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Tulsi’s Populist ‘Country-First’ Anti-War Crusade

She's hitting all the right notes for many Americans and plans to take her campaign all the way to the convention.

Tulsi Gabbard and supporters at a Presidents Day campaign event in Fairfax, Virginia. (Hunter DeRensis)

Is there a better time for a presidential townhall than on President’s Day? And is there a better place than the Old Town Hall in the heart of Fairfax, Virginia? Built in 1900, this small, neoclassical-styled building, with wood pillars sprouting from floor to ceiling in the middle of its main room, brings to mind the same communal assemblies that the Old Dominion was founded on 400 years ago. 

It was here that Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii spoke Monday to over 200 supporters gathered ahead of the March 3 Democratic primary. 

And gather they did. An hour before she was supposed to speak, a line was already forming down the sidewalk. A man near the front door held a “Tulsi 2020” sign out towards the road. When asked if he was on her staff, he responded that he wasn’t even a volunteer for the event; he had brought the sign from home. The other attendees were similarly clad in Tulsi gear, holding signs, wearing shirts, and sporting “Veterans for Gabbard” hats. These were not undecided voters on a curiosity trip, but the enthusiastic base of a candidate most of the people driving past wouldn’t even recognize. 

A combat veteran and major in the U.S. National Guard, Gabbard has made ending America’s policy of “regime change wars” the core of her campaign platform. “She puts peace over war profiteering,” said Carl Holland, introducing the candidate to unanimous applause. But on this occasion, foreign policy was not the focus of her stump speech.

“What is it that makes people hate politics?” she asked the crowd after her customary “aloha” greeting. She believes it’s the same reasons that she finds it off-putting: “I hate the pay-to-play politics that rules the day in Washington.” She hates the hyper-partisanship, the politicians “who love to talk a lot but refuse to actually listen,” and the leaders who carelessly “send our nation’s sons and daughters off to fight in wars that have nothing to do with our country’s national security.”

Taking advantage of the holiday, she spoke about being inspired by Abraham Lincoln and his 1858 “House Divided” speech. She described a country still divided today, on matters of politics, race, gender, and even “what cable news channel you watch.”

Briefly contrasting what she hates with what she loves, Gabbard said unreservedly, “I love our country. I love the people of this country.” Multiple times she used the phrase “Country First” to describe her policies and her movement. The difference in intentions between her slogan and Donald Trump’s “America First” would be hard to parse.

Gabbard’s example of putting Country First was the First Step Act, a criminal justice bill passed by large bipartisan majorities in December 2018. The law enacted new dignity provisions for prisoners and resulted in the release of 7,000 people. Gabbard described members of her party who “did not want to give Trump a win, who stood in the way of this legislation passing.” To those legislators who “put politics ahead of people, shame on you,” she said. 

For Gabbard, the corruption in the system doesn’t stop with her fellow elected officials or the “high-powered lobbyists…[who] stack the odds against the people.” It includes those in “the corporate media trying to silence our voices because we dare speak the truth” about regime change wars. Like clockwork, when a woman in the audience asked about the OPCW whistleblower who has challenged the United Nations’ conclusions about the alleged Douma chemical attack in Syria, members of the print media darted their heads up and scurried closer to the stage to try to get a potentially scandalous soundbite

Gabbard responded by saying she has sent multiple letters to the OPCW inquiring about the whistleblower situation, but had not yet received satisfactory answers. She promised to keep trying.

The candidate closed her speech by telling the crowd, “You have my personal commitment that as your president, my sole mission every single day will be serving you and only you.” Her strategy for winning the White House would be “not taking people for granted, reaching out, and treating every American with respect.” 

After answering questions about health care, small business, and climate change, Gabbard stepped away from the podium and her fans lined up for pictures and a handshake. Meanwhile, her husband Abraham walked the room, chatting with people and recording the event on his phone.

In the unscientific poll of raised hands, the attendees were one third Democrat, one third Republican, and one third “independent, Libertarian, or Green.” They were overwhelmingly from Northern Virginia or Maryland, with very few from Washington, D.C. Multiple families attended, some of whose kids presented Tulsi with homemade drawings. One family, with their two adolescent children present and husky dog tied up outside, drove all the way from West Virginia. 

When everyone had dispersed, The American Conservative was given an opportunity to ask a question. Gabbard has been explicit in her condemnations of “radical Islam,” and she’s referred to the war on terror as an ideological war as much as a military one. When asked to specify whether she believes the terrorism against the West is the result of religious extremism or if it’s a consequence of foreign military interventions and their subsequent blowback, she appeared to lean more to the former.

“It’s a combination of the radical, Wahhabi-Salafist ideology that serves as the fuel and the recruiting ground for terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, that motivates them in their terror actions.” Gabbard told TAC, “But it’s also when you see how our regime change wars have had a direct impact. Not in going in and defeating terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, but actually serving to only strengthen them.”

A Monmouth poll released the day after her townhall listed Gabbard’s support in Virginia at 1 percent. This is similar to the national polls where she places last among the eight candidates still running for the Democratic nomination. Gabbard has previously announced that she’s declining to run for reelection to the House (after four terms) and that she’s taking her presidential campaign all the way to the Democratic convention in July. Where this will put the 38-year-old come January 2021 is anyone’s guess. But whether in the White House or retired from politics, Tulsi Gabbard plans to continue putting Country First.

Hunter DeRensis is a reporter with The National Interest and a regular contributor to The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis

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