In a friend’s dining room in central Los Angeles, 27 hours before she will announce she’s running for president of the United States, I ask self-help author and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson to perform a miracle. Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know Williamson was planning to join the 12-candidate (and growing) Democratic presidential primary class of 2020. I didn’t know that she had written 12 spiritually minded books, including seven New York Times bestsellers. I didn’t know Williamson has advised Oprah Winfrey since the mid-’90s, when Winfrey reached out to Williamson for help getting over a “betrayal,” the specifics of which, Winfrey admitted on a 2018 episode of her podcast “Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations,” she no longer recalls. In fact, before I found out about her presidential hopes, I had never heard of Marianne Williamson. So I certainly didn’t know that Williamson’s stated purpose — her life’s work — is to create miracles.
Today, it’s the eve of the 66-year-old’s declaration that she will be seeking the highest office in our country, during what is arguably one of its most terrifying times. Since Williamson is sitting at the head of the table, close enough to touch my arm, it feels like an appropriate moment to ask her to act as my own spiritual adviser. Not because I believe in miracles. Because I want to believe.
“I’m afraid,” I tell Williamson. Afraid about how bleak things feel under our current president; afraid of how angry people are. “I’m afraid of what will happen to the country,” I say. “And that there’s no going back.”
Williamson leans back into her chair, lovely cheekbones jutting over the lower planes of her face. Her chin angles away, dropping a Melania-quality side-bang over one eye and leaving the other to narrow. Black-blazered arms cross in front of a white silk blouse. She opens her mouth and, in a voice like a powder brush dusting harp strings, begins miracle-working.
“Where there is light, there cannot be darkness,” Williamson says. “And where there’s love, there cannot be fear.” I smile knowingly. In the past few weeks, I’ve read enough of Williamson’s canon to be extremely familiar with this sentiment. All right, I think. Let’s get to the miracle. Then Williamson begins berating me. “I think it behooves us to remember that those who walked across the bridge in Selma surely were traumatized,” she says, in an ASMR murmur. Her scold feels like a scalp massage. “Surely the women’s suffragettes were deeply traumatized and angry.” I’m nodding, hypnotized by her certainty in my inadequacy. Yes, Marianne, I have neglected to contextualize my suffering! “American women are not porcelain dolls,” she says pointedly. “This is a serious moment. It is a crisis. A crisis is never convenient.”
Williamson’s volume climbs and her pitch drops as she reaches the climax. “Too many people now are lost in their negative feelings about what’s going on in our own little personal silo,” she says, gesturing to my own little personal silo. “That’s what makes the fear and the anger so debilitating. If we want to change our lives, we have to ask ourselves, deeply, what part we played. If I don’t tend to my marriage, I’m going to lose my marriage. If we don’t tend to our democracy, there are others who will more than happily take up the space. We [need to] realize, ‘No, I’ll show up for this, [as] other generations have shown up.’ ”
And lo, Marianne Williamson has delivered a surprisingly harsh miracle: For the first time since November 2016, I’m embarrassed enough to stop feeling sorry for myself about the state of America. I’m inspired.
The next day, Jan. 28, Williamson stands in the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Calif., packed with 2,000 people — women in business casual; human mannequins serving up capes and blunt bangs; the kind of white hair exclusive to older men of the 1 percent; a lot of turquoise, indoor fedoras and Eileen Fisher draping; two seats reserved for Nicole Richie — and announces her campaign. The evening begins with a performance by crunchy festival regular Nahko Bear, a beautiful man with a beautiful voice and face tattoos, followed by a short video of uplifting phrases: “STRIVE FOR PEACE,” “CALL A LIE A LIE,” “BLESS THE WORLD.” The projector screen rises and out walks Williamson, resplendent in another blazer. She stands in front of a floor-to-ceiling American flag and soaks up the adoration of the crowd like a Shamwow. After a staggeringly long standing ovation, she starts her speech.
The words are familiar. “It is time for us to rise up, the way other generations have,” she says, repeating her reprimand from our conversation the day before. “Cynicism is just an excuse for not helping. Whining is not an option. And getting all traumatized about how bad things are …” Williamson pauses, as if willing herself to move past her disgust. “We are not porcelain dolls. We need to identify the problems in this country. Then we need to identify with the problem solvers.”
Williamson speaks at this theater regularly. Her home crowd is losing it, woo!-ing and clapping. Someone in my row is rocking back and forth, as if davening. I appreciate the passion of her fan base and that Williamson was willing to do a little one-on-one political therapy with me. But a countrywide group session — and one that relies on the counterintuitive tactic of telling potential voters that the problem doesn’t lie with others, but with them — sounds like a model with a statistically insignificant chance of scaling to win over Americans, or the 270 electoral votes needed to attain the presidency. And that’s if Williamson somehow manages to emerge from a primary that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe look sparsely populated. “Maybe it’s like water,” the actress Frances Fisher, Williamson’s friend and a devotee, hopefully tells me a week later, during a Williamson campaign stop in Iowa. “Maybe if there are enough drops of water that you can drip onto a hardened heart, it will soften.”
Sure. Maybe. But for one night, at least, it’s a beautiful place to be. Hooray for getting over ourselves.
Williamson was born in Houston in 1952 to a stay-at-home mother and an immigration lawyer. Like his daughter, Sam Williamson did not suffer others’ self-pity. During her campaign announcement, Williamson recalls a low moment in her 20s, during which her mother came to her bedroom to comfort her, followed by her father. “At first I saw deep compassion on his face,” Williamson says, lulling the crowd with the memory of parental love. “Then I saw his face change. And this is what he said.” Williamson’s voice calcifies as she recites: “ ‘Get out of bed. Take a shower. Get dressed, and get out there. You will not be felled by this.’ ” (Williamson’s 28-year-old daughter India, whom Williamson raised on her own and affectionately calls her “best friend,” similarly describes her mother’s parenting style during a phone interview: “ ‘Pick yourself up and keep moving forward’ are things she’s always instilled in me,” the younger Williamson says.)
In 1965, when Williamson was 13, her father took his young family to what is now Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. His purpose, Williamson tells the L.A. crowd, was to make sure “the military-industrial complex would not ‘eat my kids’ brains.’ ” During an interview in Iowa a few days later, she describes the experience with reverence: “I had a visceral experience of fear pervading the air. Saigon had not fallen, but it was intense enough that my father’s goal was met: I had a sense, as a child, what war is.”
Williamson briefly attended Pomona College in Los Angeles, where she continued her antiwar activism. “I spent years as an angry left-winger before I realized that an angry generation can’t bring peace,” she writes in her first book, 1992’s “A Return to Love.” Today, however, Williamson is clearly proud of that time. At a campaign stop the week after her announcement, she recounts to a small group the story of how a young man once approached her after one of her lectures. “Miss Williamson, you’re just an aging hippie,” he said. “What did you guys do? Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.” Williamson replied: “That was just part of the day. The rest of the day, we stopped a war.”
Williamson dropped out of college after sophomore year, and in 1973 she moved to New York, where she worked as a cabaret singer. (“ ‘Work’ is relative,” she clarifies over email. “I sang, the same way Bill Clinton played the saxophone.”) Two years later, she noticed the just-published “A Course in Miracles” on a coffee table at a party. A combined volume of three “self-study” guidebooks promising inner peace via forgiveness, “A Course in Miracles” was eventually translated into 22 languages and led to the proliferation of study groups around the globe. The book lists no author; it was “scribed” by Helen Schucman, a Columbia University psychologist who has said the words came to her through an inner voice she identified as Jesus Christ.
I know. It’s a lot. But the book transformed Williamson’s life, shifting her focus, she told me in Los Angeles, to trying to be a “good person” and “talking about things that really matter.” It also served as the inspiration for Williamson’s lectures at the Houston-area metaphysical bookstore she ran after leaving New York and, eventually, for her 12 books. When “A Return to Love” (subtitle: “Reflections on the Principles of ‘A Course in Miracles’ ”) was published, Winfrey invited Williamson to her show, and a New Age guru was born. (“Please don’t call me a New Age guru,” Williamson tells me in L.A. “What does that even mean?”)
For the next few decades, Williamson raised her daughter; launched an HIV/AIDS organization in 1989 called Project Angel Food, which delivers meals to those too sick to feed themselves, and Centers for Living, which offers nonmedical care to people living with the virus; wrote about how “A Course in Miracles” can help with everything from weight loss (2010’s “A Course in Weight Loss: Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever”) to your bank account (2012’s “The Law of Divine Compensation: On Work, Money, and Miracles”); built enough of a following to sustain a monthly lecture gig at the theater where she would eventually announce her presidential run; and, in 2014, mounted an independent congressional campaign in California’s 33rd District, where she came in fourth in the primary for the seat that eventually went to Democrat Ted Lieu. Then Donald Trump became president.
Williamson and Trump have quite a bit in common. Both are wealthy non-politicians who sought (or seek) the presidency without previously holding public office. Both are charismatic speakers who avoid teleprompters. For all the bankruptcy protections Trump has received, and Williamson’s talk of inherent goodness, both have a borderline meritocratic sense of behavior and appearance: They’ve each expressed that weight and the use of intoxicants are matters of personal control. Like Trump, Williamson chafes at a traditional campaign strategy and relies on her daughter, whom she brought on as an “executive team member,” Williamson says. India took on the role in addition to pursuing a PhD in religious history at the University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, England, and alongside her work overseeing her mother’s personal brand. The rest of the campaign staff consists of contractors, volunteers and 10 paid, full-time employees, including a lawyer, two social media managers, Iowa director Brent Roske and national campaign manager Maurice Daniel, who worked with Donna Brazile on Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign and whom Williamson hired the day of her announcement.
Williamson’s second book, “Healing the Soul of America,” is a treatise on how America got this bad (genocide, slavery, war) and how to fix it (mindfulness, love, atonement). She updated and republished the book last summer, spurred by the state of the country (and on the advice of Winfrey, Williamson writes in the acknowledgments). The 20th anniversary edition now reads as a 256-page stump speech for Williamson’s candidacy. “When this book was first published in 1997, I wrote that there was a storm ahead, or an awakening ahead. Alas, that storm is upon us. But even now, in the midst of our national turmoil, there is an awakening as well,” Williamson wrote in one of the book’s new passages. Though she’s obviously been thinking about politics seriously enough to have written a still-relevant forecast of our current storm more than 20 years ago, India says the conversation about becoming president began in earnest after the 45th man to lead the United States was voted into office.
“The American people wanted a change in 2016,” Williamson told me in Los Angeles. “For decades, there have been millions of people in this country living with chronic economic despair. What will I do if I get sick? How am I going to send my kids to college? The fact that the political establishment on both left and right was gobsmacked by Donald Trump demonstrates its complete lack of psychological perspicacity. There was going to be a populist cry of that despair: It was either going to be an authoritarian populist or it was going to be a progressive populist. Now, the person we got is clearly a con artist and someone who lacks basic respect for democratic norms. But that doesn’t mean that the desire for change was itself illegitimate.”
Then Williamson says she’s not actually trying to beat Trump. This is baffling news, given the fact that in order to become president, she has to, you know, beat Trump. “It’s just anger [to say], ‘We’re going to defeat Donald Trump,’ ” she tells me. “It is so naive to think that’s going to solve a problem. If all we do is defeat Donald Trump, they’ve got so many lined up behind him.” In fact, Williamson clarifies a week later in Iowa, if Trump were impeached, she’d still run. Trump, she says, is “simply a symptom” of a condition the other candidates aren’t qualified to heal.
Still, like many vying for the Democratic nomination, Williamson espouses a suite of progressive policies: a Green New Deal, universal health care, gun control, criminal justice reform and an overhaul of the public education system. She also supports a top marginal tax rate where the rich pay “their fair share of taxes,” and tells me over email that “every dollar we put into education, infrastructure and health care helps unleash the spirit of the American people. And that is what feeds our economy.” It will be part of a renovation of what Williamson frequently refers to as a “sociopathic economic system” that relies on “short-term profit maximization” at human cost. And because the economic system is sociopathic, Williamson tells me, “we need somebody who understands how the mind of a sociopath works. That’s been my field.” (When I ask her a week later whether Donald Trump is a sociopath, she lifts her slender chin to moral high ground. “It doesn’t serve me, and it doesn’t serve this conversation, for me to even go there,” she says. “I don’t feel the American people need me to tell them who Donald Trump is.”)
Her treatment for America’s ills, as with all of Williamson’s remedies, includes a course of dogged self-reflection. When she asks us to reckon with our culpability in how things got screwed up in the first place, it could easily feel like scolding or nagging, terms that no candidate wants attached to them and which tend to stick more tightly to women. But at the same time, it all makes so much sense — at least to the people nodding along at Williamson’s campaign stops.
Williamson traces many of our nation’s psychic wounds to slavery, for which she believes we need to make reparations in the form of a $100 billion, 10-year investment disseminated by a panel of black leaders across fields. Reparations aren’t a novel idea, but it seems like an untouchable issue for a presidential candidate in a country where Democratic elected officials have to hold news conferences to clarify when and where they have appeared in blackface. It’s hard to imagine that a nation that isn’t entirely behind affirmative action is going to sign on for a costlier atonement for the subjugation of an entire race and the systematic discrimination that followed. And it’s a complicated concept even among people who feel restitution needs to be made. There are concerns over the term “reparations” itself among Williamson campaign staffers; some feel it implies that once the process has been completed, the damage from slavery will have been “repaired.” Campaign manager Daniels says: “I am afraid that the dissension and disagreement over whatever model we use will overshadow the real purpose of this proposal. But the concern I have doesn’t rise to the level of stopping it from going forward.”
Yet larger than any single concern about Williamson’s policies are what they collectively say about her. Could she — a wealthy spiritual leader who officiated Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth and final wedding and once went on a family vacation to antebellum Saigon — possibly be the tiniest bit … out of touch? When I wonder, sitting at a table in a Los Angeles neighborhood where the average home sells for $1.66 million, how she will enact her plan for reparations without seeming like a well-meaning white lady, Williamson crosses her arms and starts clomping the heel of her left foot like a dressage horse. “I am a well-meaning white lady,” she says, utterly exasperated. “Why should I apologize for being a well-meaning white lady? What is going on in this world today? I shouldn’t apologize for being white any more than you should apologize for being black.” (I am not black, just another well-meaning white lady.) “I’ve been leading ritualized apologies — prayers of apology — from whites to blacks for over 20 years. I wrote a book [“Healing the Soul of America”] on this topic. This is not something that I just came new to. I was talking about this long before it was trending.”
Williamson has inarguably built a huge following through her books and speeches and individual counseling. Over the course of the week I spend tagging along with her, many people tell me that she improved their lives. “If you were sitting in front of me,” Williamson says of the kind of person she has helped and the way she has helped them, “and you said, ‘I need to change my life’ — by the time you say it in front of me, you’ve probably already talked to the lawyer, the doctor, the accountant, the business manager, everybody whose work is on the level of external solutions. There’s still something that’s not being addressed.” But those who wind up on Williamson’s couch and in her slavery atonement sessions actively seek her out. How is Williamson supposed to heal the soul of America if it doesn’t come to her to be healed?
In Des Moines, a few days after Williamson’s announcement and a few hours before her public Iowa debut, I ask what it might look like to take on the president directly. Williamson says she has been called a “lightweight thinker, New Age con artist, a b—- if you really know her.” It’s fascinating to envision a debate where Trump throws those insults at her expecting a parry, and instead Williamson devastates him with a magnanimous reflection of his own soul. What exactly would she do if she made it to that debate stage?
“The president is a master at a false narrative,” Williamson says, leaning against a conference table in the Des Lux Hotel in yet another chic blazer. “And if you come back at him with anything other than the deepest truth, he will eat you alive. But if you do respond from a place of deepest truth, he is completely disempowered. I plan to speak to the conscious[ness] of the American mind. Where he has harnessed fear, I’m seeking to harness love. Where he has harnessed bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia, I’m seeking to harness dignity and decency and compassion. And that does not defeat. It overrides.” The conviction of Williamson’s delivery is so solid it’s almost impossible to imagine Trump’s bluster doing anything but fluttering past her.
Then Williamson says the kind of thing that makes it actually impossible to imagine she could override Trump, or win the primary, or be taken seriously as a mainstream candidate. “Take the image of David and Goliath,” she says, with as much seriousness as she employs when quoting Abraham Lincoln or discussing defense funding. “The reason David was able to defeat is because he hit him in the third eye that symbolizes conscience. Goliath has no conscience. That is the one place where he is vulnerable.”
Equating vulnerability with a lack of conscience? A 12-book oeuvre that includes countless passages like, “We’re hallucinating. And that’s what this world is: a mass hallucination, where fear seems more real than love. Fear is an illusion. Our craziness, paranoia, anxiety and trauma are literally all imagined”? Third eyes?
Williamson’s becoming president is “the longest of long shots,” according to a consultant working on her campaign who asked not to be named. Which raises the question underlining her candidacy: Does Williamson actually think she can win, or is she doing this to sell more books?
Yes, her 13th book, “A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution,” will be published in April. But she appears genuinely offended by the insinuation. “Running for president is neither easy nor without risk on many levels,” she says, raising her eyebrows at me. “I can’t imagine doing this for fun. There’s an inevitable humiliation factor. There’s an inevitable mean-spiritedness. There are inevitable smears. There are inevitable lies.” Her tone becomes mocking as she imagines the base attacks that await her: “What are they going to do, throw tomatoes at me? Embarrass me with embarrassing pictures? Make guesses about my sex life?”
India affirms her mother’s prediction. “In the career she’s in right now, if she does a lecture or an interview and it doesn’t resonate, people aren’t going to try and tear her down,” she says. “She gets to speak her truth; she has a wonderful relationship with the people who come to listen to her. Now she’s exposing herself completely to the negative. It’s a daily torrent, and I assume it will only get [bigger] as the campaign goes on. It’s just a harder gig. As it should be!”
“It’s a very serious undertaking,” Williamson acknowledges, sitting in a conference room in the frigid Midwestern city she’s getting ready to move to when the lease on her Midtown Manhattan apartment is up in mid-March. “And if I win, I am ready to be president. I’m here to try to elevate America. Together this generation can do something extraordinary. I feel that I can help with that.”
As Williamson sees it, if Kamala Harris or Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren is elected, or any of the “1,736 people who are running so far” — a joke Williamson makes approximately 1,736 times during our week together — you’re not treating the cause of our country’s disease. “Our democracy has Stage 4 cancer,” Williamson gravely intones again and again at campaign events, “and the political establishment is deciding which kind of topical ointments would best treat it.”
So why can’t Williamson act as physician in a more modest office than president of the United States? “Any lower office than the presidency is primarily a management function,” Williamson tells me. “There are people better at certain mechanics of politics than I am. The role of the president, at this time in our history, has more of a visionary function. FDR said that the administrative functioning of the president is secondary; the primary role of the president is moral leadership.”
Williamson’s image of the presidency has an above-the-fray, oracle-on-the-mountaintop feel. “People who profoundly achieve aren’t necessarily people who do so much, they’re people around whom things get done,” she writes in “A Return to Love.” “Mahatma Gandhi and JFK were great examples of this. Their great achievements lay in all the energy they stirred in other people, the invisible forces they unleashed around them.” Williamson just happens to unleash these invisible forces in others by gently shaming them into action using easy-to-understand imagery.
One can’t, however, navigate one of the most intractable, unwieldy bureaucracies in the world solely through guilt-inducing metaphors. Williamson is used to being on top of lean organizations — her personal brand, charities Project Angel Food and Centers for Living — that she founded and has tremendous control over. She’s also used to dealing with people who adore her enough to travel to Iowa on a volunteer basis. Much of her staff, from security guards to consultants, work for Williamson for free, out of gratitude for the change in their lives fomented by her work. “Instead of believing every single thing that’s going on in the outer world from my perception,” Frances Fisher told me after a voter Q&A at a Lebanese restaurant in Iowa, “[Marianne helps me] look at things from another perspective, [in] a more benevolent, spiritual way.”
One of these volunteers is Stefan Friedman, an informal adviser to Williamson who has consulted for Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun PAC and Everytown for Gun Safety. He acknowledges what feel like the insurmountable challenges facing Williamson. However, Friedman says, “Her spirituality is actually not a liability. [It’s] a significant opportunity for Marianne to connect with people on a plane that’s different than the political. [And] there is no knowledge gap whatsoever between Marianne and the candidates [who have held elected office].” In office, Friedman says, Williamson would mitigate a lack of government experience the same way the similarly unproven Bloomberg did when he was elected mayor of New York in 2001, by hiring “smart people with experience in government.”
If you believe in Williamson’s campaign, it’s likely because you feel like something fundamental has to change in America. You’re probably, as Iowa resident Jonathan Neiderbach told me at a meet-and-greet in Des Moines, “tired of being embarrassed by the person in the Oval Office.” You might think the unbalance caused by the 2016 election is more plausibly righted by an equal and opposite reaction — an anti-Trump — than a traditional politician. Perhaps you agree with Williamson that the value added by her skills outweighs what she lacks. “We need a moral and spiritual awakening in this country,” she told me in Los Angeles. “And if you need a moral and spiritual awakening, you should look to a moral and spiritual awakener to do the job.”
A few hours after our last interview, Williamson hosts her kickoff event in Iowa, on the fourth floor of the Temple for Performing Arts. There are fewer than 75 people and almost as many empty chairs. Instead of the beauteous Nahko Bear, a local married couple sings two songs. There are no seats reserved for Nicole Richie. Williamson’s Iowa campaign manager, Brent Roske, nervously attributes the low turnout to the polar vortex; it’s 3 degrees outside. It seems just as plausible that perhaps Iowans aren’t dying to show up on a Thursday night to hear that they’re not doing enough to combat the moral rot of America.
After Williamson’s speech, which receives an expectedly less raucous response than the Beverly Hills announcement, she turns to the audience for questions. One man asks about climate change. (Williamson is appalled that we are the only species that systematically destroys its habitat!) Someone asks about a federal minimum wage. (Williamson loves Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and it should be $15!) A college student asks about free tuition. (Williamson is for it!)
Then a young woman stands up. She’s a veteran, she says, and her brothers and sisters are still serving. She’s interested to hear how Williamson’s plan will affect the military. Williamson deploys her usual talking points. (“James Mattis said, ‘If you’re not going to fund the State Department, I’m gonna have to buy more ammunition’ ”; she lauds the sobriety with which Winston Churchill entered World War II.) Then Williamson takes a turn. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, the troops. Bring them home, bring them home,’ ” she faux-whines in the same voice she used to mock my fears in Los Angeles. “I appreciate that the choice is between something bad and something bad. But has anybody in this room given more than five minutes of thought,” Williamson says, her purr dropping to a growl, “of what it will mean to the women of Afghanistan if the Taliban take over?”
Accusing an actual veteran of not considering the impact of war? Implying it’s selfish for a former soldier to want her siblings to come back home from a war zone? Williamson’s moral table-turning has gone too far. I imagine the rest of her campaign crumbling: Empty rooms in states where she doesn’t belong. Preaching to a choir who worships another faith. The shared smirks of the other candidates when Williamson quotes the Dalai Lama. Some other nominee in a blazer rising to Donald Trump’s goads at the debate.
Then I look at the veteran. She’s nodding at Williamson. She’s beaming. Williamson smiles back serenely, as if welcoming the newest member of her flock. Then she turns to find the next one.
Anna Peele is a writer in New York. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Marianne Williamson. She said that Goliath has no “conscience,” not “conscious[ness].”