Can Democrats Trust Tulsi Gabbard?

On Saturday, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Van Jones that she plans to run in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. For a lot of people, Gabbard’s name first appeared on the scene when she left her position as a member of the DNC executive committee in order to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. She has formed a close connection to the senator from Vermont and is currently a fellow at the Sanders Institute.

If that is all you know about Gabbard, you’d assume that she is one of the most progressive members of congress. But returning to the Progressive Punch scorecard, we find that, when it comes to her voting record, Gabbard rates number 123 of the 179 current members who served in congress prior to 2019. Additionally, on Chris Hayes’ list of what to look for in a 2020 nominee, Gabbard will face obstacles about her worldview and whether Democrats can trust her.

As a veteran who served in both Iraq and Kuwait, Gabbard has made a name for herself on issues related to foreign policy. But her views hardly align with those of most Democrats. As Soumya Shankar documents, it is her embrace of authoritarian dictators such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that is most troubling.

In January 2017 Gabbard travelled to Syria and met at least twice with Assad. Here is how she characterized U.S. involvement in that country:

As I visited with people from across the country, and heard heartbreaking stories of how this war has devastated their lives, I was asked, “Why is the United States and its allies helping al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups try to take over Syria? Syria did not attack the United States. Al-Qaeda did.” I had no answer…

I return to Washington, DC with even greater resolve to end our illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government.

First of all, U.S. military involvement in Syria has been for the sole purpose of defeating ISIS, not to overthrow the Assad government. Gabbard completely ignores the fact that the civil war in that country began as the Arab Spring was unfolding across the Middle East and the people rose up to challenge the vicious dictatorship of Assad, who responded with lethal force against them. In other words, she parrots the propaganda spread by both the Russian and Syrian government about the roots of the civil war.

Gabbard’s support for authoritarian dictators was a mystery to me until I learned that she was raised as part of a group called the Science of Identity Foundation, led by a man named Chris Butler.  Kelefa Sanneh wrote about all of that in a profile of Gabbard in the New Yorker. In response to the article, Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard wrote the following:

As Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s aunt, it gives me no pleasure to publicly air my doubts regarding my niece’s political agenda, which Kelefa Sanneh describes in his Profile (“Against the Tide,” November 6th). However, I take my role as a citizen seriously, and I would be remiss not to share my concerns. Sanneh raises the issue of Gabbard’s lifelong immersion in the Science of Identity Foundation, an opaque religious organization that she and its founder, Chris Butler, have attempted to reframe as a “resource.” Gabbard’s answer to a basic question about Butler is troubling: despite calling him her “guru dev” (spiritual master) in her own promotional video, she denies that he is more important than any of her other teachers. She also has a notably mixed voting record, and associations that veer from certain progressive causes to the apparent courting of such strongmen as Narendra Modi, Bashar al-Assad, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (not to mention Trump)—this zigzagging path through positions is vexing. Sanneh’s article walks the fine line of investigation and exposition in a way that points to shadows worthy of further illumination.

In his article, Sanneh notes that several of Butler’s former followers talk about an authoritarian atmosphere in the group and describe themselves as survivors of an abusive cult. One of those people has written of her experience under the name “Lalita.”

Everything I did I had to think about how it benefitted [Chris Butler]. He was my parents spiritual master and they looked to him for guidance on everything, from what to eat, to how to raise their children, and they did it all without question…I was raised to believe Chris Butler was God’s voice on earth, and if you questioned him or offended him in any way, you were effectively offending God, and because we believed in reincarnation, that meant that you would be reborn as the lowest lifeform imaginable and then have to spend eon’s working your way back into God’s good graces…He demanded the utmost dedication and loyalty from his followers and if he didn’t get it, the punishments were swift and severe…

Literally everything we did had to go through Chris. If you wanted to work outside of the group, you had to ask his permission. No-one could get married without his consent. From the late 80’s all of us kids were removed from public schools because he didn’t want them influencing our minds away from our service to him. So from that point we were home schooled, until there were schools established in the Philippines. After that all the children were sent to the boarding schools there for intensive schooling. From the small pieces of information that made it out of the schools to me, a lot of the kids were traumatized by the environment, as it was almost prison like…It’s only speculation, but I am certain that this was because places like the US and Australia had standards of education that the home schools has to meet, and they just weren’t. They could avoid scrutiny by having the kids in boarding schools in the Philippines.

Gabbard was, indeed, homeschooled. But as Sanneh notes, “she spent two years in the Philippines, at informal schools run by followers of Butler.”

As we see with “Lalita” and others who were involved with Butler, most people who escape a cult like that go through a rather traumatic period of adjustment and, to the extent that they speak about their experience publicly, denounce the leader in no uncertain terms. Gabbard has never done that. Instead, she paints the experience as positive and expresses gratitude for Butler’s influence.

“I’ve never heard him say anything hateful, or say anything mean about anybody,” she says of Butler. “I can speak to my own personal experience and, frankly, my gratitude to him, for the gift of this wonderful spiritual practice that he has given to me, and to so many people.”

Regardless of any progressive positions Gabbard embraces, all of this speaks to a worldview formed as part of an authoritarian cult that should be deeply troubling to any Democrat. At this point, her story raises some serious questions about whether she can be trusted.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.