By Kate Sosin, with reporting by Nico Lang
Marianne Williamson has forgotten her phone. She’s rifling through her overstuffed purse when Wendy, her staffer, comes marching through the glass doors of the airless conference room at the Luxe Hotel in Beverly Hills, iPhone in hand. A minute later, Williamson again asks where the device is before realizing she’s now holding it.
There’s no spokesperson to keep tabs on Williamson’s talking points, or her conversation with MTV News. No one is on hand to whisk her to her next appointment. She shares that the first time she met Hillary Clinton, she spilled water on herself. She does it again during our interview.
Williamson, an author and spiritual advisor, knows how her demeanor might come off, and she has a name for it: “woo woo.” After her performance in the first Democratic presidential primary debate in June — during which she promised she would defeat President Donald Trump with “love” — plenty of people took the opportunity to cheerfully lampoon her on Twitter as a dippy, new-age mystic, a sentient Yanni CD for our current political crisis. BuzzFeed editor David Mack joked that she “threw the first crystal at Stonewall,” while comedian Guy Branum predicted she would be the “only candidate bold enough to propose a witchcraft-based health care system.”
Williamson has seen the memes. “They’re hilarious to me, too,” she tells MTV News. “I’m laughing as much as anyone else is, and I get it.”
She chalks her performance up to “nervousness,” and those nerves seemingly followed her to the second debate. She did not qualify for the third.
Others weren’t laughing. They were worried that Williamson’s brand of new-age self-help glossed over a far more sinister reality: another untested ego evangelizing “change” without an actual plan. The left’s version of Trump.
Because who can forget? The president launched his political career via appearances and commentary on Fox News, and by supporting the “birther” conspiracy theory that targeted then-President Obama. He had no political experience and was known better as a reality TV star and a businessman of dubious success and morality.
Williamson wants to take on Trump, but not with policy. In a climate where candidates have plans for everything and release detailed policy proposals on Medium, Twitter, and Instagram, she is an outlier, in part because she doesn’t bring many traditional proposals to the table at all — something she believes is an asset.
“Democratic politicians have been saying to me for years, ‘I don't know why we lost [in 2016], we had them on the issues,’” she says. “And I've said for years, the part of the brain that decides who to vote for, that rationally analyzes an issue is not necessarily the part of the brain that decides who to vote for. There are clearly psychological and emotional issues involved.”
While it’s true that plenty of voters might not be as plugged into policies as pundits are, it’s more difficult to quantify why someone votes for a candidate. In an August 2015 Des Moines Register/Bloomberg politics poll, six in 10 likely Republican voters said they would trust a candidate to figure out the answers to a given issue once they took office.
For all the policy pages on her website, Williamson doesn’t offer an actionable blueprint. While she has advocated for a reparations plan that would pay up to $500 billion to Black Americans in an overdue effort to rectify the inequities that began with slavery, she has not detailed how a Williamson administration would fund the plan. And her page on criminal justice lays out the ways that America’s legal system fails communities of color, but its solutions are murky at best.
“Incarceration is often necessary,” she writes. “But that does not mean we need to lose our humanity as a culture, nor do we need to ignore the humanity of incarcerated people.” She goes on to say she believes in “teaching inmates emotional literacy, communications skills, conflict resolution skills, and job training.” That’s as deep as she gets into policy, which leaves her standing in stark juxtaposition to the majority of Democratic candidates — including frontrunners Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden — who have pitched extensive policy proposals over the course of their campaigns.
She put out a policy centered on LGBTQ+ issues months before most of the other Democratic contenders. But when asked by MTV News to be more specific about those platforms, she stumbles to define the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people on the basis of sexual or gender identity and which she has vowed to support.
“The employment Equality Act?” she asks trepidatiously. “That's housing, isn't it?”
Upon clarification, Williamson states her support for it without offering deeper policy details.
“There should be no area, housing, health, employment where someone's sexual orientation should limit their abilities,” she says. “Period. End of story.”
Williamson, who is consistently polling between zero and one percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, believes she has been too readily dismissed because she comes in nontraditional packaging: She hasn’t held political office and has made her living in the vague, lucrative world of commercialized spirituality and self-help.
For now, her primary plan is one of self-preservation: She didn’t qualify for the last three debates and it’s not likely she’ll make the next one in December, but she says she’s still in the race.
“I'm not a victim and I don't see myself as a victim,” she says of her candidacy. “But there are strains of misogyny that run very deep and many of which are internalized by women.”
It is for this reason, she believes, that women in particular might not vote for her. At one point, there were five other women in the race with her, more than there ever have been during any presidential primary race in American history. When Annie Leibowitz photographed the female candidates for Vogue, she was not included; she later wrote on Instagram that “the framers of the Constitution did not make Vogue magazine the gatekeepers of America’s political process.”
Williamson pushes back against her branding as a “dangerous nut wacko” and a “grifter,” and points out that the Constitution stipulates the presidency is open to any natural-born citizen over the age of 35, so long as they have lived in the United States for 14 years. She takes those limited requirements at their word, and she views her outsider status as a selling point, even though she is becoming more and more an outlier by the day. (“No American citizen is a political outsider,” she says.)
Yet in the months after the Democratic primary race began in earnest, two female candidates have dropped out. Several billionaires are all but self-funding their own campaigns. The most diverse primary race in history has all but winnowed its candidates of color out — as of publish time, only white candidates have qualified to take the debate stage this month. As the stakes rise and the primaries near, Williamson is still positioning herself as an option to anyone who might listen.
The name “Marianne Williamson” typically evokes one of three reactions in people: They think her history as a Hollywood-made mystic is dangerous at best and sinister at worst, they would give up their first-born for a Twitter mention from her, or they have never even heard of her.
Williamson was born in Houston in 1952, though the Marianne Williamson we know today was made in Hollywood in 1983. The AIDS crisis was decimating the entertainment industry at the time, and Williamson was preaching out of the Philosophical Research Society, a library in Los Feliz that specializes in obscure works and mystical texts. Medicine was failing to respond to the AIDS epidemic, the government vilified the dead and dying, and major religions shunned gay people seeking comfort.
“And here was a woman, then a young woman at that time, talking about a god who loves you no matter what and how love works miracles,” Williamson reflects, a soft Southern lilt in her voice. “So gay men in Los Angeles, in a very real way, gave me my career because they started flocking.”
Today, she has 13 books, seven of which have landed on the New York Times best-seller list. Her most successful book, A Return to Love, extols the virtues of a self-help practice called “A Course in Miracles.” She has served as the spiritual advisor to Oprah.
But her AIDS advocacy, the work she says gave her a career, has also been central to the undoing of her campaign. She has come under fire for encouraging HIV-positive followers to pray about their ailments as a treatment; according to a 1992 cover story in the Los Angeles Times, she said, “The AIDS virus is not more powerful than God.” She also wrote in A Return to Love, “Sickness is an illusion that does not actually exist. It is part of our world-dream, our self-created nightmare.”
Williamson argues her beliefs have been mischaracterized. She says if she and her followers prayed for anything in ’80s and ’90s, it was for a cure for the virus.
“People do visualizations that you're just seeing your cancer cells destroyed,” she tells MTV News, referencing the therapeutic practice that has been shown to improve people’s mental health in the face of trauma or illness. “This has been around for decades.”
She takes issue with being labeled as a “quack;” as she sees it, she advised people to think positively at a time of fear and darkness. Throughout her career, she has taken a metaphysical book called A Course In Miracles and applied it to any number of popular self-help topics, including weight loss, women’s empowerment, and finance. Much of her rhetoric advises the reader to look inward. Vulnerable people have a tendency to blame themselves for the bad things that happen to them. Plenty of passages Williamson has written throughout the years affirm that impulse.
Mark S. King, a four-time GLAAD award-nominated AIDS writer and activist, knew Williamson during her Hollywood days. He remembers her message offered something that people confronting the virus desperately needed but couldn’t find anywhere else.
“I know this sounds easy or quaint or obvious, but to gay men in the mid-’80s who were dying in droves and being rejected by everybody — their families, their roommates, the guy that cuts their hair, religion, the government — we were feeling forsaken,” King tells MTV News, adding that motivational authors like Williamson and Louise Hay, who famously claimed she had cured herself of cancer, gave King and other gay men hope at a time where there was very little.
Though King says, “They were with us holding our hands as we lay dying,” he notes that now, "we have this troubled relationship with Marianne and what she represented. We welcomed it at the time, but we were so injured.”
Even so, King thinks Williamson has no business running for president. He rolled his eyes watching during the debates and calls Williamson “a little out there for a presidential candidate.” He says, “And it's too bad because I would hate for people's last impression of Marianne Williamson to be that hippy-dippy presidential candidate that said all those loopy things.”
This isn’t Williamson’s first foray into politics: In 2014, she made an unsuccessful run for Congress in California. Five years and several books later, she announced her bid for the Democratic candidacy on January 29 of this year in a 43-minute speech that was later published in full on her YouTube page.
While an appearance in July’s second presidential debate gained some ground for her bid, reports surfaced not long after that suggested that she was anti-science, an accusation she vociferously denies. Critics have pointed out the ways in which she or her past teachings have smacked of both fatphobia and ableism, and she also had to deal with major fallout after telling supporters at a New Hampshire event in June that mandatory vaccines were “Orwellian” and “draconian.” She later apologized. Two months later, CNN unearthed an episode of her radio show from 2012, in which she gave an anti-vaccination activist space to express unfounded and debunked theories, without pushing back on those claims.
She would rather not revisit the topic with MTV News. “The comment about mandatory vaccines being Orwellian and draconian was sloppy, and I said so,” she says. “Vaccines save lives.”
She meant to say something nuanced, she tries to explain, but there isn’t much room for that when you’re running for president.
Last week, she issued a Facebook post that defended anti-vaccination viewpoints; she later unveiled a promise to create a “vaccine safety commission,” which by nature undermines the fact that vaccines are already safe.
“Williamson is no longer dog whistling to the anti-vaccine crowd,” NBC reporter Brandy Zadrozny contextualized. “She’s officially become their mouthpiece.”
Like most of her competitors, Williamson has spent months trying to convince people she is uniquely qualified to be the change she believes this country needs. “I spent 35 years being very up close and personal with people in times of crisis and seeking to articulate, to discern, and apply principles of transformation that will take us from process to opportunity,” she says. It’s obvious to her why that work would lend itself to the presidency.
It has been less transparent for many other people, plenty of whom may have even forgotten that she is still in the race if only because she hasn’t technically dropped out. Even so, Williamson is still holding on, though her cash on hand seems to be dwindling, and Rolling Stone noted that, in early November, her campaign sent an email advertising something called the Williamson Institute, which they later called a “vendor error.”
Her business would make her more money than campaigning, or even serving as president, would. (She told Rolling Stone running for office is “the opposite of a lucrative thing to do.”) By her account, she’s holding tight to her belief that she’s meant to shake up the current political system — and the Democratic establishment at large — even if it comes at a personal cost to her.
“Not that they're not wonderful people, because they are actually,” she says of her Democrat competition. “But we need a disruption, a serious power disruption at this point, that will not be achieved only by external change.”
Williamson is still hoping to appeal to Democrats, sure, but also the American public at large. That is complexified by yet another element of our political sphere: Ours is a country that treats celebrities like royalty. It would be easy for her to wield influence as a spiritual advisor rather than a politician — perhaps even easier than the months-long slog of running for office.
Dr. Sam Nelson, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Toledo, points out that there is a long history of celebrities running for office, but usually they were war heroes, like President Dwight Eisenhower. Before Ronald Reagan was president or even governor of California, he was an actor; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cynthia Nixon, and the wrestler Jesse Ventura have all made forays into politics to varying degrees of success.
“Trump’s win kind made a lot of people think that he can be president, so can I,” Nelson tells MTV News, adding, “Different voters certainly weigh experience more heavily than others.” He points to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for seven years; comparatively, other candidates have experience at the federal level going back decades.
She attributes the rise of Trump to the idea that he gave people something to believe in, to get excited about. “Donald Trump is not just a politician, he's a phenomenon, and I don't personally believe an insider political game will defeat him,” she says. She believes his campaign wasn’t about the platform he presented — indeed, his racist, xenophobic rhetoric and false promises likely mobilized a core strain of supporters more effectively than any policy he ever presented. “Democrat frontrunners aren’t prepared to inspire people in the way Trump inspired his base,” she says.
“Republicans have the elitist policies, but sometimes an oddly more egalitarian relationship to its own constituency,” she says. “The Democrats have the egalitarian policies, but sometimes almost a more elitist relationship with its own constituency.”
Early research, however, indicates record-level voter enthusiasm. Both Democratic and Republican-targeting research firms predict unprecedented turnout in 2020, with more diversity among voters than any election in American history. And as enthusiasm for Williamson wanes, her better-polling contenders continue to rise. Sanders drew the largest campaign crowd of any rally on October 19, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed his presidential bid. Warren has been labeled the “one to beat” by plenty of people, including her opponents, if their targeting of her at the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate served as any indication. And Biden benefits from outright name recognition and decades of public service, as well as a perceived proximity to his former boss — even if he says he asked Barack Obama not to endorse him.
But while Williamson’s entire career has positioned her name as the brand, she believes that the brand of her candidacy goes beyond that package.
“It's not about me being the phenomenon,” she insists. “It's, are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready?” She is pointing at people in the room who aren’t there, people she imagines joining her movement. “And I believe we are.”
This is Williamson’s bet: that a Trump-weary electorate will embrace a candidate without a road map. So far, they aren’t buying. The current president has veered so erratically from one policy to the next, even releasing hateful and unsubstantiated plans on Twitter before his administration received word, that for many people now, the idea of more uncertainty is just as unpalatable as the current option. Even if you never interrogate Williamson’s mysticism, the idea of voting by faith alone can be too much of a risk.