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The strange allure of Marianne Williamson

It’s easy to make fun of her low poll numbers and New Agey pronouncements (Getty)

The Democratic primary is what might be generously called a clown show. There are candidates with a serious chance of winning the nomination, and then there are candidates motivated by some combination of self-aggrandisement and the promise of increased book sales and more television appearances.

I am, to my dismay, forced to admit that Marianne Williamson falls into the second category, especially now that she has failed to qualify for the third primary debate. (She could, however, still qualify for the fourth.) On the other hand, never say never: if America could elect as president its uncle who spends his leisure time yelling at the television in 2016, I suppose it could logically follow up on that by electing its dippy wine aunt as president in 2020. But, as that possibility seems increasingly unlikely, we would do well to reflect on her achievements so far.

For one thing, she may be an even bigger meme than the President, something which I, who have been repeatedly stunned by the man’s mastery of Twitter, thought scarcely possible. Saying that she would, on the first day of her hypothetical term in office, call up the prime minister of New Zealand to tell her “Girlfriend, you are so on!” for her efforts at making that country the best place in the world for a child to grow up, is certainly something. What, exactly, it might be is more difficult to say – my best guess is some sort of Haight-Ashbury magic distilled and concentrated for the purpose of going viral on social media.

Making fun of her for that, or for her low poll numbers, or for any of the things she does or says that seem more like the province of a TV personality or a self-help guru than a legitimate politician, is a bit too easy and, to be honest, unfair. When she says of Trump that “he won’t be beaten by an insider political conversation. The only way we can beat that phenomenon is by creating another phenomenon”, she demonstrates more insight than a thousand Democrats insisting that the way to defeat Trump is by fact-checking him to death and accusing him of the exact same things they accused him of in 2016.

The same goes for her declaration that she will “harness love for political purposes” – what exactly it means I do not know, but despite its lack of content it seems far more stirring and far more powerful than anything any other Democrat could generate.

Her statement in the second round of debates that Trump represents a “dark psychic force of collectivised hatred” that manifests itself in, among other things, concrete instances of racial inequality indicates once again her superior insight. “Dark psychic force” are not the words I would use, but they represent an attempt to understand and seriously think about the history of America and how it has led us here. That cannot be said about the wonkery that she attacks, which in its quest to explain Trump, or trade deals, or healthcare, or any other issue under the sun, reduces everything to charts and graphs and numbers. All that has its value, but it will never help win elections in the way a compelling narrative will. And she has one – she has several – hinted at when she declared that “it is time for us to start over with people who have not taken donations from any of those corporations and can say with real moral authority: that is over.”

But her battle against spiritual wickedness in high places extends beyond merely corrupt politicians beholden to special interests. When she speaks of “something emotional and psychological that will emerge … from something I’m the one who’s qualified to bring forth”, she understands that America’s problems are not merely material, but emotional, psychological – spiritual, even.

That America’s current situation is, in part, a spiritual crisis is clear enough, but rare is the politician who will say it out loud. The last time such a thing happened was when? Carter’s “malaise speech”? I would be shocked if Trump or any of the other Democratic candidates for the presidency have given more than five seconds of thought to the idea that many of America’s problems might be the result of a spiritual crisis. If Williamson’s campaign ends up bringing this idea into the mainstream and forcing politicians “not just to talk about healthcare, but talk about why we are so sick all the time” she will have done us all a great service.

The Catholic can find some additional joy in some of her past tweets. Anyone who can say things such as “pray to see the Christ in everyone” and “when the Pope just said ‘God Bless America’, I really felt it … like little silver filaments spreading out in a matrix of new hope” has some level of respect for Christ and his Church. And you can do far worse as a two-sentence summary of Catholic ideas of justice and the common good than “all policies should help people thrive. That is how we will have peace, and that is how we will have prosperity.”

I must admit she is not perfect. Among other disagreements, I pray she repents of her support for the pro-choice cause, just as I pray she finds her way to Holy Mother Church – although I must say that her failings do serve the useful purpose of dissuading me from sacrificing all my worldly possessions to start knocking on doors for her. Love of her as a meme aside, she has the potential to be more than a meme.

Many serious politicians have done far worse understanding America’s problems and figuring out what solving them might involve. And if her insights catch on, weird as they may seem, she will have done far more for the American people than we could ever have expected from the author of some New Agey advice books, and, to be honest, far more than we deserve.

Steve Larkin has served as an editorial intern at the US edition of the Catholic Herald