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The Rig Is Up: Tulsi Gabbard Employs a Familiar Tactic

The Hawaii representative threatened to boycott Tuesday’s presidential debate to protest what she views as the “rigging” of the 2020 election

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Twelve candidates qualified for the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate on Tuesday, based on polling and fundraising criteria set by the Democratic National Committee. Gradually, the DNC has revised its qualifications for the debate stage in an attempt to narrow the field of participants. Tuesday’s roster still included two candidates who tend to poll below 1 percent: Barack Obama’s former housing secretary Julián Castro, a progressive, and Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard, a wild card.

Gabbard had previously threatened to “boycott” the debate, despite meeting the qualifications (she failed to clear the DNC threshold for the third debate in September). Gabbard struggles to distinguish herself in an overcrowded contest, which, given its focus on domestic issues, has yet to prioritize her signature concern, U.S. foreign policy. Gabbard, an Army major and an Iraq War veteran, opposes “unprovoked” U.S. military interventions abroad. Notoriously, Gabbard met with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and then repeatedly disparaged the rebels fighting Assad’s regime, amid the U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war. “Assad is not the enemy of the United States because Syria does not pose a direct threat to the United States,” Gabbard said in February.

In Tuesday’s debate, Gabbard blamed the news media—including the debate’s cohosts, in particular—for her marginal standing in the primaries. “The New York Times and CNN have also smeared veterans like myself for calling for an end to this regime change war,” Gabbard said in response to Anderson Cooper’s question about President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. military support for the embattled Kurdish forces in northern Syria. “Just two days ago, The New York Times put out an article saying that I’m a Russian asset and an Assad apologist, and all these different smears.” The Times covered Gabbard’s isolationism as well as her good standing among some pro-Trump conservatives, including Tucker Carlson, who often hosts Gabbard in prime time on his Fox News show. “Even some political strategists who have worked with her are at a loss to explain her approach to politics,” Times reporter Lisa Lerer wrote, underscoring Gabbard’s uncanny appeal among right-wing activists and Russian news media.

Previously, Gabbard served as a DNC vice-chair before resigning in February 2016 to endorse Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primaries. Gabbard has said she believes the committee leadership “rigged” the primary in favor of eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “In this 2020 election, the DNC and corporate media are rigging the election again,” Gabbard said in a statement released ahead of Tuesday’s debate, “but this time against the American people in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.” Gabbard hasn’t specified how, exactly, she believes the DNC to be undermining the earliest statewide contests in this presidential election cycle. “They are attempting to replace the roles of voters in the early states,” Gabbard continued, “using polling and other arbitrary methods which are not transparent or democratic, and holding so-called debates which are not debates at all but rather commercialized reality television meant to entertain, not inform or enlighten.”

Gabbard believes the party’s leadership and the news media to be rigged against her presidential campaign. In July, Gabbard filed a lawsuit against Google for briefly suspending her campaign’s Google Ads account after the first Democratic debate. “Google has manipulated its search advertising, and likely its email filtering, to disfavor Gabbard,” the complaint read. In August, Gabbard debuted her DNC criticism when she spoke with Carlson about the committee’s lack of “trust” and “transparency” in overseeing the debates. Now, Gabbard has dramatized her meager support for maximum controversy: “reality television,” indeed.

Gabbard seems to be against everything rigged in modern politics—with “rigged” as a term that animates so many different political factions. Sanders fought the DNC’s favoritism toward Clinton in 2016 in a “rigged” presidential primary. But, more importantly, Sanders centers his campaigns on left-wing warnings about systems “rigged” against workers. Now Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren rivals Sanders’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, proposing ambitious reforms for laws and regulations deemed to be “rigged” in favor of the major banks and monopolies.

Of course, Trump persists in his own victimhood, believing the news media and the deep state are being “rigged” against him and his base even as he’s encouraged foreign leaders to sabotage his political rivals. Indeed, the most vivid provocations from the left as well as the right describe systems—be they trade deals, entire industries, or elections—as “rigged” against outsiders. Presumably, Gabbard, who is popular online, if not in Iowa, should be winning more sympathy votes in the decade that elected Trump and canonized Sanders. But Gabbard’s warnings about a “rigged” primary season are more ploy than plausible strategy; more reality TV than righteous indignation. Forget disenfranchised voters: Self-obsessed presidential candidates are the real underdogs in U.S. politics. Trump, the corrupt real estate mogul, masquerades as a populist martyr. Gabbard, a marginal candidate, presents herself as the scapegoat in yet another rigged presidential contest.

The “rigged” discourse may well illuminate U.S politics at the end of a cynical decade. Sanders and Warren have characterized citizens, not politicians, as the real losers in “rigged” systems: Politicians, in league with corporate leaders, have rigged the economy against most taxpayers. Sanders may feud with the DNC about rules and favoritism within the party’s leadership, but he plainly and famously believes the economy to be rigged “to benefit the wealthiest people in this country at the expense of everybody else.” That message has resonated with voters, and Warren has employed it to great effect. But Gabbard’s cynicism is far more self-serving. She has yet to explain how the presidential primary process has been “rigged” against her and her supporters, who are a marginal faction, assuming the polls and any other “rigged” metrics are to be believed.