The latest Democratic candidate to enter the 2020 race has an unexpected base of support: The far right and conservative media.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who announced her candidacy last Friday, has cultivated a fandom among the right by bashing fellow Democrats and espousing views that break with the party line.
Since taking office in 2013, Gabbard, 37, has established a reputation as an unorthodox politician. While holding familiar Democratic positions on environmental issues, health care, and gun control, Gabbard was a frequent critic of President Obama’s foreign policy, met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and has questioned whether he used chemical weapons on his own citizens.
Once discussed among party insiders as a rising star who signed on to be a vice chair at the Democratic National Committee, she quit in protest during the 2016 election and endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
When she ran for re-election in 2018, she had the backing of liberal groups including the AFL-CIO and Planned Parenthood, yet she was briefly considered as a potential member for Trump’s cabinet, and cheered on his diplomatic overtures to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Since announcing her bid for the presidency, Gabbard has faced a torrent of criticism for some of her more eccentric politics, zeroing in on her equivocations on Assad and her past homophobic comments.
And, in the process, she has earned one prominent defender: Tucker Carlson.
In a Monday evening segment, featuring anti-war leftist journalist Glenn Greenwald, the Fox News host argued that Gabbard had been unfairly maligned because of her deep skepticism about intervention in Syria and willingness to talk to Assad.
“There’s something so stealthy and feline and dishonest about the way they’re attacking her,” Tucker said. “If you don’t like her foreign policy views, let’s just say so. But no one ever really wants to debate what our foreign policy should be. They just attack anyone who deviates from their own dumb ideas.”
Gabbard first became an in-demand Fox News guest in 2015 after she criticized Barack Obama’s unwillingness to use the label “radical Islamic terrorism.” Her media tour explaining that position earned her positively-tilted coverage in right-wing outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Caller—a trend that continued when she later expressed skepticism of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.
One person with direct knowledge told The Daily Beast that in the wake of her Obama criticism of Obama, Gabbard became an increasingly requested guest for Fox News hosts and producers to appear on-air. They weren’t the only ones in television news who took notice: senior executives at Sinclair Broadcasting made appeals for Gabbard to appear on their networks after she rebuked Obama.
And her emergence as a left-wing Obama critic further put Gabbard on the map in conservative media.
In May 2015, the National Review implored readers to “Meet the Beautiful, Tough Young Democrat Who’s Turning Heads by Challenging Obama’s Foreign Policy.” The conservative outlet touted Gabbard as having “endeared herself to right-wing hawks” by challenging Obama’s “rudderless” foreign policy. “I like her thinking a lot,” American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks was quoted as saying.
Gabbard has also maintained friendly relationships with high-profile, right-leaning television personalities, including Carlson and Fox News colleague Neil Cavuto, a long-time anchor and Trump skeptic who leans conservative on business issues.
And earlier this month, after she accused her fellow Democratic senators of engaging in “religious bigotry” for asking questions about a Trump judicial nominee’s faith, she received yet another round of Fox News praise. Todd Starnes, a Fox pundit with a long history of anti-gay comments, wrote in an op-ed that he found Gabbard’s comments “encouraging.”
“I respect Gabbard’s bold declaration that ‘no American should be asked to renounce his or her faith or membership in a faith-based, service organization in order to hold public office,’” he wrote. “But I’m afraid she may be in the minority within her party.”
To be sure, not all of conservative media is smitten with Gabbard—many object to some of the congresswoman’s positions that endear her to the left.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham, for example, on Monday evening cited Gabbard as being among the Democrats “who criticize Israel for nothing." Many right-leaning outlets took umbrage at Gabbard tweeting at President Trump: “Being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not ‘America First.’” And after her 2017 visit with Assad, hawkish conservative outlets like the National Review have come around to call her “disappointing.”
But beyond her acclaim among many in conservative media, Gabbard has long earned high praise from far-right online personalities.
Search “Tulsi Gabbard” on majority-right forums like 4chan’s Politically Incorrect (/pol/) board or the social network Gab. Unlike results for Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren (described as a communist) or Kamala Harris (described in racist terms), Gabbard has met a warmer reception.
“Unironically listening to Tulsi Gabbard on Rogan podcast right now. I've cried 3 times so far because of how closely aligned her views are to mine. She is the Trump I hoped for but apparently didn't deserve,” one /pol/ commenter wrote Sunday.
On Gab on Monday, users favorably circled an article about Gabbard’s past anti-gay stances. These are anonymous commenters, on a forum riddled by trolls. But other, more prominent far-right figures have publicly spoken in Gabbard’s defense.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist, reportedly admired Gabbard’s foreign policy, and arranged a meeting with her and Trump shortly after his election. Bannon was reportedly considering Gabbard for an administration role, although no such job ever materialized.
“He loves Tulsi Gabbard. Loves her,” a person close to Bannon told The Hill at the time. “Wants to work with her on everything.” The person added that Gabbard “would fit perfectly too [inside the administration] … She gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.”
Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and alleged domestic abuser who has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” has tweeted multiple times in support of Gabbard. David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and current racist, has also heaped praise upon her.
“Tulsi Gabbard is brave and the kind of person we need in the diplomatic corps,” Spencer tweeted in January 2017. “Tulsi Gabbard 2020,” he tweeted later that year.
In a November 2016 tweet, Duke said Gabbard was representative of a “political realignment” he hoped to see in the U.S., and called for Donald Trump to appoint her secretary of state. Duke ran a favorable blog post about Gabbard on his website.
Gabbard hit back at Duke. “U didn't know I'm Polynesian/Cauc?” she tweeted at the former KKK leader. “Dad couldn't use ‘whites only’ water fountain. No thanks. Ur white nationalism is pure evil.” But he continued to laud her, writing “God bless Tulsi Gabbard” later that year.
Spencer and Duke credited their Gabbard support to her stance on Syria, where civil war has resulted in an estimated half-million deaths. (Some on the far right view Assad as a hero. The Intercept reported that fascists in the U.S. and abroad see Assad as creating an ideal “homogeneous” authoritarian state, free of political dissent. And James Fields Jr., the neo-Nazi who murdered a woman with a car at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Virginia in 2017, posted a meme of Assad on Facebook, alongside pictures of swastikas and Hitler.)
Gabbard has billed herself as an anti-interventionist in Syria, but she’s gone further than many pacifists—most famously by meeting with Assad on the trip organized by members of a far-right group in early 2017.
The congresswoman described her visit as being motivated by concern for Syrian civilians, though critics have pointed out that she also voted in favor of the GOP-backed “American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act,” a 2015 bill that made it harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to immigrate to the U.S.
Gabbard has yet to say what her presidential policy on Syria would look like.