The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Marianne Williamson gets adoring crowds and sells millions of books. Can she make a mark on the presidential field?

Marianne Williamson speaks to voters after a campaign event in Fairfield, Iowa, on April 10, 2019. (Holly Bailey/The Washington Post)

FAIRFIELD, Iowa — Marianne Williamson, perhaps the only presidential candidate who’s been described as a “high priestess of pop religion,” sat barefoot on an antique Chinese opium bed in the home of a former Miss Universe who has relocated to the cornfields of Iowa as a follower of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Candles flickered and a statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh was moved aside so Williamson, 66, immaculate in a long silk jacket, could address about 30 people. “We have a traditional political establishment that treats the symptoms but doesn’t treat the causes, that waters the leaves but doesn’t water the roots,” Williamson told them.

In the sprawling, unconventional Democratic presidential field of 23, Williamson boasts a biography that, by her estimation, makes her a standout contender with unparalleled credentials to guide America through this era of anger, anxiety and political chaos. The author of more than a dozen self-help books, including seven New York Times bestsellers, she is a longtime spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey, and her followers show up by the thousands to her motivational workshops in Los Angeles.

Williamson boasts 2.6 million Twitter followers — more than most of the 2020 contenders — and says the idea of a presidential run came to her in a moment of “total clarity” that a message of love and calm was needed to soothe a troubled nation.

Williamson will appear in at least two Democratic debates this summer to make her pitch to a national audience, after leveraging her fame to amass enough donations to qualify. Still, unlike another unorthodox non-politician candidate, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has drawn big crowds and built a political following, Williamson has thus far failed to gain traction in the campaign, a matter of considerable frustration to her.

“I am a serious woman, and I have had a serious career,” she said in a recent interview. “Why won’t people take me seriously?”

When she decided to run for the White House, Williamson said, she didn’t kid herself that it would be easy. “How will I take the inevitable mockery? How will I take the inevitable embarrassment?” Williamson said, describing her initial thoughts. “I didn’t do this to make a fool of myself.”

She felt it was worth the risk to spread a message that she says should be the Democrats’ answer to President Trump: A country riven by anger and anxiety needs a spiritual awakening led by a serious thinker who knows how to heal emotional hurt. “Where did political experience get us anyway?” Williamson asks voters, a question not dissimilar from that asked by Trump, the real estate marketer and reality TV star, when he launched his unlikely run for the presidency.

But even some of Williamson’s friends appear wary of supporting the presidential bid of a woman who has never held political office or worked in government, and whose career has focused more on inner peace than foreign policy.

That includes Winfrey, a close friend who made Williamson a star when she invited her on her show in 1992. Winfrey was publicly enthusiastic over former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s presidential run, and recently said she was reading the book by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but she has been silent on Williamson’s bid.

Williamson has said she sent Winfrey an email about her presidential run, but she declined to comment further.

Dennis Kucinich, the former Ohio congressman who has considered Williamson a close friend for nearly 40 years, said he is also staying out of the race for now. Though he is fond of Williamson and her message, he’s staying neutral because he also likes another candidate in the race, though he declined to say which one.

Kucinich, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and 2008, said Williamson will have an even harder time breaking through than he did.

“I came at it with four decades of political experience,” Kucinich said. “She’s not only having problems with the media and political establishment, Marianne’s challenging a polarized society, which offers its own degree of difficulty.”

But as Williamson tells it, her decision to run wasn’t really a decision. More like an epiphany.

She was sitting on her bed in her New York City apartment one afternoon in 2017, despairing over the state of the nation’s politics, when she said “a feeling” washed over her. It wasn’t quite as explicit as Moses and the burning bush, but it was a spiritual lightning bolt nonetheless, one that shook her to the core.

By that point, she had already come a long way. A Houston native who studied drama and philosophy in college and once worked as a cabaret singer, Williamson early on became enamored of a book called “A Course in Miracles,” which argues the greatest miracle is a life of love and forgiveness. She moved to Los Angeles, where she began speaking about the book to packed audiences.

Williamson soon wrote a book of her own, “A Return to Love,” which attracted the attention of Winfrey, who said she had never been more personally moved by a book. That and her charisma helped Williamson become a spiritual guru to celebrities such as Cher, spreading her fame even further.

During the AIDS epidemic, she founded Project Angel Food to bring meals to people stricken with the disease. Along the way, many of the ideas that were considered fringe when she first started talking about them, like mindfulness and meditation, have become multibillion-dollar industries.

As she evolved into an increasingly public figure, she became intrigued by the world of politics.

In 2014, Williamson launched a failed bid for a Los Angeles-area congressional seat, attracting support from boldface names such as Kim Kardashian, Deepak Chopra, Katy Perry and Alanis Morissette, who wrote a campaign song for the spiritual guru. When she came in a distant fourth, Williamson said she plunged into depression and thought she would never try for public office again.

But when you are called, you are called. That’s how Williamson on a recent Tuesday evening found herself in the town of Fairfield, in deeply rural Iowa, making her pitch that she is the best Democrat to take on Trump.

“Who the hell are they to say who is a serious candidate?” Williamson said of the political and media establishments, which have largely ignored her candidacy. “Who are they to say ‘you know who’ is a long shot?”

Since the late 1970s, Fairfield, a sleepy farm community, has been an unlikely mecca for practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, attracting those who seek a life of deeper consciousness. Many spend time in one of the two 25,000-square-foot golden meditation domes on the edge of town, where the Maharishis run a management school for practicing yogis.

Fairfield is the kind of enlightened place where Williamson hopes her candidacy might catch fire. And Williamson is serious enough about winning the Iowa caucuses that she recently moved to Des Moines.

But even in Fairfield she hasn’t been able to catch a break. Several other presidential candidates — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who talks often about the role meditation plays in his life — have campaigned here as well.

After being praised by former miss universe Margareta Arvidsson as someone who could bring “consciousness” to the national debate, Williamson wasted no time making her case.

In an era of extreme polarization, she said, the country cannot move forward without addressing on a deeper level why people are so divided. “A better version of the same old, same old isn’t going to save our democracy,” Williamson said. She warned that a “death spiral” for democracy could continue even if a Democrat wins, but that she wasn’t convinced a traditional candidacy could even beat Trump.

Many attendees liked the message. But they were also still abuzz about Sanders’s visit to Fairfield a few days earlier, and even Arvidsson, who said she was anxious to see Williamson’s ideas projected to a larger audience, was not committing to anybody yet.

“Did you see Bernie the other day?” she said. “Wasn’t it great?”

Williamson’s candidacy is a gamble that people are ready to look at politics in a different way. She has won enough of a political following that she recently crossed the threshold of 65,000 donors to qualify for the first Democratic debates, but she has struggled to raise money or make a dent in the polls. Her campaign complains that her name is often not even included in 2020 surveys.

It’s not her first experience of not being taken seriously. Throughout her career, while many embraced Williamson’s message, others have mocked her as a shameless shaman or a kook. And now she is being mostly ignored by the press and her rivals for the Democratic nomination.

Williamson openly worries that her place on the debate stage could be taken away amid an ever-widening field.

“I had thought naively that I would have my 15 minutes, like they gave to Herman Cain or Ben Carson — they’ll give me my 15 minutes, and I’ll do so much with those 15 minutes,” she said, referring to candidates who flared and faded in previous presidential contests. “But they have not given me even that.”

In 2016, Williamson endorsed Sanders for president. She still speaks warmly of Sanders and echoes his complaint that the Democratic Party rigged the 2016 nomination to favor Hillary Clinton.

As she mounts her own presidential run, Williamson is playing off Sanders in another way. Her campaign slogan is “Join the evolution” — which bears more than a passing similarity to Sanders’s “revolution,” though her campaign insists it is not related.

Williamson says she hopes to be “an agent of awakening” in the Democratic field, suggesting a recognition that she might not be the nominee and an awareness of the difficulties facing an unconventional candidate as the Democratic field narrows.

But part of her is still hoping for a miracle, like the ones she has preached about for years.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you — then you win,” she said. “Sounds good to me.”