If you signed up for the Marianne Williamson campaign mailing list earlier this year, you might have gotten an email in early August from an entity called the Williamson Institute; subject: “Summer Sale Now On!” If you opened it, you would have been greeted by a soft-focus portrait of the presidential candidate gazing placidly at the pages of a hardcover tome beside a golden Buddha and an orchid.
“For one week only, indulge in any of our on-demand courses and seminars for 45% off!” the email read. “Whether you want to invoke the romantic mysteries, create a career that matters, divinely align your body and soul, or focus on another area of your life in a miraculous way, now is the time to treat yourself. As always, we hope this offering will enrich your life and nourish your soul.” Interested parties were advised to use the code “SummerSale.”
The Williamson Institute, it’s worth noting, did not technically exist yet. (A note on Williamson’s personal website indicated it would be launching “soon.”) The email linked instead to Marianne.com, where for a cool $249 one might enroll in a four-part online course on “aging miraculously” or a five-parter on “miraculous relationships.” The four-part weight-loss seminar, five-parter on making money (or, rather, obeying “the law of divine compensation”), and a three-part “Aphrodite Training” were each comparative steals at $149 a piece.
Williamson’s campaign blamed the email on a “vendor error” and, perhaps because Williamson isn’t a top-tier candidate, the use of a public campaign for private profit barely registered as news.
Or maybe it didn’t register because, at this point, it’s basically accepted that many (if not most) people who run for president are ultimately running one grift or another. Herman Cain used the email list he amassed during a failed bid for the Republican nomination in 2012 to hawk dozens of get-rich-quick schemes and dubious cures, including an erectile dysfunction drug called “TestoMax 200.” Rick Perry parlayed his aborted campaign into a turn on Dancing With the Stars. Mike Huckabee’s failed White House run transformed him into a one-man media empire, complete with a terrestrial radio time slot opposite Rush Limbaugh and a hosting gig on Fox News. (Alas, the long-promised Huckabee Post never materialized.)
Donald Trump — despite having boasted in 2000 he could possibly be “the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it” — lost money on his run for president, but he has since turned his presidency into a four-year-long paid advertisement for his hotel chain. (He also, apparently, had a contingency plan: By election night 2016, when most everyone was predicting him losing, the candidate and his family had compiled a list of ideas to capitalize on his newfound cachet, including a budget line of Trump hotels and a TV network to rival Fox News.)
But ask Marianne Williamson if her campaign has a profit motive, and a beatific expression will shimmer across her face. “It’s quite the opposite,” Williamson tells me, sitting at a sun-drenched rooftop bar a few blocks from Manhattan’s Bryant Park in early fall. “I’m not doing the things right now that you do in my career to make a living — speaking fees, etc. I’m not off giving seminars. A senator running for president is still getting a Senate salary, right? This is the opposite of a lucrative thing to do.”
Williamson continues, plugging her most recently released book by name, “If you look at my Politics of Love that came out, it is not a bestseller. It is way down on Amazon.” (It was, at press time, ranked Number 25 in “Religious Studies: Church & State,” Number 74 in “Spiritual Healing,” and Number 79 in “History of Religion & Politics.”) She fixes me with a bemused look. “If I want to, I kind of know how to sell a book. It’s called a book tour.”
OK, then, I’ll bite: If not for money, why is Marianne Williamson running for president?
TO UNDERSTAND WILLIAMSON’S MOTIVATION, it helps to think of that inspirational quote, often attributed to Nelson Mandela: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. Marianne Williamson believes that. It was Williamson, in fact, and not Nelson Mandela, who wrote those words. The mistake is common enough that the Mandela Foundation has taken pains to correct it, and it’s a useful example of how hard it’s always been for Williamson to get credit she deserves.
The quote is from Williamson’s first book, A Return to Love, published in 1992. The rest of the passage goes: It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
Marianne Deborah Williamson arrived on this planet on July 8th, 1952, 3:53 a.m. in Houston Heights, Texas, the child of Sam, an immigration lawyer, and Sophie Ann, a homemaker.
In the first speech of her campaign, she told a story of what certainly sounds like a fascinating childhood. “I came home and told my family, told my parents that … my social studies teacher said that we have to fight in Vietnam, because if we don’t fight in Vietnam, we will be fighting on the shores of Hawaii,” she said. “My father stood up, he said, ‘Sweetheart,’ to my mother, ‘Get the Visas. We’re going to Vietnam,’ because, in his words, ‘the military-industrial complex will not eat my kids’ brains.’ And so he took us to Saigon to show us what war was.”
After a youth spent in a family of what she described as “world travelers,” Marianne attended Pomona College in southern California before dropping out to work as an editorial assistant to rock critic Albert Goldman in New York. There, she stumbled onto the text A Course in Miracles, which she credits with sparking her own life-changing revelation: “We can take our own lives seriously, regardless of whether or not anyone else does.” After reading it, she began taking her own life seriously: lecturing at the Philosophical Research Society on L.A.’s Los Feliz Boulevard and launching a charity, Project Angel Food, that delivered “hot meals and kindness” to homebound AIDS patients.
She also started writing a book, A Return to Love, a hit when it came out in 1992. It got a big boost from Oprah, who, four years before she would start her book club, brought 1,000 copies to hand out to her studio audience. “I have never been as moved by a book as I have by Marianne Williamson’s book,” Oprah told viewers at the time. The endorsement and subsequent appearances on the show gave Williamson cachet; even years later, she’s often described as the mogul’s “spiritual adviser,” but the talk show host is just the highest profile of many celebrity friends Williamson has collected over the years. When a teenage Laura Dern got emancipated from her parents to pursue acting, she moved in with Williamson. When Elizabeth Taylor was ready to tie the knot for the eighth and final time at Neverland Ranch, she tapped Williamson to officiate.
It was around this same period in her life that Williamson began to develop a reputation as an egomaniac. News stories chronicled the spiritual leader’s “offstage displays of temper, unchecked ego [and] … cruelly abrasive management style.” She’d eventually be pushed out of Project Angel Food amid such allegations. It was in the middle of a dispute at the time, around whether or not to open an event with a prayer, that one of her associates called Williamson a bitch. “Maybe,” she recalls replying, but if she were, she was a “bitch for God.”
That personal reputation, though, did little to slow her professional success. She went on to publish 14 more books — including 1997’s Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens, when she first began talking seriously about reparations for the descendants of enslaved people — and made a name for herself, and a healthy income, from the speakers circuit. (Her speaking fee, typically around $15,000, can climb as high as $43,125.) Financial disclosures show that last year she made $670,000 in income from speaking fees and somewhere between $329,000 and $1.37 million in royalties from books and workshops.
All of this is to say that by the time Williamson looked in the mirror after the 2016 election and asked herself, “Who am I not to be president?,” she’d long since established her brand in the $10 billion a year self-improvement industry. At the start of the 2020 cycle, she had 2.6 million Twitter followers — more than most candidates in the field, front-runner Elizabeth Warren included. Most of Williamson’s followers haven’t followed any other Democratic candidate.
PUT YOURSELF IN WILLIAMSON’S MINDSET, then, as she watched Donald Trump build a movement on the back of a multiyear series of rallies and eventually defeat a deeply experienced rival while making outlandish (and often nonsensical) promises to a segment of the electorate who felt their views weren’t being heard. Williamson built a successful career without leaving behind a Trump-like trail of bankruptcies, lawsuits, and unpaid contracts. And after decades in the motivational speaking game, was it so outlandish for her to take a look at Trump’s rambling, stream-of-conscious grievance fests and think she’d do it a lot better?
“Thirty five years of experience gives you something. That’s the point I’m making: I have a skill set too,” Williamson says. “I have qualifications too.”
That conviction is complemented by another core tenet of Williamson’s outlook: the belief in miracles. A miracle, she explains, “is just a shift in your own thinking, from fear to love. I remember finding myself changing inside when I would consider that I could forgive a person rather than judge them, or I could just inhabit a space within myself of thinking there are more possibilities here than limitations.… I remember realizing that I would have a completely different life if I changed the way I looked at things.”
And so in January, armed with a big bank account, faith in herself, and her belief in miracles, Williamson — standing in front of a massive American flag on a dimly lit stage in Los Angeles — kicked off a campaign, beginning the speech with the story of a family trip to Saigon and telling the audience “I’m ready for this, ladies and gentlemen. Please join with me. Let’s lay this down.”
She had enough success in the polls and among donors to qualify for the first primary debate in June, and it was there that the candidate made the case for why she should win the nomination.
“Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just [by] somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what this man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes,” she said. “So, Mr. 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. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field. And, sir, love will win.”
Most people laughed, but enough were intrigued that Williamson made it to the second debate too, where — in what may end up being the high-water mark of her campaign — she turned a somewhat mocking question about what makes her “qualified” to determine how much is owed to the descendants of slaves into a powerful argument in favor of reparations.
She wasn’t calling for “financial assistance” she corrected CNN moderator Don Lemon, so much as she was calling for “payment of a debt that it is owed.” All of the most serious problems America is facing today — wealth inequality, racial injustice, mass incarceration — stem, Williamson says, from the fact that the United States has never collectively reckoned with 250 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation, or made good on its promise of 40 acres and a mule.
As for her qualifications? “The field that I’ve written about and spoken about for 35 years is the field of spiritual transformation,” Williamson tells me. “The same psychological and emotional and spiritual principles that prevail in the dynamics of one person’s journey prevail within the journey of a nation. And a theme of personal transformation has to do with the realization that you can’t have the future you want if you don’t clean up the past. You have to atone for your mistakes — atonement is a kind of cosmic reset button.”
Paying reparations to the descendants of slaves remains outside the Democratic mainstream, but so was Medicare for All five years ago. More than 10 million people watched Marianne Williamson make that argument at the second Democratic debate. It’s impossible to know how many of those viewers’ perspectives she shifted on the issue of reparations or racial justice more broadly, but changing even one person’s mind? Williamson would call that a miracle.
LOVE HAS NOT, IT APPEARS, WON Williamson the Democratic primary, though it did help her attract a small, devoted following. When I met with Williamson in September, she’d just found out that she didn’t make the third Democratic debate. At least she’s got a good sense of humor about it. “They’re going to miss me,” she says. “Hashtag Boring Without Her.” She won’t make the fourth debate either. Or, in all likelihood, the fifth. (It won’t be official until November 13th, but Williamson isn’t close to hitting the polling or fundraising thresholds to qualify.)
The night before we first met, weeks earlier, Samantha Bee had invited her to come on her show, on the condition that Williamson drop out of the presidential race. (“I’ll even let you read my aura!” Bee offered.) Williamson did not seem to have found it funny. The joke gets at one of the chief grievances she has with the way her campaign has been received: as a joke. “They think I’m this woo-woo person,” she moaned during our first meeting. “When you’re criticized for who you actually are and what you actually stand for, that’s one thing. But when people are criticizing you based on the image they have of you, which, if you were that person, you wouldn’t like you either — that’s hard.”
Williamson has blamed her failure to catch on with a broader cross section of the Democratic electorate on the DNC’s draconian debate rules, which she believes cut her out of the conversation just as people were starting to pay attention. But it’s hard to imagine a plurality of Democrats looking at the past three years and deciding that a charismatic political novice is what the country needs right now. (It probably doesn’t help her case either that, in stump speeches, Williamson casually endorses the policies spearheaded by her rivals — Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, and Andrew Yang’s proposal for Universal Basic Income — making her own candidacy almost redundant.)
Yet, at other points, it does feel like Williamson is getting something of a raw deal. A week after we met, as Hurricane Dorian was crawling across the Atlantic Ocean toward Florida, Williamson wanted to help. She tweeted, in an attempt to marshal her then-2.76 million followers, “Millions of us seeing Dorian turn away from land is not a wacky idea; it is a creative use of the power of the mind. Two minutes of prayer, visualization, meditation for those in the way of the storm.”
She was mercilessly ridiculed for the sentiment — so badly that Williamson ultimately ended up deleting the tweet.
Although it wasn’t the official end of Williamson’s campaign, it might have been the functional end: the last time she made national news. There was relatively little notice, by contrast, when Henry McMaster, the governor of South Carolina, opened a press conference about the state’s emergency preparations for Hurricane Dorian with a prayer from an Army Corps of Engineers chaplain, who said, “God, we know that you’re able to turn a storm. You’re able to say to that storm: Peace, be still. We give you glory now, and in your name we pray. Amen.” You could say that man was asking God for a miracle, but no one made fun of him for it.
Unlike Jay Inslee and Kirsten Gillibrand and Eric Swalwell and John Hickenlooper and Bill de Blasio and Tim Ryan, she’s not dropping out. That may be because, unlike those people, she doesn’t have a conventional day job to return to.
Or it might be because, despite the rapidly shrinking odds, the money keeps rolling in. (A few hours after our interview, she was downtown at a Soho jazz club for a fundraiser hosted by Jane’s Addiction frontman Dave Navarro, tickets for which started at $250 and went all the way to $2,800.) Williamson announced her best fundraising quarter ever in October. She brought in $3 million dollars, double the figures she banked in the first and second fundraising periods this year.
WILLIAMSON KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LOSE a race for public office. Five years ago, she placed fourth in the primary for a Southern California congressional seat. “I failed at that, but I like to think I failed well,” she says. “I certainly tried to.”
It remains to be seen what failing “well” would mean this time around. And while Williamson is steadfast in her insistence that she’s still in the race to win it — on Monday, she officially filed to appear on the primary ballot in New Hampshire — she is also a person who likes to look at a situation and think “there are more possibilities here than limitations.”
An indication of the kinds of possibilities she sees ahead appeared, in the form of a pop-up window on Williamson’s personal website, in late October. The Williamson Institute, quietly launched earlier that month, bills itself as “a place for those who seek a deeper connection with themselves and with the world around them, and who crave a spiritual practice at the heart of their journey.” It is also a place almost exclusively intended for people willing to pay for those connections.
The Williamson Institute offers free guided meditation, but everything else comes at a price: from the 10-part online course “The New You: A Total Life Makeover” ($299) to iPhone cases ($19.26), notebooks ($12.43), and tote bags ($15.26) branded with the mantra “The Universe Is Already On It.” Williamson’s old lectures are available for $9.95 a piece; blog posts and podcasts are behind a paywall only accessible to members willing to pony up $19.99 or $29.99 a month, for student and advanced levels, respectively. (Truly committed Marianne-heads can purchase an annual advanced membership for $305.) Other benefits of membership include a “daily recorded download of Marianne reading the workbook of A Course in Miracles,” “access to our private 24/7 online forum,” and “daily tips and tools.”
Williamson’s campaign denies that it was always her plan to capitalize on the exposure she would get from a presidential campaign with money-making venture like the Williamson Institute. When I reached out to ask, I received this response from her campaign manager, Patricia Ewing:
We’re surprised by the tone of the question. You’ve interviewed Marianne more than once and have witnessed the energy, unique ideas and sincerity that she has poured into her presidential campaign. In recent weeks she brought her proposal for a US Department of Peace to the National Press Club and released a TV ad about the need for reparations for slavery, the first-ever on this issue by a presidential campaign. Today Marianne is in New Hampshire, where she officially filed to be on the NH ballot. This is democracy in action, not a business strategy.
Is the same question being asked of the businessmen in the race? No one seems to question the motives of Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang or other former elected officials when their respective businesses continue to innovate while they are out on the campaign trail.
The difference is that neither Tom Steyer nor Andrew Yang are launching a new business predicated on asking their fans or supporters to pay for the privilege of hearing what they have to say. They are, in fact, spending money — lots of it — to get their message to everyone they can, as that’s pretty much the modern definition of campaigning for president. But, as Williamson told me on that rooftop back in September, ultimately, this whole exercise “isn’t, to me, about running for office. It’s about showing up and rising to the occasion in whatever way a person’s skill set best meets the time and the needs of the time.”