LIFE AT THE EXTREMES
Tulsi Gabbard: The Bernie-Endorsing Congresswoman Who Trump Fans Can Love
Tulsi Gabbard is a Bernie supporter and a progressive darling—and yet her stances on standard liberal issues like gun rights and immigration are starting to converge with those of Donald J. Trump.
She’s a lawmaker who has a soft spot for dictatorial regimes. She pals around with Sheldon Adelson. She’s declined to sign onto an assault weapons ban. She opposes admitting refugees. She a frequent fixture on Fox News, where she has slammed the president over his refusal to use the term “Islamic extremism” to refer to terror attacks.
Sounds a lot like The Donald.
But Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is a Democrat, running for reelection in one of America’s most liberal districts. The Hawaii congresswoman’s record shows that she has bucked her own party’s trends—and in the process, alienated some of her area’s most dedicated progressive activists.
“I am little skeptical about how deep her progressive roots run,” said John Bickel, treasurer for Progressive PAC, a Hawaii state organization that endorses candidates on the left. Still, he is, at the moment, supporting Gabbard for reelection. “Tulsi Gabbard shows up in places and gets in front of the camera, spinning herself as a progressive—but I’m not sure her record backs up what she’s created as a public persona.”
The bizarre policy overlap between Trump and Gabbard, a Bernie Sanders supporter and rising star in her party’s progressive wing, illustrates the connections between Trump and Sanders’s brands of populism. Trump is hoping to capitalize on the working-class frustration that both appeal to, with explicit calls for Sanders supporters to support his campaign, as he enters the Republican National Convention. It’s a temptation for rank-and-file Democrats that Hillary Clinton’s campaign no doubt has an eye on.
Gabbard has been a favorite of Fox News, where she diverged from the typical Democratic Party line on the term “Islamic extremism.” Democrats such as Bernie Sanders—whom Gabbard endorsed—have stayed away from such phrases because, they argue, it suggests that the United States is at war with the Muslim religion itself.
“It is crazy,” Gabbard said on an HBO talk show, of Democratic refusals to use the term. “They do matter, words mean things, and this is what we need to look at as we look at how do we identify our enemies so that we can defeat them?”
Trump’s views on foreign policy have overthrown a generation’s worth of conservative thinking on the matter: His tolerant stance on dictators like Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin shocked much of the right’s national security intelligencia. But it meshed well with Gabbard’s thinking.
In March, Gabbard was the only Democrat and one of just three members of Congress to vote against a resolution condemning violence by the Assad regime against civilian populations.
“Bad enough US has not been bombing al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Syria. But it’s mind-boggling that we protest Russia’s bombing of these terrorists,” Gabbard wrote in September, on the first day of the Russian intervention in Syria.
Firstly, Gabbard is wrong that the U.S. has not struck al Nusra in Syria—it has—and secondly, her position aligns nicely with Trump’s: He called those strikes a “positive thing.” Russia is responsible for attacking U.S. backed opposition forces in Syria.
“By endorsing Bernie early and resigning from the DNC, Gabbard made clear she is vying for leadership of the next generation of left-liberals galvanized by Sanders presidential run. However, given that her and Donald Trump’s foreign and refugee policies are in lock step, real progressives should be wary of her qualification for that role,” said Evan Barrett, a political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a Syrian-American opposition umbrella group.
The Hawaii congresswoman was also one of just 47 Democrats who voted for a bill that would make it all but impossible to admit new refugees into the United States.
“Her vote with Republicans against admitting Syrian refugees caused a lot of heartburn here. Most of the people who are drawn towards her are sweet, gentle souls… so when they see her being heartless in that case, that is at odds of their idealization of who she is,” said a prominent Democratic activist in Hawaii. “She is the Republican right-wing’s favorite Democrat. I think both Trump and Gabbard appeal to a populist sensibility.”
And oddly enough, considering her state’s reliance on the tourism industry, she mirrored Trump’s overreach on immigration issues by calling for European passport holders to be forced to apply for tourist visas, citing terror concerns. Europeans currently have a waiver to visit the United States for leisure—more than 143,000 European visitors traveled to Hawaii in the past year, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
But foreign policy is not the only realm where Gabbard and Trump see eye to eye: She is also wishy-washy on gun control. Trump opposes a ban on assault weapons, a flip-flop from his prior positions; Gabbard, meanwhile, is conspicuously missing from Democrat efforts to legislate the issue. Eighty percent of Democrats, including fellow Hawaii Democrat Rep. Mark Takai, are co-sponsors of a bill that would ban so-called assault weapons—Gabbard is not among them.
They also align on trade: Trump has called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that is supported by many conservative economists and Republican lawmakers, “insanity;” Gabbard has called it “disastrous” and denounced it as looking like “NAFTA on steroids.”
Both Trump and Gabbard share a common friend: billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The Hawaii Democrat reportedly introduced an Adelson-backed bill that would outlaw online gambling. Earlier this year, Gabbard won a Champions of Freedom Award at The World Values Network’s annual gala, co-hosted by Adelson. Meanwhile, the magnate has indicated his willingness to donate more than $100 million to Trump’s campaign for president.
Gabbard’s positions have attracted a challenge on the left from Shay Chan Hodges, an activist who believes the congresswoman is insufficiently progressive to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional district.
“Rep. Gabbard could very well be Donald Trump’s kind of Democrat,” said Chan Hodges. “Assault weapons, blaming Muslims, and love of news media are three areas where Gabbard has common cause with Trump.”
When The Daily Beast asked Gabbard’s campaign about her positions on gun control, immigration, and Syria, and whether she felt they reflected the views of her constituents, her campaign responded with a list of her work on environmental policy, Wall Street reform, LGBT rights and civil liberties, among other issues.
“Progressive individuals like Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, and Van Jones and a number of progressive organizations including Progressive Democrats of America, Emily’s List, Sierra Club, Human Rights Campaign, AFL-CIO, and more, strongly support Tulsi because of her position and record as a progressive leader,” said Erika Tsuji, a spokesperson for the Gabbard campaign.
When given a chance to condemn Trump, such as with this story, Gabbard avoids the topic—and in the past, she has avoided harsh words for the Republican businessman.
“One of the many problems I see with Trump is I don’t know what he believes. I don’t know what he would do,” Gabbard said in one such interview, before pivoting to criticism of Hillary Clinton. “I have raised and continue to see concerns with Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy.”
That a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii could have so many overlapping policies with the presumptive Republican nominee for president is perplexing. But it’s yet another reminder of the unorthodox campaign season that America is now undergoing—and the ways in which both extremes of the Republican and Democratic parties are converging in strange ways.