There are two distinct audiences for the Democratic primary debate on Tuesday: people who will tune in to see a long row of aspiring presidents snipe at one another over policy differences, and those who want to watch the orb queen Marianne Williamson resonate frequencies of love into the universe.
If you’re in the former group, maybe you plan to invite some friends over that evening and break out the Doritos. If you’re one of the latter, might we interest you in the “occult task force” being organized on an orb-festooned Reddit page “to influence the events at the debate so that Marianne gets as much airtime as possible.”
Maximum airtime is critical, because it was arguably Williamson’s closing argument during the first debates last month that won her this unique fan club: about equal parts professed occultists, liberal peaceniks and ironic memeophiles who just want to cover the election in orb emoji.
On that crowded stage in Florida, the 67-year-old self-help guru stared almost unblinking into the camera and dismissed the preceding hour and a half of policy talk thus:
“If you think we’re going to beat Donald Trump by just having all these plans, you’ve got another thing coming,” she said in her best Hepburnian accent, her voice rising as if she were speaking over sustained applause. “Mr. President, if you are 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.”
Williamson harnessed something from the body politic that evening, whether love is the best term for it. Obsession might better describe the online community of devotees that has gravitated around her in the weeks since. Informally known as the “orb gang,” they celebrate the metaphysical utterances of Marianne Williamson with various levels of irony and earnestness — and a passion some of her rival Democrats might envy.
Long before she entered politics, Williamson attained celebrity as an Oprah-proximate New Age spiritualist, churning out best-selling books with titles such as “The Law of Divine Compensation,” “Illuminata” and “A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever.”
It’s hard to do justice to her sprawling philosophy, which touches on God, quantum physics and the quasi-mystical power of thought to affect the nature of reality. Her Twitter feed includes aphorisms such as: “It’s only when we soul-explode beyond the confines of the mortal self, expanding the boundaries of what we think is real, that we begin to glimpse the truth of who we are and why we’re here.”
Virgil Texas, a co-host of the political comedy podcast “Chapo Trap House,” began to talk up her candidacy in April, inviting his listeners to “pierce the veil of reality and observe the realm beyond, full of shimmering orbs.” The orb meme solidified a few weeks later, when Williamson went on the podcast in late June and proclaimed “everything that happens in the world was preceded by consciousness,” and then delivered her viral remarks about love, fear and Trump at the debate the next evening.
It’s likely the pioneers of Williamson’s online fan communities came to make fun of her. The Reddit discussion group r/Marianne2020 started out as more or less a running stream of orb emoji and fan art depicting Williamson shooting lasers out of her eyes, or banishing Trump “to Naraka realm until he can learn love and acceptance.”
But as the Reddit group gained thousands of subscribers in the days after the debate, it evolved into something harder to pin down, with some declaring they had become legitimate supporters.
“The common story is I came here ironically; it’s almost a meme in and of itself,” said Simon Thornton, a 22-year-old baker and cosmetology student in Reno, Nev., who joined the subreddit last month and now volunteers for the campaign. “I think that’s how she’s going to build her base: Have these fun, mocky memes. Then they get there and see this makes sense.”
What makes sense to Thornton — a Catholic-raised atheist with no particular spiritual yearnings — are Williamson’s policies, which Thornton went to her website to look up after watching the debate. While her Democratic rivals are desperately trying to stake out memorable policy positions, Williamson has soul-exploded beyond the confines of conventional government. In addition to universal Medicare and an ambitious climate plan, she espouses a Department of Peace and an overhaul of the criminal justice system that would involve releasing prisoners en masse.
“Every single thing I’m reading here, I agree with,” Thornton said. “A lot of people believe she’s, like, super-healing-chakra, and way out there, but a lot of that’s overblown. She’s not the corner tarot reader lady people hear about.”
But the tarot ladies have heard of her. Various mystics, occultists and magicians have begun to frequent the Reddit group.
Victoria Santapau, 31, reads tarot cards for customers in a park near Ashville, N.C., as a weekend gig. She had never seen Williamson speak before the debate, and came to the Reddit group several days later. “I’m 100 percent convinced Marianne is gonna be our next president,” she wrote on the forum. “No other Democratic candidate is utilizing chaos magick principles like she is.”
Chaos magick is a postmodern occult belief system that dates to the 1970s, and bears similarities to the “Course in Miracles” that Williamson preaches, insofar as both treat reality as a fungible thing that can be manipulated with ritualized thoughts.
The person organizing the occult task force — who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak more freely about the task force — said a group of 13 chaos magicians, witches and energy workers were performing synchronized “gestures” to help Williamson get airtime at Tuesday’s debate and the race to follow. “The whole orb gang community is tapping into the power of memes to reflect back on, and multiply, the sort of pulsing undercurrents of our collective unconscious,” the person wrote in an email.
The candidate initially embraced the orb memeing in good humor, going so far as to post a picture of herself as a fantasy anime character this month. But she has more recently been arguing with people on Twitter who find some of her performances “cultlike” — notably an event in Houston last year where Williamson had white audience members lay hands on black people and recite an apology for slavery and racism.
“I am very, very concerned about the word occultist,” Williamson’s communication director Patricia Ewing wrote when asked about the evolving fanbase. She said she had been unaware that witches and chaos magicians now mingled with the ironic orb memers.
But magical thinking is not wholly alien to American politics. In “Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump,” the Blondie-bassist-turned-author Gary Lachman chronicles how a handful of Internet jokesters coalesced in 2015 to make ironic memes about Donald Trump somehow winning the presidency.
As with Williamson, the memes themselves fueled viral fascination in Trump. By the time he claimed the Republican nomination, the jokesters had evolved into a hyper-loyal online fanbase, many of whom claim they helped put him in the White House with “meme magic.”
It’s only fitting Democrat occultists should have their own option. “Let’s have a magically informed candidate on the left side,” Lachman said. “Why not?”
The magic might already be working. While Williamson still polls in the 1 percent range, she sat for interviews this month with Stephen Colbert and actress-activist-podcaster Alyssa Milano, who attended one of her fundraisers and compared her to Galileo. Jeff Bridges and Nicole Richie have donated to her. And those who mock her now do so at their own peril: When comedian Samantha Bee urged Williamson to drop out of the race on Twitter last week, outraged Marianne fans spammed the reply thread with orbs. Ironic, chaotic or otherwise — that’s power.