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13 January 2022updated 18 Jan 2022 6:06pm

Is Tulsi Gabbard the GOP’s Dark Horse?

As the former lawmaker and darling of the Bernie Sanders-supporting left has shifted right, she’s brought her supporters along.

By Eoin Higgins

Before she left Congress last winter, the former Democratic representative Tulsi Gabbard introduced two bills: one restricting abortion; the other, banning trans women from participating in women’s sports. The bills, which had no chance of passing, nevertheless sent a message: the onetime darling of the Bernie Sanders appeared to leave Congress intent on cultivating a right-wing following. 

Now her move to the right is just about complete. Gabbard, appearing on Fox News channel’s Hannity in November 2021, declared that the Democratic Party’s social-spending bill, known as Build Back Better, was part of a deeper problem. The government was “too powerful and too big even as it is, and this bill is only going to make matters worse,” she said, echoing common Republican talking points. The comments earned her praise from the Fox host Sean Hannity, who called her “definitely a conservative”.

Gabbard didn’t object on the air to Hannity’s claim. And she didn’t have to. She’s fostered a cult of personality among her supporters, who either refuse to acknowledge that Gabbard holds right-wing positions or, more often, go on to adopt those positions themselves. Lately, Gabbard’s pivot to cancel-culture pundit, complete with undertones of worries about anti-white “racism”, has inspired her followers to take on the same pet issues. They’ve gone from iconoclastic left-leaning upstarts to “American patriots” without a blink. 

Gabbard and her followers belong to what’s loosely referred to as the “post-left,” a group of disaffected liberals and progressives who have done a complete 180 into right-wing agitation, but have kept the linguistic framework of the left. These figures share a loose ideology, rooted in their belief that the Democratic Party is as corrupt and dangerous as the GOP. The pragmatism of the progressive lawmakers who rode the lefty wave to prominence — including Democratic Representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — in choosing to cooperate with President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has alienated people who believed that Sanders’ “political revolution” promised an end to established power structures, rather than a reorientation of the Democratic Party to a more progressive politics.

Despite endorsing Biden in 2020, Gabbard on 12 January condemned the president for comments — which were aimed at whipping Democratic Senate votes to pass voting rights legislation — that positioned the debate over voting rights as between people who adhered to the politics of Martin Luther King Jr, or George Wallace. “Biden promised to unite us, but he is doing all he can do [to] divide us,” Gabbard tweeted in what may well be the precursor to a public break with the Democrats on her way to the GOP.

While it’s tempting to laugh her off as a fringe figure, Gabbard has a devoted base. Combined with her growing mainstream right-wing legitimacy, that could make her a dark-horse contender for the 2024 GOP nomination — someone who, like Donald Trump, can sell Americans on bogus “anti-establishment” positions on war and civil rights while acting to promote the interests of the far right. As a veteran, former lawmaker, and frequent Fox guest, Gabbard is building a resume for future success, and not in the Democratic Party. 

Gabbard has found fans on both ends of America’s political spectrum since coming to Washington in 2013. An Iraq War veteran whose tour was bookended by stints in state and local politics in her native Hawaii, Gabbard entered Congress in 2013 as the first Hindu to serve as a member of Congress and was seen as a viable up-and-comer in the party. The millennial congresswoman was the subject of a flattering New York Times profile in November 2015 celebrating her “defiance” to president Barack Obama’s Syria policy and her post-partisan approach to lawmaking: “She’s a solid Democrat, but she’s really practical in terms of how she approaches issues and gets things done,” then-representative Kyrsten Sinema told the paper.

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Months later, Gabbard would make headlines when she resigned from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and endorsed Sanders for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, citing his “good judgment” on matters of foreign policy. The perceived iconoclastic, party-bucking nature of this decision made Gabbard an instant hero on the left — and among some on the right — and led her supporters to start calling for her to run in 2020 even before the Sanders campaign was officially dead and buried. 

Since becoming a fixture on Fox News, she’s expanded her audience to include the older Republicans who watch the network religiously. In September, she told Tucker Carlson, that “Islamist ideology, which is the political ideology that inspired the terrorist attacks on our country on 9/11, is the greatest threat that we’re facing right now in this country, in the world,” notably omitting the threat posed by the pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

In October, she fed into right-wing tropes about immigration, telling Fox’s Jeanine Pirro that the “Biden-Harris administration has an open-door policy at the borders” where “people are being let in and crossing the border every single day”. And she hasn’t been shy about tying herself to GOP politics more broadly, declaring on Twitter on 3 November, in the wake of Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial win in Virginia, that the result was “a victory for all Americans,” because the anti-vaccine-mandate, race-baiting campaign was “a resounding rejection of efforts to divide us by race, the stripping of parental rights, and arrogant, deaf leaders”.  

As Gabbard has become more obviously right-wing — and has been making further inroads to the far-right fringe via her content creation deal with YouTube competitor Rumble, the video site backed by the libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel — so too have some of her most prominent supporters, including the political vloggers Niko House and Jimmy Dore. (Neither House nor Dore responded to requests for comment for this piece.)

House is a Florida-based YouTuber who dabbles in far-right conspiracy theories; he also maintains a friendship with the journalist and agitator Jack Posobiec, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center states has ties to the white-nationalist movement. House enthusiastically backed Gabbard’s 2020 run for the Democratic presidential nomination. He sang her praises at campaign rallies in California and New Hampshire. Once both Gabbard and Sanders had dropped out of the Democratic primary race, House hosted the former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, a Sanders surrogate with clout on the left, for a friendly chat about how Gabbard had been smeared by the media and her fellow Democrats for attacking the then-senator Kamala Harris.

House’s devotion to Gabbard has not abated as she has become more openly right-wing. He’s covered her favourably in videos and boosted her profile on social media. On his channel at Rokfin, a video-streaming site that promotes “free thinking media” figures and where he posts his vlogs exclusively now, House features a picture of himself and the former representative as his banner. (I should mention that Rokfin offered me an exclusive paid deal to join the channel earlier this year; I declined.) 

Dore, one of the most popular podcasters and streamers in the post-left sphere, has openly mused about allying with the far right. A stand-up comedian who did a stint at the liberal YouTube network, The Young Turks, he has tilted further into conspiracy theories over the past decade. He promoted the fantastical story that Seth Rich, a DNC employee who was murdered in July 2016, was behind the Democratic Party emails that WikiLeaks published and was killed for it. These days Dore agitates against public-health mandates and casts doubt on the efficacy of vaccines. 

Dore also has nearly a million subscribers on YouTube and a robust audience through Rumble, other streaming platforms, and a syndicated podcast — and was an early Gabbard supporter. He championed her as an anti-war voice with the potential to shake up the system, and he sang her praises as he began to turn against Sanders for being too close to the Democratic Party’s establishment.

As Gabbard and allies such as Dore and House lean further to the right and make common cause with fringe extremists, they’re sure to sway some of their base in the process. Disillusioned progressives, desperate for a narrative that explains why they’ve lost electoral ground while winning the messaging war, are looking for someone to blame. For Gabbard, the enemy is clear: liberals and social democrats, whose political project the Gabbardites portray as being disconnected from the interests of the working class. 

Progressives are starting to see through this act. But it’s clear that the left is no longer her target audience. Gabbard has a new constituency to court, and she’s taking her supporters along with her.

[See also: Progressives vowed to push Joe Biden left. What happened?]

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