Few contemporary American political figures generate such unique disdain as Tulsi Gabbard, the Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii. The disdain is not unique for its tenacity – plenty of figures are on the receiving end of bitter criticism – but for its political composition. Gabbard straddles an ideological fissure that spans the Democratic and Republican party coalitions in ways that are difficult to pin down. Despite being an avowed progressive on policy issues and a frequent critic of President Trump, her most committed antagonists appear on the left.
The consternation perhaps began in earnest during the 2016 presidential cycle, when she resigned as a Vice Chair from the Democratic National Committee to endorse Bernie Sanders – and in so doing cast stark aspersion on Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy judgment. This created seeds of doubt among liberals that she was a double agent of sorts, operating within the Democratic party for the stealth purpose of undermining its cohesion and causing problems. It wasn’t just that she supported Sanders, which was well and good, but that she drilled down so specifically on one of the eventual nominee’s most searing vulnerabilities: the fact that Clinton had supported every major American military misadventure of the past 15 years, and showed no signs of penitence or personal evolution. Though Gabbard later conceded she would vote for Clinton in the general election, her support was always tepid and even slightly pained.
Gabbard’s path to excommunication accelerated when Trump won the election, as she was among the very few Democrats who opted for a conciliatory tack. She visited Trump Tower during the presidential transition period, armed with the express intention to dissuade the president-elect from further entangling the US in efforts to oust Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. The suspicions of her motives intensified among liberal activists and journalists, who could not fathom why any self-respecting Democrat would want to do anything at that juncture other than shout Resistance slogans and furiously retweet Russia collusion memes.
Though she initially offered to work with Trump and offered constructive policy guidance – another disgraceful capitulation by the lights of many liberals – her criticism grew more pointed as Trump’s term progressed. But still, Gabbard never quite embraced the kind of turbo-charged anti-Trump mentality that so often defines Democratic activist sensibilities. Instead her criticisms have always been targeted and substantive, rather than flamboyant and overly-personal. (Although it should be noted that many successful Democratic congressional candidates also steadfastly avoided overly-personalized criticism of Trump during the midterm campaigns, and were applauded for this as a wise tactical choice. Gabbard followed a similar strategy from the outset, with the difference perhaps being the issues she chose to emphasize: national security and foreign policy, which activates reflexes that are less reliably partisan and sortable than when the focus is on healthcare or taxes.)
Trump supporters sometimes profess that Gabbard is one of the few Democrats they find palatable, probably because she seems to avoid the Culture War brawling that so often comes across as tedious and shrill when filtered through the contemporary left-wing moralizing lingo. All that said, her positions are still almost entirely progressive by any normal measure (with a few possible exceptions that her liberal antagonists frequently highlight). This creates an unusual paradox in her public perception. Seeming palatable to Trump supporters automatically evokes suspicion among liberals as evidence of some lurking moral turpitude.
Her visit to Bashar al-Assad in January 2017, along with former Democratic Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, was the final straw for enemies whose antipathy toward her had been simmering and craved an attack-line to coalesce around. The meeting was fully in keeping with her broader campaign to discourage reckless regime change misadventures, the same position which caused her to express extreme skepticism of Clinton. Predictably, neoconservatives also joined the rush to denounce her for this apostasy, at which point she was tarred – preposterously – as an unconscionable abettor of Assad’s crimes. Because neoconservatism has slowly ingratiated itself into the mainstream of the Democratic party since Trump’s ascension, the barbs flung by liberals and their newfound neoconservative friends could barely be distinguished.
As with any other politician, aspects of Gabbard’s record are certainly up for legitimate questioning. But one need not endorse everything that she’s ever done, every position she’s ever taken, or every vote she’s ever cast to acknowledge the deep cynicism of the criticism she endured for the episode. In visiting Assad, she’d embarked on a diplomatic mission with the explicit purpose of seeking avenues to reduce conflict in Syria, site of the most intractable strife in the world. To claim that simply meeting with a principal actor in that conflict is tantamount to ‘palling around’ with him, as Meghan McCain snidely put it, is nothing short of cliched nonsense. It’s the same weak logic always used to discredit diplomatic engagement, whether it be Trump’s meetings with Kim or Obama’s meetings with Raul Castro. The morally relevant factor to consider must always be the aim of these meetings – i.e., what objective they are carried out in service of – rather than the fact that the meeting occurred in the first place. Gabbard’s objective was not to sell Assad arms or assist him in covering up human rights abuses, but to act as an emissary through which non-military resolutions to the conflict could be pursued. Even if one views her efforts in Syria as wrongheaded or futile, to characterize them as ‘palling around’ with a brutal dictator – as if she has a personal fondness for the man – is an odious canard.
Yet it’s that canard which many Democratic pundits once again lobbed at Gabbard this week – joined, of course, by their allies in the neoconservative commentariat – when she departed from her normal rhetorical posture toward Trump and unleashed a nasty but deserved tweet: ‘Hey @realdonaldtrump: being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not ‘America First.’
Hey @realdonaldtrump: being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not “America First.”
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) November 21, 2018
The impetus for this was of course Trump’s amoral and borderline-sycophantic statement in which he outlined the reasons why the United States would be ‘Standing With Saudi Arabia’ for the interminable future despite mounting evidence that the Crown Prince ordered the assassination of a dissident journalist. But unlike so many in the political class who have suddenly discovered themselves to be strident Saudi critics just within the past month, for Gabbard the more pressing and morally grievous issue has long been ongoing US support for the Saudi campaign of destruction in Yemen. So when Gabbard finally dropped the rude tweet, it didn’t come across as shrill or tedious; it’s a rhetorical option she has deployed only sparingly, which made its force extra palpable. Even those who typically roll their eyes at overblown anti-Trump rhetoric took it seriously, including podcast impresario Joe Rogan, on whose show Gabbard has appeared. (She was the first sitting elected official to do so.)
Kids, that’s what you call “Going hard in the paint.” https://t.co/3PUXgalC3X
— Joe Rogan (@joerogan) November 22, 2018
Yet even though in this case she was aiming her ire squarely at Trump, liberal journalist types couldn’t help but continue condemning her as a callously unfit messenger due to the Assad episode – as if that had anything to do with her revulsion of Trump’s amoral sycophancy for the Saudi Crown Prince. Again, to equate the two relationships as even remotely on the same moral plane would be absurd. In flattering Mohammed bin Salman, Trump is excusing flagrant abuses, protecting defense contractors, and further inflaming regional conflict. In meeting with Assad, Gabbard sought to propose diplomatic engagement in place of military conflagration. These objectives have nothing to do with one another. So the liberal and neoconservative attack made no sense, but that’s to be expected – Gabbard scrambles ideological assumptions, and that’s fundamentally what her critics are so flustered by.