From the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., to his loyal defenders on Fox News, the Trump messaging machine eagerly and immediately propped up Williamson, a fringe candidate whose poll numbers are so low she seems likely to be excluded from the next debate in September.
“People are gonna think that I’m trolling,” the younger Trump wrote on Twitter, perhaps protesting too much about how people would read his intentions, “but compared to what else is up on this stage I think Marianne Williamson is actually winning this thing. This is amazing.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the former Trump antagonist who has become one of his most ardent defenders in Washington, said Tuesday night that the audience had spoken and that Williamson had “won the debate.” Two minutes later, Graham posted a caveat, declaring that “It was another good night for President @realdonaldtrump.”
Breitbart, the hard right website that has supported many of the president’s policies, sent an editor to a Williamson watch party in Detroit, where the second round of the debates were being held. “Supporters feel she is having a strong night,” wrote Joel Pollak, senior editor-at-large.
For Trump-supporting Republicans, propping up Williamson is like holding up a fun-house mirror to more popular candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — accentuating the leftist policy positions and worldview that Republicans want to portray as wacky and unserious, and demonstrating that the party is culturally and philosophically out of sync. The visual image of her standing on the debate stage delights them: an eccentric woman widely known to be a friend Oprah Winfrey’s who delivers a spiritually infused critique of the Democratic Party in a distinctive lilt.
“She is a personification of a liberal stereotype that a lot of middle of the road Americans have,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. “This is pet rocks and crystals. I find her hip, very interesting to listen to and a little wacky.”
Few if any Republicans, however, believe that her campaign will pose a serious threat to the Democrats who are leading in fundraising and polling at the moment. Warren and Sanders, the two top-tier candidates who debated Tuesday night, are seen as more credible challengers to the president and were both singled out for derision by conservatives for defending proposals like “Medicare for All”-style health care plans that would essentially eliminate the private insurance market.
The Republican National Committee blasted out “reality checks” through the night that highlighted what they called the Democratic Party’s “radical agenda” on climate change, immigration and health care.
But as fleeting as it may be, the right’s fascination with Williamson is pervasive. She was the top item on the Drudge Report by Wednesday morning. Fox & Friends devoted several segments to her; in one, the hosts snickered as they read snide tweets from people who weighed in on the self-help author’s performance in Detroit. “Marianne Williamson is gonna get sworn in on a paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” said one.
Many conservatives might write her off, but others said they saw parallels with Trump’s penchant for rejecting conventional politics.
Breitbart’s Pollak, who has covered Williamson since her failed 2014 congressional bid in California, where she ran as an independent, said his interest in her campaign is more than a cynical ploy to muddle the Democratic nominating process.
“The debate was wonky,” he said. “She spoke differently. There’s a kind of populism in what she’s saying that has a genuine appeal to people who also like Trump. That part of the interest is real, especially when she goes after the party establishment. She is confirming the suspicion Trump supporters have of the political establishment.”
Other conservatives said that helping to keep Williamson in play was an easy way to ridicule the field at large. Republicans are clearly having fun with it.
Tim Murtaugh, the spokesman for Trump’s reelection campaign, called Williamson “strangely hypnotizing to watch. Time stops when it’s her turn to speak.”
He said every day she was in the race was a good day for Trump. “She embodies the wackiness of all of the Democrat policy proposals,” he said. “Love is great, but it doesn’t put food on the table. The more she is involved, the further it cements in the minds of Americans that these ideas that Democrats are proposing are literally out of left field.”
After the first Democratic debate in June, Jeff Roe, the Republican strategist who served as Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign manager in the 2016 presidential race, urged Republicans to donate $1 to Williamson’s campaign to “keep this vibrant Democrat on the debate stage.’’
“One debate performance is not enough,” he added.
Roe, who described himself as “the self-appointed president of the Republicans for Williamson fan club,” said the author was “fairly loony but represents the heart of what the Democratic Party is talking about when the moderates on the stage are talking about taxing the rich and doing universal health care.” Williamson’s ideology, he said, “is in the middle of the mainstream.”
In such an oversaturated, fast-paced news cycle, this burst of attention may prove ephemeral for Williamson. And the limelight has not always been kind to her; she has drawn scrutiny, and criticism from the medical community, for her controversial positions on mental health, vaccines and antidepressants.
But Tuesday’s performance was no doubt a moment for her. She was the No. 3 most-searched topic overall on Google on Tuesday. None of her rivals cracked the top 10. Data provided by Twitter showed that she spurred the fourth-most Twitter posts of all the candidates onstage, a significant burst of recognition for someone who has struggled to hit 1% in the polls.
Her impassioned critique of the Democratic Party as tone deaf to the everyday concerns of struggling minority communities was the third-most commented-on moment of the debate, according to Twitter. Turning to everyone on the stage, Williamson dismissed “this wonkiness” in the policy solutions put forward by her rivals and said that if marginalized people did not believe Democrats were standing up for them, “they won’t vote for us and Donald Trump will win.”
Some warned that the pundits and politicians may not have it right with their appraisals of Williamson’s appeal — a not-so-subtle reminder that groupthink derision has led to serious mistakes in the past. “We’ve seen candidates like her in the past who did not come up in public service,” said Donna Brazile, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns. “She is able to provide a different kind of service, and that is to the American psyche and the American soul.” Brazile added that Williamson’s comments on race during the debate “were the most profound of anyone on the stage last night.”
Republicans rejected comparisons to Trump’s 2016 candidacy — when he was the most underestimated and entertaining candidate in the race — noting that he was always leading in the national polls and rose in a crowded field because he latched onto specific issues like immigration and trade.
Williamson, in contrast, “takes mostly liberal positions,” said Schlapp of the American Conservative Union, “but it does seem like she’s just considering them on the stage. She really does not have well-thought-out positions.”
David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, said he was not concerned about Republican attempts to make Williamson a poster child for the Democrats en masse.
“She is interesting to people because she’s a strong communicator and is different than anyone else on the stage,” Axelrod said. “But she’s not going to be the nominee, and if she draws any votes, it will likely be at the expense of the left candidates the Trump team seems most eager to run against.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.