The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.
Since her election to Congress in 2012, Hawaiian Representative Tulsi Gabbard seemingly lives for contention. She has feuded with fellow Democrats over foreign policy issues, where she maintains a staunchly isolationist and non-interventionist view. In a controversial move, she resigned from her position as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2015 to endorse Senator Bernie Sanders’ bid for President of the United States. During her own presidential campaign, she has protested unequal financial support through PACs and corporate donors and has threatened to boycott several debates.
Gabbard is in the news once more, this time in a feud with former Democratic Presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. On October 18, Gabbard took to Twitter to post a series of aggressive tweets accusing former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of engaging in “a concerted campaign to destroy [Gabbard’s] reputation.” Where did this come from?
After the 2016 presidential election, congressional investigative committees and FBI investigators looked into allegations of Russian interference with political data, disinformation and voter fraud. While none of the investigations found definitive proof that any U.S. politician’s campaign had direct awareness of Russian involvement, they did find several cases of interference that significantly impacted the 2016 election outcome. These actions included pro-Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders’s messaging, articles sharing completely fabricated information, troll farms and the use of bots throughout social media.
Recently, however, there have been a couple of reports linking suspicious Russian internet activity to Gabbard’s 2020 presidential campaign. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan advocacy group formed in 2017 to combat foreign interference in U.S. elections, released a report noting that Russian propaganda stations mentioned Gabbard surprisingly frequently for a politician polling in the single digits. There have also been reports of questionable activity surrounding her campaign, such as pro-Gabbard hashtags #KamalaHarrisDestroyed and #IAmTulsi being significantly amplified by bot activity. No one — at this point in time — alleges that the Gabbard campaign is working in connection with Russian officials to skew the 2020 election. However, the reports of suspicious activity have definitively established a link between activity on Russian social media and Gabbard’s name. Critics have pointed out that her name remains high-profile despite polling at under two percent.
And Clinton had something to say about it.
On October 17, Hillary Clinton appeared on the political podcast “Campaign HQ with David Plouffe” to discuss impeachment proceedings and the Democratic presidential candidates. When Plouffe brought up the possibility of Russian interference in the 2020 election, Clinton said, “I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians… they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far…”
We were hardly given 24 hours to digest this before Gabbard took to Twitter, and over a series of tweets, responded, “Great! Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain. From the day I announced my candidacy, there has been a concerted campaign to destroy my reputation. We wondered who was behind it and why. Now we know — it was always you, through your proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose. It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.”
In Gabbard’s defense, Clinton was out of line. Someone of her renown should never make such serious accusations against a presidential candidate, especially a sitting Congresswoman. She did not present any evidence during the podcast (though evidence does exist), but presented these allegations, that Russians were “grooming” Gabbard to be a third-party candidate, as fact. Gabbard had already ruled out a third-party candidacy in late August, and, as CNN’s Erin Burnett noted, Russians backing a certain campaign “is very different than calling that person a ‘Russian asset.’”
In Clinton’s defense, however, she was not necessarily wrong. Gabbard’s campaign, her far-right support, and Russian propaganda connections have raised eyebrows throughout this election cycle and, as stated above, there is empirical proof that some Russian sites seem very excited with the prospect of an official Gabbard bid for president. Furthermore, she did not name a candidate. It was only clear to be Gabbard because of her campaign’s connection to Russian internet activity (which, again, had already been established).
The following Twitter meltdown was, in any case, unnecessary, and completely unprofessional (but, in this day and age, not necessarily unpresidential). Gabbard has consistently polled at under two percent, a good 28 to 15 points below the top three candidates. The audacity of a such a low-popularity presidential candidate to directly challenge such a prestigious, established member of the Democratic party is almost breathtaking. The argument could be made that “Clinton started it,” but we are not a group of elementary school students pulling each other’s pigtails on the playground.
Additionally, the language used was very dramatic. Calling Hillary Clinton the “queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of rot” reads like a post on a far-right 4chan board (which, given her support by these channels, is not a great look). Gabbard also referenced the “corporate media and war machine,” which struck me as a bit odd. I am not denying that the Clintons are very powerful, politically and financially, that they have friends in high places, or that they have never engaged in less-than-scrupulous behavior; however, come on. One cannot take to Twitter to accuse a former Secretary of State, former Democratic nominee for president, and high-profile party leader of using the very vague but threatening “war machine” to personally ruin a politician’s reputation. It is not tasteful.
In all of this, whichever side you support, I believe most of the public sentiment regarding this whole charade can be summed up by political commentator Van Jones’ comments on the situation: “Whoever you blame, you can’t be proud of America when we got food fights breaking out in the White House between the top leadership. You can’t be proud when we can’t have a primary without the former nominee jumping on a podcast, throwing out [accusations], and then [you get] a tweet war… If you’ve got real evidence, come forward with it. But if you’re just going to smear people casually on podcasts, you’re playing right into the Russian’s hands.”
We’re better than this.