IOWA CITY, Iowa — “It seems like I read a lot of articles that say, ‘Well, is Tulsi pro-Assad?’ and I’m like, ‘No, of course not,’” a man told Rep. Tulsi Gabbard at an event in Des Moines.
“There were some rumors going around that she was an agent for the Russians, that’s just absolutely ridiculous,” said John Runkle, before Gabbard spoke in Fairfield.
“Do you have Islamophobia?” a woman asked in Iowa City, citing an article she had read on the internet. She was pretty sure she knew the answer, she said, but she wanted to hear Gabbard say it.
On her first trip to Iowa, the Hawaii lawmaker did all the normal things before friendly crowds — answered questions, shook hands, posed for photos — but the first month of Gabbard’s campaign has hardly been normal, a fact that repeatedly intruded on this, her first normal presidential candidate activity. Gabbard begins her stump speech talking about her “spirit of Aloha” and her promise to “lead with love,” before asserting that the United States is engaged in a “new Cold War” with China and Russia, and on the precipice of nuclear war. Her calm demeanor and “spirit of Aloha” stand in sharp contrast the morass of negativity and conflict that swirl any mention of her on Twitter.
She is a candidate whose campaign is animated by a specific message — ending costly regime change wars but who does not have full control over the narrative of her campaign. The campaign has not been sending press releases to let reporters know when or where her events will be, and the candidate is already willing to fight with the media about what the story of Tulsi Gabbard ought to be.
“There’s a lot of disinformation that is being put out there to the social media sphere or out there into the world by political opponents or people who are opposed to my position of ending regime-change wars,” Gabbard told BuzzFeed News after the event in Iowa City. “You know, I just ask people to look at the facts and look at my positions on these issues.”
When Gabbard announced she would run for president a month ago, she said a formal announcement would come within a week. But an announcement did not in fact come for another three weeks, and the dead air was filled with scrutiny of Gabbard’s record and campaign. There were a number of stories highlighting anti-gay comments she had made in the past, for which she apologized. There was a story — published a week before she announced — about her ties to Hindu Nationalists. There was an interview on Morning Joe in which she declined to refer to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom she has called “a brutal dictator,” as an “enemy” of the United States, despite repeated pressing from the hosts. To Gabbard’s particular displeasure, NBC News reported how Russian media outlets affiliated with the government seem to be promoting her campaign.
On Sunday, Gabbard’s campaign sent out a fundraising email asking people to “Donate $5 or whatever you can to stand up against corporate media’s attempts to shut down our campaign.”
“The corporate media,” the email says, “is doing everything they can to stop our campaign before it gets started – including using fraudulent journalism and discredited sources to launch their biased attacks.”
“When journalism is deployed as a weapon against those who call for peace, it threatens our democracy as it seeks to silence debate and dissent, creates an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, and stokes the rhetoric that could lead to nuclear war,” the email read, subsequently suggesting the media was stoking something like “McCarthyite hysteria.”
Does she feel like the press is out to get her?
“I think there is one very prominent example of that, and there are some other maybe smaller examples of that,” she told BuzzFeed News in Iowa City, when asked. “I think it’s important to stand for the truth and stand for factual reporting and honest journalism, and not allow those that are trying to put out false information to do so without being called out.”
But, she was adamant that she isn’t campaigning against the media. “That’s not what I’m doing. I’m doing exactly what I just said: standing for the truth, making sure that people get the facts.”
The delivery of the facts has involved a series of Instagram lives and videos, a formal announcement video, fundraising emails, the launch in Hawaii, and the series of events in Chicago and Iowa. (In one live video from her rental car after an Iowa event, she sang along to the radio with her sister and her husband, who staffed her for the day. The video closed them swaying and singing along to a cover of Toto’s “Africa” by Angel City Chorale.)
Since her Feb. 2 formal kick off rally in Hawaii, her campaign has not sent any press advisories, besides one that she would have events in Chicago and Iowa. (Details, that release said, would be “forthcoming” They were not.)
Reporters have been left to follow breadcrumbs. On Saturday morning, a tweet from an unverified account that identified itself as “Let Us Build Pakistan (LUBP), a blogzine focused on building a progressive, multicultural, and democratic Pakistan” that said Gabbard would be “at IEC Hussaini in Chicago today.” It linked to a Facebook post of the same text that included a poster, posted by a group called American Muslims for Tulsi Gabbard, advising an event at IEC Husaini, an Islamic education center in a Chicago suburb. A post on Twitter and instagram about the freezing weather in Chicago — complete with a photo of her surfing somewhere much warmer — indicated that she had, in fact, traveled there.
Speaking to a largely Muslim crowd, Gabbard’s standard stump speech was adjusted to emphasize her call to defend against religious bigotry, something Gabbard, the first Hindu member of congress, says she has been the target of. Her social media showed evidence of other events in Chicago after the fact.
Her Iowa events were less mysterious: the Des Moines-based Asian and Latino Coalition had sent a press release for a Sunday evening event the week before. But in the hours before the event was set to start, the Arrivals board at the Des Moines Airport showed a number of flights getting cancelled out of Chicago. Gabbard’s was one of them; the event would not happen.
She went live on Instagram from the backseat of a car about 100 miles into the drive from Chicago to Des Moines, apologizing for not getting to the event, and announcing a snow date: 7:30 the next morning at the Des Moines Hampton Inn. (There was no press advisory, but early Monday morning, Gabbard spoke before about two-dozen people, a quarter of them reporters.)
The afternoon brought more success in Fairfield, home of the Maharishi School of Management, where at about 120 attendees packed the venue at midday, evangelizing the benefit of transcendental meditation in between discussions of political leanings.
The crowd was eclectic. It was, Fairfield resident David Goodman suggested, “probably … the only place in America that knows what her name means.” (“Holy basil, and it’s actually used in Ayurveda, which a lot of people know about it, so they know about Tulsi”). A libertarian consultant who worked for Gary Johnson in 2016 helped tape up signs.
Some, like Dane and Nancy Urban, were scoping out the field — but they were excited about the number of women candidates this cycle, and “anybody who’s willing to come to our small town, we’re willing to come out and see them,” Nancy said. Others, like Ed Noyes, an independent, were drawn to her “courage” to speak out against regime change wars, though not yet enough so to change his affiliation and vote for her in a primary.
“They’re basically doing the same thing to her that they did to Trump and continue to do to Trump,” he said, pointing to the “bullshit” investigation into alleged Russian collusion. The “they,” he said, was “the deep state.”
John Congdon, a friend of Noyes, liked that she was one of only two candidates, (the other being spiritual guru Marianne Williamson), “coming from a place of love.”
Francis Thicke, who wore a shirt with a graphic of Gabbard’s face (she signed it for him after the event), said he’d been following her campaign and likes her and Bernie Sanders, though he said he still "listening to everybody."
That evening in Iowa City, in the backroom of a local brewery, Chris Laursen, an organizer for the United Auto Workers, introduced her to about 80 people on a snowy night as the “most progressive” candidate running and offered his endorsement. Laursen was a delegate for Sanders in 2016, and when Hillary Clinton won the nomination, he declined to endorse her, and instead ran Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s Iowa campaign.
Gabbard, who resigned as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sanders and became a prominent surrogate, fielded her first question about the man she once supported and might now be poised to run against.
“If and when Bernie decides to join the race, are you guys just gonna team up?” someone asked.
“I love Bernie like all of us here, Bernie and I had a great conversation a few months ago, when I had made my decision to run I went and talked to him and let him know, I don’t know what his plans are,” she said. “But what I do know is we are both deeply committed to our cause and our movement, and will remain so. So we’ll find the best way to continue fighting for that cause and fighting for peace.”
The final question of the evening was about how people could help Gabbard. “What tools do we have to implement your agenda?” Gabbard mentioned the obvious — showing up to vote, donating money to the campaign, before turning to social media.
“Obviously with social media there’s great opportunity to do this, where we can reach a lot of people in a short period of time,” she said. "But there’s also a lot of misinformation being spread.”