February 23, 2024 - 1:10pm

A decade ago, Tulsi Gabbard was on the fast track to the highest levels of Democratic politics. Now, she has a spot on Donald Trump’s vice-presidential shortlist and is set to headline a keynote at Mar-a-Lago. Long fodder for journalist speculation, Gabbard’s career arc reveals the diminishing influence of the countercultural Left in the Democratic coalition.

Gabbard burst onto the national political scene as one of the future leaders of the Democratic Party. In 2012, she was tapped to speak at the Democratic National Convention and then won a landslide election to Congress. Shortly after that, she was elected vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. The party’s establishment was clearly invested in the success of this freshman House member from Hawaii.

Her political identity, however, was always complicated. A veteran of the Iraq War, she had entered politics in the early 2000s as a critic of same-sex marriage (a position she later repudiated), and was willing to criticise Barack Obama in some high-profile TV hits. But, by and large, she clearly fit in as a member of the socks-and-Birkenstocks countercultural Left. She supported drug legalisation, the expansion of government healthcare guarantees, campaign-finance reform, and gun control. On foreign policy, she criticised American-led “regime change” efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

As with many others, Gabbard’s road to Trump went through Bernie Sanders. The 2016 primary dramatised the acute identity crisis afflicting the Democratic Party. While the party still anchors itself in the iconography of the working-class, New Deal coalition, in reality it is increasingly the redoubt of the wealthy and college-educated. Gabbard was a major supporter of Sanders, but Hillary Clinton’s victory in the 2016 primary cemented the party’s identity as representing the winners of the neoliberal economic dispensation. Her failure to win the 2020 Democratic candidacy for president was the final blow.

So who changed: Gabbard or the party? Integral to the American Left’s counterculturalism was a suspicion of centralised authority and a glamorisation of the outsider. This is not a good fit for a party allied with the managerial foes of “populism”. Many in the Washington establishment (which is increasingly coterminous with the Democratic elite) view Gabbard’s long-held scepticism of military interventions abroad as tantamount to support for dictators and tyrants. In her October 2022 video disassociating herself from the Democrats, she accused the party of being under the control of an “elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness”. This was countercultural signalling in at least three senses, as her statement positioned itself against an “elite”, attacked her foes as “warmongers”, and tilted against “wokeness” (the reigning ideology of the bureaucratic elite). 

In similarly convention-breaking form, Trump has made MAGA into a countercultural hub, featuring critics of American interventions abroad, and outsider politician-activists such as Vivek Ramaswamy. It thus makes sense that Gabbard could become at least a guest star in the Trump Show.

It should be noted, though, that Gabbard’s attacks on “warmongers” are at odds with the hawkishness of other key members of Trump’s inner circle, and her past record on cultural issues clashes with the views of the social conservatives who have been a traditional bulwark of the GOP. All this might give her long odds of being selected as Trump’s vice president. However, winning over the countercultural Left also seems an important part of Trump’s vision for MAGA politics, so it’s not surprising that he is considering offering her some seat at the table.

As the super-expensive Tesla has replaced the dinged VW bus and the family station wagon as the emblem of Democratic politics, members of the weird countercultural Left find themselves less welcome. Trump and other populists sense an opportunity in that discomfort.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.