Two days before Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election in California, Rose McGowan gave a press conference with Larry Elder, the conservative radio host who would have replaced Gov. Gavin Newsom if he hadn’t kept his seat. The activist and former actress renounced the Democratic Party, which she has previously supported, and encouraged California voters to “be brave, do something that’s weird—like maybe voting Republican, even though it will feel strange.”
McGowan’s scattershot speech swung between digs at prominent Democrats, broad indictments of “the system,” and nonspecific praise for Elder. (For his part, Elder spent the entirety of the 18-minute speech staring blankly into middle distance.) McGowan lingered on seemingly random personal anecdotes and leveled complaints against “the media,” which she says has “smeared” her in the past. “So many of the people you work for are part of it, and you know it,” she told the reporters in the room. “And I don’t know why. Like, what is the game? Is it short-term power? Is it short-term gaining? What is so—why would you sell out your people, your citizens, yourself, your family, your loved ones, for what? For money? For the illusion of power? For the stranglehold you have on keeping people undereducated, underemployed, and terrorized by your government?”
It’s not entirely clear what McGowan was referring to here. But with its grandiosity and claims to knowledge of the inner workings of a Democratic machine that’s keeping the common person down, McGowan’s spiel did sound right at home at a contemporary Republican campaign event. At times, she sounded a lot like a conservative YouTube star: fixated on conspiracy theories, using the rhetoric of exploitation to condemn rich Democrats, convinced that she alone can see some set of truths the media is bent on covering up. McGowan also put on a fake whiny voice to poke fun at people—presumably progressives—who complain too much that “you’re not saying the right word, or you’re not doing this right, or you’re not inclusive, you’re not tolerant.” (McGowan had an explosive confrontation with a trans woman she called a “paid plant” at a stop on her book tour in 2018.)
At the Elder event, McGowan also reiterated claims she first made on Dave Rubin’s conservative talk show that Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, worked with Harvey Weinstein’s then-lawyer to try to bribe McGowan into silence in the months before she publicly accused Weinstein of rape in 2017. According to McGowan, Siebel Newsom called her and asked, on behalf of the Boies Schiller Flexner law firm, what it would take to “make you happy.” McGowan also said Siebel Newsom tried to infiltrate a private email group of people who’d accused Weinstein of sexual assault by inferring that she, too, was a Weinstein victim. (In response to these claims, Siebel Newsom’s spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that her correspondence with McGowan “has been strictly as fellow survivors of sexual assault and in Jennifer’s former capacity leading the Representation Project, an organization that fights limiting gender stereotypes and norms.” In 2017, Siebel Newsom wrote in HuffPost that she had personally dealt with “aggressive advances” and hotel-room overtures from Weinstein.)
Implying that Google is censoring important information about Siebel Newsom, at the Elder event, McGowan went on to say that only by using the search engine DuckDuckGo was she able to learn that Siebel Newsom’s brother-in-law Joshua Schiller is a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner and the son of the firm’s co-founder, and that he was arrested in January for alleged domestic violence against his wife, Siebel Newson’s sister. (That information is easily available on Google. The charges against Schiller were dropped in April.) McGowan has since posted the alleged text of Siebel Newsom’s email, in which the governor’s wife defends her communication with McGowan as a mere attempt to “help her to heal,” not buy her silence. Siebel Newsom’s spokesperson has said McGowan’s allegations of attempted bribery are “a complete fabrication.”
McGowan has publicly complained about perceived conspiracies against her for years, often in off-putting ways. In her 2018 memoir and on her social media feeds, she accuses her critics of organizing her downfall and labels political parties as “cults.” (She was raised in a religious cult in Italy, which she mentioned several times on Sunday.) When she speaks in public, she can’t stop talking about how she’s been wronged, even if the topic at hand is someone or something else.
There’s a reason for this. As bizarre as McGowan’s Sunday speech was, it’s hard to fault her for seeing conspiracies of self-enriching snakes wherever she looks. Weinstein did donate to Democrats, who worried about protecting their own reputations when his abuses became public. Hollywood has made a business of systematically exploiting female sexuality. And McGowan herself was the target of an elaborate network of international spies, secret recordings, and false identities marshaled to gather information on her and attempt to discredit her before she accused Weinstein of rape. Powerful people have paid a lot of money—and made a lot of money—in the process of McGowan’s abuse, and she spent years trying to untangle the web of lies they constructed around her.
All of this makes her situation more compelling and more concerning. Her charisma lends seeming credibility to her broad allegations and platitudes, but she appears unable to tell a full story from beginning to end without drifting off on tangents, such that listeners must piece together her snippets and non sequiturs themselves. It can be hard to take her hyperbole seriously. “Why not put a stake in the heart of evil?” she asked listeners at Sunday’s event, asking them to vote for Elder. “Because that’s what this really is. This is good, and this is evil.”
It’s impossible to tell whether any actual political beliefs are directing her political activism, and if so, what they are. “Vote Larry Elder—because why? Why the fuck not? What have you got to lose?” she said on The Rubin Report. Her closing argument at Elder’s press conference was that the candidate is “someone who cares passionately, even though you may disagree with him on some points.” McGowan seems more driven by her personal grudges against specific Democrats than by any real understanding of which politicians are doing the most lying and stepping the hardest on the little guy’s neck. (Did she think electing Larry Elder, who claimed to have detected voter fraud in the recall election before it even happened, would strike a blow for truth?) Republicans are the ones peddling secret-cabal theories and the rhetoric of mass conspiracies these days, and since that’s where her tendencies lean, it’s no surprise that she’s fallen in with that crowd.
And she fits right in. “They’re scary. These are operators,” she said of Weinstein’s lawyers on The Rubin Report. “They’re tied into SKD Knickerbocker. They’re tied into Clinton. They’re tied into Nancy Pelosi. This is all backdoor bullshit for their gain. And we’re tired of it. We’re suffering. People are dying. Not just because of stupid-ass COVID, but because their fucking system is fucking killing us. And I’ve had it. And I think a lot of us have.”
Whose system is killing whom, exactly? She brushes off COVID-19, though that is the thing that is rapidly killing the most people right now, largely due to one particular political party’s enthusiastic opposition to every public-health measure that could stop the spread of the disease. But therein lies the allure of conservative conspiracy-mongering: It’s untethered to fact and scale, such that widespread, systemic harm can be ignored while lesser, isolated wrongdoings or wholly fabricated schemes can form the basis of an entire retributive political worldview. The Republican Party is well-equipped to subsume any and all personal grievances into its architecture of blame, especially if it means using the corrupt behavior of one Democrat to make the actual party of grift look like the lesser of two evils. Both Larry Elder and Dave Rubin looked painfully uncomfortable during their appearances with McGowan, fully aware that she was an imperfect messenger for the attacks on Newsom and had no clear political message. They were happy to use her for their own ends anyway.