since “the lovelessness that manufactures disease is systemic; it is laced throughout racial consciousness.” She encourages people to trust doctors and their medications, but adds, “Many of us believe that the doctor in the white coat can heal us with that pill he’s giving us. Therefore, says the Course, we should take the pill. But the healing doesn’t come from the pill. It comes from our belief.”

“When you start to turn illness beyond medical fact, when you start saying there is a spiritual and emotional component to a virus, you can start to do harm,” Rudnick told me. “The last thing you wanted was people to feel additionally stigmatized for not somehow having a large enough soul to resist a disease.”

Others are more blunt about Williamson’s philosophies. “Just because they deluded some person who was about to die doesn’t mean they should be listened to on the Presidential stage,” Michael Goff, the founder of Out magazine and co-owner of the Web site Towleroad, said. He has also criticized Williamson’s suggestions that illness could be affected by positive thinking. “I don’t know what people were responding to in that debate, because I didn’t hear anything specific,” he added. “This philosophy really found fertile ground in West L.A., where they’re desperate to be both progressive and selfish.”

“If somebody just goes up and becomes a self-invented guru based on not finishing anything and reading the ‘Course in Miracles’ and then wants to be President, that’s genuinely astonishing and scary to me,” Obst said. “When everything is filtered through a closed belief system—like the ‘Course in Miracles’—all conclusions easily come from applying that framework. So the ideas are never deeply examined.”

Reading her in retrospect, Williamson was never an apolitical person, but her forays into politics got mixed results from her audiences. Her book “The Healing of America,” from 1997, was a critique of the excesses of self-help culture and a call to apply some of the lessons of the New Age to civics. Its appendices had copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which Williamson urged her followers to read with the same reverence and hope for guidance that they would a devotional text. In the late nineteen-nineties, she took over the leadership of the Church of Today, a Christian congregation in the Detroit area, which was known for running a plethora of twelve-step programs. A 2001 article in the Detroit Metro-Times described Williamson requesting, one Sunday, that the white people in the church turn to apologize to their African-American neighbors for historic wrongs. (“I think it makes white people feel better,” a skeptical African-American parishioner told the newspaper.)

In her book “A Politics of Love,” published this year, Williamson lays out her political theories. She describes a political establishment that ignores “psychological pain” in favor of ‘hard’ political facts” and a population indoctrinated in theories of self-love, writing that “a generation that has become so sensitive to its own pain is often desensitized to the pain of others.” The government, for its part, has become “a system of legalized bribery, less concerned with deep issues of humanity’s purpose and more with shallow questions of money and power.” The main organizing principle of American society is no longer democracy, she writes, but “short-term profit maximization of huge, multinational corporate entities.”

“I know what it feels like when groups of people experience collective trauma,” she writes, recalling the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, the Vietnam War, and the violence of the nineteen-sixties. “In many ways, the political situation in America today seems like those times.” Williamson’s platform includes a policy of “Racial reconciliation and healing,” the centerpiece of which is a two-to-five-hundred-billion-dollar reparations program, to be distributed over twenty years. The money would be directed toward educational and economic projects determined by “an esteemed council of African-American leaders.”

“She has been helping and working with people for thirty-five years to deal with the consequences of bad public policy,” Patricia Ewing, a spokesperson for Williamson’s campaign, said. In 2014, Williamson ran to represent California’s Thirty-third District in Congress. Her supporters included Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry. “As we revive this Constitution / from sure disintegration / live out this revelation / today,” Alanis Morissette sang, in a video recorded for the campaign. Williamson lost to Ted Lieu in the Democratic primary, despite spending almost two million dollars on her campaign.

Williamson sees herself as part of a political lineage that dates back to America’s founding, in which the Declaration of Independence was a document that proposed that all people “would simply have the possibility of thriving,” as she put it during the second debate. When it came time to begin her speech at the Phenix, which would be live-streamed online, Williamson stood before a giant American flag, a pamphlet copy of the Declaration in her hands. It was a speech framed as an inquiry into our founding principles (“I’ve often said that instead of being a mindless holiday it should be a mindful holiday”), and about how every generation of Americans has had to reassert the promise of American democracy for itself (“As my dad used to say, ‘The bastards are always at the door’ ”). She talked about the fact that many of the Founding Fathers were also slaveowners, and how at the heart of the United States is a “polarity”—“that, on the one hand, we are founded on, at our best aspire to, and in some cases even actualized the most enlightened, the most illumined, the most aspirational principles that have ever been found at the core of a nation, and we have also been, at times, the most violent transgressors against the principles on which we purport to stand.”

Williamson talked, as she does in almost every speech she gives, about the abolitionists, the suffragists, and the civil-rights movement. She ends her evocation of history with the line “And now it’s our time,” but it’s not clear how she would be the leader of the next major adjustment of our political establishment—just how, as she put it in a meme she posted on Instagram, she will navigate “the looming human evolutionary bottleneck.” Marianne Williamson’s career has not been one of political organizing. Her work on behalf of AIDS patients was certainly not apolitical, but it was focussed more on charity than on direct confrontation with pharmaceutical companies and a lethally uncaring government. Her campaign cites her as a kind of spiritual diplomat, called to speak at God-inflected occasions around the world, but it’s very hard to place her in the pantheon of international religious busybodies. There have been sufficient tragedies in recent years that have called for a religious but politically minded figure to make a profound political statement that went beyond accurately describing the nation’s problems, but, if she made one, I somehow missed it. In 2018, Williamson went on the seventy-five-city “Love America Tour,” speaking to her flock.

She has tried to turn this following into a political movement, but only some of her followers have heeded the call. On July 5th, Williamson was speaking at Shilo Farm, a retreat center in southern Maine. The speech was given outdoors, in the shade of a maple tree, behind a shingled barn that held goats and a yoga studio. Chairs were set up next to a chicken coop, and a plump red hen picked her way along the grass between the rows of chairs. There was a table with popcorn and watermelon and hibiscus iced tea. Abraham Lincoln had once delivered a speech at the Phenix; at Shilo Farm, upcoming events included workshops on mantras and ecstatic dance.

While waiting for Williamson to arrive, I met a mother named Elizabeth Vigue and her son, John Buys, both of them educators who had driven two hours, from central Maine, to hear Williamson speak. They had seen Williamson in the first debate, and had discussed how her message could be conveyed in their classrooms. “With education, there’s always been this philosophy of ‘Know thyself,’ ” Buys, who is twenty-seven and teaches American literature to high-school students, said. He quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: “ ‘Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string’—that sort of thing.” But since 2016, he continued, he had felt compelled to share another lesson, “this need to teach what it means to love one another.”

At Shilo, Williamson gave a different kind of speech from the one she delivered in New Hampshire. The message was mostly the same, but now she spoke as if she were amid a gathering of her familiars.

“Anyone who’s drawn to places like this is already part of an emergent culture,” she said to her audience, who nodded and smiled. “You know, one of the things that’s been very funny for me, in terms of my political campaign, is that the political establishment thinks of itself as mainstream and thinks of those who are more concerned with religion, spirituality, health and wellness, psychotherapy, personal transformation, yoga, A.A., as almost like some fringe over there,” she continued. “When, really, if they ever want to awaken from 1987, they will find this is America today. That’s obvious. If you look at all the books that are best-sellers, that’s obvious. If you look at all the business seminars. That’s obvious. If you look at integrative medicine today.” Williamson sometimes refers to what she does as “integrative politics.” The world of self-help and New Age spirituality, she emphasized, were the new mainstream.

Williamson’s voice rang resonant and sure. When she delivered an applause line, her voice dropped into a deeper register, and she delivered her most emphatic points like the strike of a velvet mallet on a gong. Her campaign was a reminder that the founding principles offer moral and philosophical guidance, that they are not, as she put it, just words carved into a marble wall or protected under glass. But I’m not sure I understood her charisma, which seemed directed at the America that takes its sermons at SoulCycle. It may have been a different channel, but it was broadcasting from the same machine that transmits Donald Trump—the machine that pacifies and moves and soothes us, where Judge Judy is the Supreme Court, and Kim Kardashian is the Legal Aid Society, and Oprah is church, and Tucker Carlson is blinking in disbelief, and somewhere deep in my memory Sally Struthers is standing in a slum pleading for the children. It’s a machine whose inhabitants—as much as we might pretend that they know and care about us—exist at a remove from the places we actually live.

Marianne Williamson looked around at her people. “We have proven now that what we touched transforms,” she continued. “What do you call all those yoga mats? That’s from our crowd. What do you call all that mindfulness stuff? Our crowd. And the only reason politics hasn’t transformed is because”—and her voice dropped into its deepest register—“we haven’t been there yet.”


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