This story has been updated.
There were two distinct audiences for the Democratic primary debate on Tuesday: people who tuned in to see a long row of aspiring presidents snipe at one another over policy differences and those who wanted to watch the orb queen Marianne Williamson resonate frequencies of love into the universe.
If you were in the former group, maybe you invited some friends over and broke out the Doritos. If you were one of the latter, you might have checked out the “occult task force” being organized on an orb-festooned Reddit page “to influence the events at the debate so that Marianne gets as much airtime as possible.”
In the few minutes she got to speak, Williamson did not disappoint the online fan club of professed occultists, liberal peaceniks and ironic memeophiles who have gathered around the 67-year-old New Age guru’s metaphysical campaign for the White House.
“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days,” she warned her rivals midway through. This echoed Williamson’s famous closing argument from the previous round of debates in Florida, when she dismissed the preceding hour-and-a-half of policy talk and declared in her best Hepburnian accent: “Mr. President, if you are listening, I want you to hear me, please. You have harnessed fear for political purposes, and only love can cast that out. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”
Williamson has harnessed something from the body politic, whether love is the best term for it. Obsession might better describe her online community of devotees. Informally known as the “orb gang,” they celebrate Williamson’s mystical utterances with various levels of irony and earnestness — and a passion some of her rival Democrats might envy.
Long before she entered politics, Los Angeles-based Williamson attained celebrity as an Oprah-proximate spiritualist, churning out best-selling books such as “The Law of Divine Compensation,” “Illuminata” and “A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever.” Her sprawling philosophy touches on God, quantum physics and the quasi-mystical power of thought to affect the nature of reality. Her Twitter feed includes aphorisms such as: “It’s only when we soul-explode beyond the confines of the mortal self, expanding the boundaries of what we think is real, that we begin to glimpse the truth of who we are and why we’re here.”
Virgil Texas, a co-host of the political comedy podcast “Chapo Trap House,” effectively established Williamson’s ironic fan club in April, when he invited his listeners to “pierce the veil of reality and observe the realm beyond, full of shimmering orbs.” By the time of the first debates in June, the Reddit discussion group r/Marianne2020 was a running stream of orb emoji and fan art depicting Williamson shooting lasers out of her eyes, or banishing Trump “to Naraka realm until he can learn love and acceptance.”
This might have started out as mockery, but as the Reddit group gained thousands of subscribers in the days after the first debate, it evolved into something harder to pin down. Williamson embraced the joke at her expense, going so far as to post a picture of herself as a fantasy anime character this month. And many on the Reddit group declared they had unexpectedly become “non-ironic” supporters of her candidacy.
“The common story is I came here ironically; it’s almost a meme in and of itself,” said Simon Thornton, a 22-year-old baker and cosmetology student in Reno, Nev., who joined the subreddit last month and now volunteers for the campaign. “I think that’s how she’s going to build her base: Have these fun, mocky memes. Then they get there and see this makes sense.”
What makes sense to Thornton — a Catholic-raised atheist with no particular spiritual yearnings — are Williamson’s policies, which Thornton went to her website to look up after watching the first debate. While her Democratic rivals are desperately trying to stake out memorable policy positions, Williamson has soul-exploded beyond the confines of conventional government. In addition to universal health coverage and an ambitious climate plan, she espouses a Department of Peace and an overhaul of the criminal justice system that would involve releasing prisoners en masse. In Tuesday’s debate, she argued passionately for reparations of $200 billion to $500 billion to African Americans.
“A lot of people believe she’s, like, super-healing-chakra, and way out there, but a lot of that’s overblown,” Thornton said. “She’s not the corner tarot reader lady people hear about.”
But the tarot ladies have heard of her — as have various styles of mystics and magicians who have begun to frequent the Reddit group.
Victoria Santapau, 31, reads tarot cards for customers in a park near Asheville, N.C., as a weekend gig. She had never seen Williamson speak before the first debate and came to the Reddit group several days later. “I’m 100 percent convinced Marianne is gonna be our next president,” she wrote on the forum. “No other Democratic candidate is utilizing chaos magick principles like she is.”
Chaos magick is a postmodern occult belief system that dates to the 1970s and bears similarities to the “Course in Miracles” that Williamson preaches, insofar as both treat reality as a malleable thing that can be manipulated with ritualized thoughts.
The person organizing the occult task force — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely about it — said a group of 13 chaos magicians, witches and energy workers were performing synchronized “gestures” to help Williamson get airtime at Tuesday’s debate and in the race to follow. “The whole orb gang community is tapping into the power of memes to reflect back on, and multiply, the sort of pulsing undercurrents of our collective unconscious,” the person wrote in an email.
Magical thinking is not wholly alien to American politics. In “Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump,” the Blondie-bassist-turned-author Gary Lachman chronicles how a handful of Internet jokesters coalesced in 2015 to make ironic memes about Donald Trump somehow winning the presidency.
As is happening with Williamson, the memes themselves fueled viral fascination with Trump. The jokesters evolved into a hyper-loyal online fan base, many of whom claim they helped put him in the White House with “meme magic.”
It is only fitting that Democrat occultists should have their own option. “Let’s have a magically informed candidate on the left side,” Lachman said. “Why not?”
The magic might be working. While Williamson still polls in the 1 percent range, she sat for interviews this month with Stephen Colbert and actress-activist-podcaster Alyssa Milano. Those who mock her now do so at their own peril: When comedian Samantha Bee urged Williamson to drop out of the race on Twitter last week, outraged Marianne fans spammed the reply thread with orbs. And Williamson was the most searched-for candidate during Tuesday’s debate, according to Google Trends.
When a CNN reporter asked her how she did afterward, she reportedly replied: “I’ll tell you later when I see the memes.”
She proceeded from the debate to a concert hall bar across the street, where several dozen supporters were throwing a watch party. This clearly wasn’t the online crowd. Many were Detroit natives who remembered when Williamson used to pastor at a suburban megachurch in the early 2000s. A couple of minor celebrities mingled among them. Frances Fisher — Rose’s mom from “Titanic” — was on crowd control duty. The closest thing to an orb in sight were pink party balloons.
All the same, Williamson once again spoke about Trump’s “dark forces,” and elaborated: “This is collectivized hatred. It has been and continues to be one of the most dangerous forces on the planet. Now, you can’t fight dog whistles. You have to drown them out with angel voices.”
The crowd in the bar ate it up. Call it ironic, memetic, magical or political — that’s some kind of power. Correction: This story originally stated that Williamson espouses universal Medicare. She actually supports universal health coverage, and “making medicare an option on the Obamacare exchanges,” according to her website.
Jada Yuan contributed reporting from Detroit.