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[Author’s note: Tulsi Gabbard represents a new breed of spiritual reactionary, whose progressive politics and authoritarian tendencies are both inspired by spiritual traditions that mingle love and compassion with obedience to authority.]
The former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, wanted her to be Secretary of State. Steve Bannon loved her and wanted to find a place for her in the Trump administration. She supports the use of torture in the name of security, and routinely hectored Obama on programs like “Fox News” over his failure to use the expression “radical Islam” when speaking of terrorism. This much is quickly becoming common knowledge among the politically informed.
However, she was also a lead speaker, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Evangelical Christians United for Israel, where she posed for photos with the wife of Sheldon Adelson and accepted an award from Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, an extremist supporter of Israeli settlements, including the Hebron settlement whose members he says are free of hate, in spite of their routine stoning of Palestinian schoolchildren. It is all in accord with her support for fascist strongmen.
She has praised Egypt’s Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi for his “great courage and leadership in taking on this extreme Islamist ideology,” though the Islamists he has been taking on are the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood from whom he stole power in a coup before slaughtering 800 of them in a single day. She has repeatedly praised Hindu Nationalist leader Narendra Modi, who prior to being elected Prime Minister of India was best known for having said and done nothing when 2,000 Muslims were killed in a pogrom in the capital of his home state when he was governor.
It is the kind of background one might expect of a Netanyahu or Putin, who Gabbard has also compared favorably to Obama and worked with Republicans to defend from investigation. But Gabbard’s support base is on the left, where she has won praise for her progressive economic and environmental stances, and for stepping down from the Democratic National Committee in support of Bernie Sanders and her opposition to foreign wars.
But to look into her life and politics is to peer into the abyss of unreconstructed authoritarianism. It is not simply that she praises the odd fascist dictator and willingly entered the military to fight the nation’s stupidest war. Nor is it simply that she spoke of homosexuality as a sort of disease being pushed on children by “homosexual extremists” when she first took office over a decade and a half ago, and affirmed her personal views have not changed in an interview in 2015.
Gabbard is a curious blend of isolationism and hawkishness, espoused by fascists from the America First movement of the 1930s on down to Trump. She wants to bring the troops home while more vigorously pursuing the war on terror. And when she talks on “Fox News” about the need to be clear about who the real enemy is, it often sounds like she is talking about Muslims.
It is little wonder she appears so comfortable with dictators like Bashar Al-Assad, who has routinely targeted medical workers and killed hundreds of thousands. What is more astonishing is her unwillingness to criticize his human rights record and her naiveté in believing when he tells her that he would hold “fair and open elections” with “objective international observers.” It sometimes seems as if she is unaware this was the aim of the many thousands he tortured to death in prison.
Yet, the support for torture, the praise for dictators, the lingering homophobia, and the evident Islamophobia still fail to get at the deeper forces driving her authoritarianism. No, Gabbard’s authoritarian roots lie deep in her familial and religious upbringing, and she is the first political representative of a new breed of spiritual reactionary that has been decades in the making.
Gabbard was raised in what she describes as a highly conservative family, belonging to a breakaway sect of Hare Krishnas. The sect was founded by Chris Butler, who insists the spiritual plane is wherever he is at and that family members break ties with apostate children. He openly seeks to place his students in political power, and Gabbard has referred to him as her “guru dev,” or spiritual master, as late as 2015.
It is not an unusual path for some on the left, whose teachers often come from the east and all too often sexually and financially abuse their power. Too few have asked what the political impact will be of such a substantial portion of the population finding inspiration from such authoritarian traditions. These are contradictory and amorphous creeds in which love and compassion are inspired under the watchful eye of abusive authoritarians. The norms they foster are anything but democratic—and they map quite closely onto the politics of Gabbard.
The “spiritual but not religious” movement that began in the 60s has been growing for decades and is just finding its political voice. But while the voice might be global in outlook, and sensitive to the victims of oppression everywhere, it has instead found in Gabbard a reflection of the authoritarianism that has led so many teachers to abuse their powers. It is an unlimited power she finds embodied in the world’s most fascist leaders.
Of course, Gabbard has defended herself against many of the claims, and sometimes quite movingly. She has expressed regret over her opposition to gay marriage and clarified the distinction between ordinary Muslims and “radical Islam.” And while Hawaiians who have watched her for years often suggest she is a demagogue, she can also seem quite sincere.
But whether she is a demagogue whose positions are changing with the political winds or a progressive authoritarian who shares a strange love of fascists, her contradictory brand of progressive politics is a worrying sign of a spiritual authoritarianism that is finally coming into its political own. And the contradictions and complications are making the progressive left look just as hypocritical as the lukewarm center from which they are rebelling.