The Bizarre Charm of Marianne Williamson

If we must have these debates, at least we have Marianne.

Ready to harness love. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the closing moments of Thursday night’s Democratic debate, Marianne Williamson looked straight ahead and told the audience that her plan for her candidacy is to harness the country’s love. “Mr. President, if you’re listening,” she said, addressing Donald Trump directly, “you have harnessed fear for political purposes, and only love can cast that out. I am going to harness love for political purposes,” she continued, raising her eyebrows. “And sir, love will win.”

And with that, Williamson, a self-help author who has never held political office before, went from a long-shot candidate to a cross between comic relief and something of a phenomenon. Even if you’ve never heard of her (like the majority of Democratic voters two months ago), you may be familiar with a quote of hers that’s been misattributed to Nelson Mandela—“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Yes, really, that’s her! And frankly, after her performance on Thursday, it checks out. For more on her vibe, just listen to the campaign song from her unsuccessful bid for Congress a few years ago, written and performed for her by her pal Alanis Morissette (sample lyric: “I’m going down, down, down, unless we start a revolution”). As my colleague Jim Newell predicted last week, we were ready for the Summer of Marianne. It’s now here.

Her comments on the debate stage confirm that were she president (which she will not be—well, probably), she would lead with feelings. “If you think we’re going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you got another thing coming,” she replied to a question about health care. Later, she noted that John F. Kennedy didn’t carefully map out how we’d get to the moon—he simply declared we would. When asked about the first thing she’d do as president if elected, she calmly replied that she would call the prime minister of New Zealand, who wants New Zealand to be the best place for a child to grow up, and “tell a girlfriend, ‘You are so on.’ ”

Williamson spliced self-help levity into the hoopla leading up to tonight. An email her campaign sent out to journalists Wednesday suggested that instead of making the debates a drinking game, they should make them into a gentle exercise game. Suggestions included “substitute a yoga move for a shot of booze,” and “they shout infrastructure, you drop into a low plank.” A video she posted to her Facebook page captioned “Debate prep…” features her dancing. (Her powder-blue pantsuit and bright floral-ish top was another stroke of debate-prep genius.) On Wednesday night, when Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke each earnestly answered a question in Spanish, she calmly tweeted:

A hashtag she used leading up to and during the debate, #BigTruth, sounds like it emerged from the same mantra generator as Eat Pray Love and Super Soul Sunday. And it might have—she’s gained some of her fame by doling out advice to Oprah herself, who refers to her as a spiritual adviser. (Williamson has tried to distance herself from any Oprah-BFF labeling, though, so as not to steal a title from Gayle King.) With #BigTruth, she invites her audience—err, supporters—to tell her “right now: What is your BIG TRUTH?” If you answer through her website, you can download the Instagrammable image of your big truth, beneath her campaign hashtag.

For Williamson, self-help improvement is the key to all things, saving America included. If we just open our hearts and eschew alcohol in favor of some deep stretching, the rest should follow. Sure, she may have a tenuous grasp on science: During a campaign appearance at a silent rave, New York magazine reports, she explained to the crowd that “there’s something about dancing where it literally shifts the molecules.” (No wonder that was her debate prep of choice.) More seriously, she was criticized last week after she suggested that if we don’t want the government restricting abortion, we shouldn’t want the government to mandate vaccination, a position that makes basically no sense. (She later backtracked on that.) And even though she was on a different plane than most of the other candidates Thursday night, she didn’t noticeably flub any answers, either.

In spite of myself, I am glad that Williamson is here. She is soothing to watch in the same way that margarita tycoon and Real Housewives cast member Bethenny Frankel is, or even actor-slash-Goop-er Gwyneth Paltrow: self-assured but not super serious; pulled together, but ready to tell you her secrets. She offers a familiar sort of entertainment. For all its woo-woo-ness, her hopeful vibe is genuinely kind of refreshing—when asked what her first phone call to another country would be if elected, she brightly said she would call Europe to say, “We’re baaack!” Seems like fun!

After Thursday, all I can say is that if we have to live through more back-to-back Democratic debates packed with tons of candidates I don’t know or care about, I hope Williamson hangs around. At least for a little while.