Audrey D. Thompson
Marianne Williamson believes that all she needs is love to beat Donald Trump in 2020. In her closing statement during the first Democratic primary debate on June 27, she spoke directly to the President: “If you’re 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.” Harnessing fear for political purposes is what rhetoricians call “demagoguery,” and Williamson is right to recognize it as a real threat. The question is whether she is right to think that love can beat it.
If her post-debate press is any indication of what voters think, then headlines like “Williamson’s Weirdest Debate Moments” and “Williamson’s Oddball Debate Answers” suggest that most think the self-help megastar is way out of her league. To be taken seriously, she’ll need to prove that her appeals to love can match the formidability of Trump’s rhetoric; and, in a war of words, the deck is already stacked “bigly” in his favor. Who can forget his calling for a ban on all Muslims coming into the U.S., identifying immigrants coming across the Southern border as rapists and murderers, referencing Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries, equivocating in his response to the terrorist attack in Charlottesville, characterizing NFL players as “sons of bitches” for their peaceful protest against police violence, co-opting the term “fake news” to delegitimize any negative press, and disparaging journalists and the judiciary? This is the man who said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City and shoot somebody and not lose any voters, the same one who bragged about grabbing women by the p*ssy without facing any consequences, even after more than twenty women have accused him of sexual assault. It is no surprise that Williamson’s talk of love leaves many scratching their heads in disbelief, wondering: What is she thinking?!
An article published in The New York Times claims that the key to understanding Williamson’s presidential bid is the story behind the unusual book, A Course in Miracles, “a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.” Running for president is said to be the latest venture in her quest to spread the text’s message that “conflicts dissolve when one realizes the power of love,” and that such a change in perspective “produces miracles.” The Times piece certainly gives us the New Age source of her political rhetoric, but Williamson’s campaign strategy can only make sense by considering another story, one that traces back to Williamson’s Jewish ancestry—the age-old story of David and Goliath.
The story is a well-known metaphor for improbable victories of the weak over the strong. Though typically used after-the-fact to explain an unexpected turn of events, it may be more useful as a prototype of Williamson’s playbook. She is certainly the underdog in this race, much like David was in his campaign to represent the Israelite warriors; and her idea to harness love seems as ill-matched for the fight as his sling. Undoubtedly, she sounds more like a biblical character than a potential frontrunner when she admits: “I have had a career, not making the political plans, but I have had a career harnessing the inspiration and the motivation and the excitement of people.” And, from her perspective, Trump is clearly this rhetorical giant: “If you think we’re gonna beat Donald Trump by just having all of these plans, you’ve got another thing coming ... because he didn’t win by saying he had a plan; he won by simply saying ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Interestingly, the similar way these two underdogs size-up their opponent(s) is insightful. Both Williamson and her literary counterpart see something in giants that their more experienced contenders seem to miss. Goliath was an infantry soldier whose gigantism made him invincible when fighting on foot. However, Malcolm Gladwell’s reading of the story reveals that Goliath’s height was also a sign of acromegaly, which made him nearsighted and limited his mobility. David, on the other hand, was an experienced “slinger” who could propel high-density rocks with the stopping power of a .45 handgun, from up to 200 yards away. Choosing to fight with his sling—though a seemingly odd choice for warfare—was the only way to beat the giant. So, when Williamson says Trump will not be defeated by simply having a plan and that his bark is as important as his bite, she may be zeroing in on a crucial aspect of this situation, one that “politics-as-usual” is ill-equipped to handle.
Williamson reiterates this point: “[Trump] is going to be beaten by someone who has an idea about what this man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.” If she is right, then he’s following the same rhetorical blueprint used at the Nuremberg Rally and during the Second Red Scare here in this country. Patricia Roberts-Miller analyzes these previous turns toward demagogic rhetoric in her 2005 article, “Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric,” describing the circumstances under which an assumed in-group can be motivated by polarizing propaganda to hate and scapegoat spotlighted out-groups. Quoting Ian Kershaw, Roberts-Miller notes that demagoguery culminates a “potpourri of ideas” developing in the psyche of the in-group—“an amalgam of prejudices, phobias, and utopian social expectations rather than a coherent set of intellectual propositions.” It is most effective at making complicated problems seem solvable by simply eliminating an out-group, provoking the in-group with imaginations of the “Edenic stability” enjoyed before their identities were threatened by the out-group. With Goliath-like formidability, demagoguery engenders an ideology by talk of nationalism, stereotyping out-groups, attacking the press, criminalizing dissent, decriminalizing vigilantism—all the while cloaking itself in rhetoric that is impervious to evidence and reasoning capable of rebutting its claims.
So I see why Williamson insists that you can’t beat a demagogic giant with a well-reasoned plan, especially one outfitted with all this modern rhetorical weaponry—fake news, Facebook wars, Twitter rants. How love can win, though, is still inconceivable ... unless perhaps you consider Malcolm Gladwell’s interpretation of David and Goliath.
Image: “You have harnessed fear for political purposes, and only love can cast that out.” — Marianne Williamson to President Donald Trump during the first Democratic Debate on June 27. (Photo courtesy of Saul Loeb)
|Author, Audrey D. Thompson, graduated with a PhD in homiletics from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University Erie—The Behrend College, where she teaches courses in rhetoric and composition, African American studies, and women's studies.|
“Democratic Presidential Debate – June 27 (Full) NBC News.” Youtube.com. NBC News. June 27, 2019.
Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Little, Brown and Company, 2014.
____. “The unheard story of David and Goliath.” TEDSalon NY2013.
Kestenbaum, Sam. “The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid.” The New York Times. 05 July 2019.
Roberts-Miller, Patricia. “Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.3 (2005) 459-476.