vision 2020

Tulsi Gabbard Had a Very Strange Childhood

Which may help explain why she’s out of place in today’s Democratic Party. And her long-shot 2020 candidacy.

Photo: Jeff Brown
Photo: Jeff Brown
Photo: Jeff Brown

The Poet

It was 1970-something, and Sina was not yet teaching at the University of Hawaii — a Samoan poet who had not yet become the first Samoan full professor in the States, and who had not yet written

of our oceans

the watery skin

of earth

pulled back to expose

a webbing of coral

rough & prickly

She was back in Samoa at a traditional Sunday feast with her mother, her brother Mike, her American sister-in-law, Carol, and three little boys so strikingly beautiful one would model professionally as a teen. They hadn’t yet sat down to eat, Sina remembers, when Mike announced that his wife and boys would not be able to eat most of what his mother had cooked, as they were now vegetarian. Also, everyone needed to stop calling the children by their birth names. Their new names were Bhakti, Jai, and Naryana. They were now devotees of a man named Chris Butler, whom they called Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa.

When Sina next visited Mike and Carol’s house, there was nothing on the walls but pictures of the immediate family and portraits of Chris Butler, a 30-something, tan, sandy-haired Caucasian, an aging beach boy in leis and white linen. Altars to him had sprung up in every room. The children’s lives were filed with ecstatic chanting, prayer, and beach gatherings exclusive to Butler devotees. Sina, who studied Eastern religions and spirituality and taught from the Bhagavad Gita, tried to be open-minded about the fact that they were, in her words, “bowing and prostrating to this white surfer guy it was bizarre.” It was her Buddhist training to which she appealed in order to remain calm about her nephews attending Butler-focused schools and associating only with children whose parents were in the group, members of what she would come to see as the “alt-right of the Hare Krishna movement.” She said little about it outside the family until 2019, when one of her nieces, the most retiring and introverted of all the siblings, decided to run for president.

The Politician

It is strange but true that I first meet Tulsi Gabbard in a town run by an entirely different group of Caucasians taken by the ritualistic trappings of India. Fairfield, Iowa’s most politically liberal enclave, is centered on a university devoted to the teachings of an Indian guru named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. We’re at the convention center in February, a stone’s throw from a pair of snow-covered golden domes where the town attempts to levitate in the service of world peace. “Aloha!” Tulsi says, ascending to the dais in her signature red blazer. A thick gray stripe runs through her voluminous black hair. “Namaste!” a few people shout back.

“We share a deep love,” Tulsi says to a standing-room-only crowd of 200. She talks about love a lot in a way that might have provoked eye rolls pre-Trump but now just sounds appealingly weird. A Hindu veteran and millennial congresswoman of Samoan descent hailing from Hawaii, she brings together disparate constituencies: most noticeably, Bernie Sanders fans who love that she resigned from the Democratic National Committee to endorse him in 2016, but also libertarians who appreciate her noninterventionism, Indian-Americans taken by her professed Hinduism, veterans attracted to her credibility on issues of war and peace, and racists who interpret various statements she has made to be promising indications of Islamophobia. That she is polling at one percent, sandwiched between Andrew Yang and Amy Klobuchar, suggests that bringing together these constituencies is not nearly enough, but the intensity of emotion she provokes on all sides sets her apart. When FiveThirtyEight asked 60 Democratic Party activists whom they didn’t want to win, Tulsi Gabbard came in first out of 17 candidates, a poll she used to rile up her own intensely motivated supporters, who tend to identify, proudly, as anti-Establishment outsiders. In May, Joe Rogan, whose podcast is listened to millions of times each month by MMA fans, stoner bros, and self-styled freethinkers, chose his candidate. “Tulsi Gabbard’s my girl,” he said. “I’m voting for her. I decided. I like her. I met her in person. Fuck it.”

On the campaign trail, Gabbard talks frequently about the actual, material costs of forever war — trillions of dollars wasted, lives pointlessly lost — which is odd, because this is a campaign for votes and foreign-policy speeches are not what voters want. Though we are 18 years deep in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and currently engaged in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the crowd in Fairfield is waiting for her to finish yammering about war and get to lines about Medicare for All and climate change, which she does, eventually, at which point they stop politely nodding and rise from their chairs to applaud.

Many have called Tulsi cold and lacking in charisma and “not particularly spontaneous.” She is not cold. She can be spontaneous in the right setting, exude charisma if engaged on the right subject. What she is — take it from someone with the same emotional profile — is remote. In interview after interview, she gives the impression of having anti-Establishment convictions just beyond the reach of articulation, as if she had carried instructions into battle and lost them. Her speeches feel not so much overly prepared as capably delivered from a separate location through her. She operates on the slightest delay, taking in information, scanning it, and delivering a slow response that registers only barely on her face.

A young Tulsi, second from left, with her family in Hawaii in 1984. Photo: COURTESY OF THE TULSI GABBARD CAMPAIGN

Tulsi is a self-described introvert, an extremely quiet and obedient child grown into a woman whose job entails constant exhausting engagement. Her sister — Vrindavan to strangers, Davan to the campaign, and Davs to Tulsi — spoke for her back when they were kids, and she continues to do much of the talking for her today. When they were at a store as girls, it was Vrindavan who would interact with the cashier; Tulsi was too nervous. If the phone rang, Tulsi would wait for her sister to answer. If Vrindavan disobeyed their parents, Tulsi would be upset. “Please do your chores or our mother will have to do all of them!” Vrindavan recalls being scolded. “Our poor mother!”

Davan is a federal marshal currently on leave, used to keeping things running, and after the event, she’s behind the wheel of the SUV on the way to Iowa City. She drives carefully — like “an effing grandma,” she says, to which Tulsi, in the back holding hands with her husband, Abraham Williams, says, “Watch your language. PG-rated, please.” In the car is the entire traveling staff, which is to say the candidate, her sister, and her husband, an aspiring cinematographer who, at 30, is eight years her junior and consistently two feet away from her with a camera pointed at her face. Abraham has known Tulsi since childhood, when they both appeared at gatherings presided over by Chris Butler. He proposed five years ago on a surfboard. Also accompanying her to Iowa is a quiet, mustachioed campaign worker named Sunil Khemaney; he gives me his card, which is branded with the campaign’s logo, but where a job title would typically go is empty white space. He runs a business owned by Chris Butler’s wife, and former members of the sect say he is Butler’s right-hand man.

I’m in the front with Davan, and it is she who explains to me how hard it is for Tulsi to compete in the most meaningful popularity contest on earth as someone who doesn’t really like talking to people. “Even when she was running for statehouse,” says Vrindavan, “she had to go door to door, and that’s like … Even if you’re not an introvert? That’s like not fun. You’re bothering people, and what are they gonna say when they open the door or whatever. As a younger sister, it’s a very big inspiration, knowing how much courage and selflessness it took. It’s not about what you want to do. There could not be a better role model or example for someone who may have grown up a little more … self-centered,” she says, laughing.

Tulsi sits quietly behind us. A long moment passes. “The anxiety she is talking about, I wouldn’t say it got easier,” she says. “There was a turning point when I first ran for Congress, where I had a realization that this anxiety was coming from a selfish place and from thinking about, you know, my own fears and how are people going to respond to me — I don’t want to bother people. That felt like it was coming from an inward-looking place, a selfish place, rather than my seeing them as beautiful opportunities to share my aloha. Once I realized that, that changed everything completely.”

The Blob

In the house, to which she was elected in 2012, Tulsi Gabbard does not behave like a representative who wants to remain in Congress; she appears to be building a political platform for another office. Her legislative record amounts to one anodyne bipartisan bill on veterans’ affairs, but she is constantly introducing “messaging bills” — non-committee-specific, hopeless pieces of legislation, often to do with the environment, such as one bill that would eliminate dependence on fossil fuels by 2035, but also one to end the federal marijuana prohibition, one requiring the president to ask Congress before going to war, a Sheldon Adelson–backed one to end internet gambling, and a resolution supporting Trump’s efforts in diplomacy with North Korea. It’s not uncommon to introduce symbolic bills meant to signal something to constituents; it’s just very hard to imagine the anti-gambling, pro-marijuana, pro-Trumpian-diplomacy constituent to which Tulsi appears to be signaling.

When Tulsi announced her intention to run for president in January, the response among journalists and pundits was essentially don’t. “Tulsi Gabbard Is Not Your Friend,” read a headline in the socialist publication Jacobin, a statement followed by a laundry list of unrelated reasons not to like her, despite her being a reliable progressive endorsed by Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, and the AFL-CIO and particularly beloved by Jacobin fave Bernie Sanders. The Nation has denounced her for “nationalism cloaked in anti-interventionism,” and when I mention her name to an expert paid by a prominent think tank to think publicly about foreign affairs, she sends a two-line email asserting that Tulsi is unqualified to lead and refuses to elaborate. When Joe Rogan mentioned the name to the New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, she looked alarmed and laughed.

“Monstrous ideas,” she said.

“Well, when she was 22, she — ”

“No! She’s an Assad toady.”

“What does that mean?” asked Rogan. “What’s a toady?”

“I think I’m using that word correctly,” Weiss said. “I think it’s like, T-O-A-D-I-E?”

“What does that mean?”

“I think it means,” said Weiss, scratching her head under her headphones, “what I think it means.”

“That’s known about her,” said Weiss, when they had settled on a definition of toady. “I don’t remember the details.”

Here are the details: Bashar al-Assad is a depraved dictator best known for his willingness to murder his own people, including many children, with chemical weapons. Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran of the Iraq War, has positioned herself as a noninterventionist liberal, a “peace candidate” who believes in diplomacy with unseemly characters such as Assad. She has taken a similarly conciliatory approach to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu-nationalist strongman, who is complicit in widespread violence against Muslims. She has visited Modi and given him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, accepted a wedding gift from him, and opposed a House resolution “reaffirming the need to protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities” that was a veiled jab at him.

The most obvious obstacle between any noninterventionist candidate and mainstream success is D.C.’s foreign-policy Establishment — the think-tankers and politicians and media personalities and intelligence professionals and defense-company contractors and, very often, intelligence professionals turned defense-company contractors who determine the bounds of acceptable thinking on war and peace. In parts of D.C., this Establishment is called “the Blob,” and to stray beyond its edges is to risk being deemed “unserious,” which as a woman candidate one must be very careful not to be. The Blob may in 2019 acknowledge that past American wars of regime change for which it enthusiastically advocated have been disastrous, but it somehow maintains faith in the tantalizing possibilities presented by new ones. The Blob loves to “stand for” things, especially “leadership” and “democracy.” The Blob loves to assign moral blame, loves signaling virtue while failing to follow up on civilian deaths, and definitely needs you to be clear on “who the enemy is” — a kind of obsessive deontological approach in which naming things is more important than cataloguing the effects of any particular policy.

The cult of war, however, cannot entirely explain the opposition to a candidate who constantly picks low-stakes, politically inopportune fights within her own party. During Barack Obama’s tenure, Tulsi repeatedly criticized him for failing to use the words Islamic extremism and described her concern about a “radical Islamic extremist agenda,” a move that earned her no love among members of her party, which had once considered her its future. She voted, with Republicans, to make it virtually impossible for Syrian refugees to come into the country. She has been strangely absent for votes relating to Russia and NATO and has racked up unwelcome support from Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and David Duke. Her divergence from party orthodoxy on many issues is striking, against her self-interest, and lacking in any apparent narrative line. There is no cohesive ideology that explains the idiosyncratic political positioning, no single point of reference from which it all makes sense, and so the relevant question regarding Tulsi Gabbard is reducible to: What is she doing?

Over a series of months of reporting, I heard any number of hypotheses on this question. There was, for instance, the idea that she is so desperately attention-seeking that she seeks out bad press. There was the idea that she simply holds, with extreme tenacity, a number of unrelated, deeply unpopular beliefs in tension with any ambition she might have to be president, and there was the idea that she seeks favor with Modi in order to gain mainstream-Hindu legitimacy for Chris Butler’s otherwise obscure religious sect. There was the theory that she is a toady of Assad, though often she was said to be under the control of Modi, or Putin, and I began to wonder, when we try to expose her motives, whose subjectivity we are really exploring.

The Guru

When Tulsi talks about her girlhood, it is with a profound vagueness, a visible discomfort. In Iowa, there is awkward silence when I ask about her three brothers (“They’re kind of separate,” her sister eventually says) and silence when I ask about being homeschooled (“The schools in Hawaii weren’t very good,” Davan offers). Tulsi calls herself Hindu, the first Hindu member of Congress, in fact, though the group in which she appears to have grown up does not identify as Hindu. She says she was raised by “an eccentric Catholic father.”

Chris Butler in the 1970s. Photo: Youtube

In 1970, the Honolulu Advertiser published a piece called “One Man Rules Haiku Krishnaites,” with the subhead “Absolute power of devotees.” In the photo beside the piece, Butler is seated shirtless and smoking, hair skimming his shoulders and a sarong around his waist, staring alluringly into the distance, a mischievous smile on his face. It is the expression of less a guru than a playboy, and this is how Advertiser reporter Janice Wolf depicts him, a handsome dictator with the ability to hypnotize the two dozen 18-to-22-year-olds who live with him in his Quonset hut. One of the girls, an 18-year-old who also happened to have the Sanskrit name Tulsi, says he arranged her marriage to another member of the group. She and another girl, who say they would kill for him, describe his teachings. Among them: “Flowers scream when they’re picked. So do trees when they’re trimmed.” (“Tulsi and Boni were sitting on the lawn chewing blades of grass when they said this,” notes Wolf.)

Butler taught vegetarianism, sexual conservatism, mind-body dualism, and disinterest in the material world. He taught a virulent homophobia, skepticism of science, and the dangers of public schools. He had been associated with Hare Krishna, and in fact claimed to have been given his Sanskrit name, Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa, by the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, but by the time he encountered the Gabbards, he’d started his own group. His teachings revolved around worship of Krishna but differed from those of Hare Krishna, in that he instructed his followers to learn from only a single guru — himself — and did not require them to shave their heads or wear robes. The lack of formal dress allowed the group an anonymity he encouraged. He forbade them from visiting India, which is not typical of Hare Krishna, and, also against Hare Krishna practice, married. His wife was one of his followers, Wai Lana, a popular yoga instructor who later had a long-running instructional yoga series on public television. (Abraham, Tulsi’s husband, has helped with filming Wai Lana’s videos; his mother also works for her.) Whenever Butler traveled, he’d have the homes he stayed in lined with tinfoil, to protect against electromagnetic radiation.

The children of those teenagers in the Quonset hut were born into the sect, as Tulsi was. Another, Greg Martin, wasn’t allowed to play with neighborhood children as a boy, so he looked forward to Sundays, when he’d spend all day on the beach in Kailua with all the families who worshipped as his did; when they’d wait for hours in the sun for Butler to arrive, and Tulsi’s father, Mike, would strum his guitar while leading a hundred devotees in hours of joyful chanting. “You just knew Mike was a dick,” says Greg. “He carried himself with dickishness.”

It was the 1980s. Greg says he and Tulsi attended these gatherings together, and years later, when Abraham was born, he’d see him too. (Tulsi says that she did not attend gatherings like these.) Waiting four or five or six hours for Siddhaswarupananda’s entrance built a kind of thrilling pressure, and Greg remembers Sundays as “incredibly theatrical.” Devotees with radios would place themselves at various high points along the beach, operating as a security force. “You’re waiting hours and hours for this dude to show up, and then when he does, people go absolutely wild — it’s all your family and all your friends singing and dancing and chanting, you’re so excited,” says Greg. The guru would then address the crowd. He was good with the pregnant pause. He had the kind of easy confidence you’d expect from Krishna’s representative on Earth. He was also vulgar and vindictive. “He would start excoriating people for fucking up. Sound systems not working, cups of water not being cleaned, people dressed funny, driving poorly. He would publicly mock people. And when he would do that — that’s a form of Krishna’s mercy.” Everyone I spoke to who was raised in the group described, as children, hearing Butler call men “faggots” and women “cunts.” One time in Malibu, Greg recalls, Butler had passed a man on the beach in a thong on his way to the gathering; Butler then described in graphic detail what that man allegedly wanted his “boyfriend” to do to him. “That’s vivid as a kid,” says Greg, whose name is not really Greg; he does not want to be cut off from his family.

Back in the ’70s, Butler went by the name “Sai Young,” a name he possibly picked because he was a gifted baseball player who had hoped to go pro. In their boyhood, according to his estranged brother Kurt, Chris was the handsome, popular one. Their father, a family physician named Willis Butler, took them, their mother, and their siblings to protest Vietnam well before it was socially acceptable to do so. Kurt remembers the whole family standing along a sidewalk on the edge of the University of Hawaii campus, holding signs that read stop the war and stop the bombing. From their cars, people threw garbage at the family. They yelled things: “Losers,” “Love it or leave it,” “Fucking commies.”

Their father was, in fact, a communist. The Butler patriarch loved the Soviet Union, thought North Korea a workers’ paradise. When Kurt brought home a geography book from school that mentioned political repression in the USSR, his father called it “lying propaganda.” When, as an adolescent, Chris pointed out that the Viet Cong had committed atrocities, his father wouldn’t hear it. Chris sought refuge in psychedelics, Kurt wrote in an email to me, then in meditation. He began writing poetry. He began giving meditation classes. “The classes,” says Kurt, “gradually evolved into a full-fledged cult.”

Butler’s group, called Science of Identity, has had political ambitions at least since 1976, when its members formed a political party called Independents for Godly Government and ran a number of candidates in local races. They kept their association with Butler under wraps until, in 1977, the Honolulu Advertiser published a three-part series headlined “The Secret Spiritual Base of a New Political Force.” A party chair, Bill Penaroza, is the father of Tulsi Gabbard’s current chief of staff, Kainoa Penaroza. Kainoa had no political experience prior to being hired by Tulsi at age 30. He was managing one of the group’s health-food stores. Former members of the Science of Identity say that Butler has always craved legitimacy for his group among mainstream Hindus, and that he has come closest to achieving this through Tulsi Gabbard’s relationship to Narendra Modi.

In the videos made available to the public by the Science of Identity Foundation, Butler has cut his hair and donned a collared shirt under a V-neck sweater, and watching him lecture is a bit like imagining Mister Rogers if Mister Rogers were very stoned. In a typical lecture on the ephemeral nature of the body, he says, softly, “You can ask yourself the question, Am I my hand?” and holds out his hand. “And then you can ask yourself that if your hand was sitting on the other side of the room because it got — ya know — cut off by a sword or it fell off on your way to work or something, would you be where the hand is or would you be where you are looking at the hand?” He pauses. Cocks his head. “Actually,” he says, smiling, “try to imagine a person freaking out. It happens! Quite often; people lose their hands or they lose their arms, they lose their legs, or they lose their fingers, they lose an ear, or a tongue, whatever, and here they are — and some people lose their genitals! … You’re not any one part of your body.”

Ian Koviak is a Portland, Oregon–based book designer who has made covers for Sherman Alexie, James Patterson, and many other writers. He was 10 years old and living in Brooklyn, when his single mother found Butler’s group through a friend. They began to attend “gatherings,” in which families would listen to tapes of Butler’s teachings on philosophy and mythology, and also Butler’s curse-laden excoriations of group members who had disappointed him in some way. “Basically, what one disciple did,” Koviak said, “was thwarting us from making spiritual progress.” Butler was a hypochondriac afraid of contamination, and this disciple might have washed his sheets with the wrong detergent, or set up his air filter incorrectly, or failed to cover their mouths with masks in his presence. Ian feared being a target of these lectures. “We regarded him as God’s representative on Earth,” he says, “It was an intense feeling that you’re displeasing someone that’s your only connection to a spiritual path and life.”

A year later, when he was 11, Koviak and his mother moved to Malibu, where Butler was then living, so she could be closer to him. A year after that, Koviak was sent to a boarding school in Baguio City, in the Philippines, run by Butler devotees, including a man named Toby Tamayo, the uncle of Tulsi’s first husband. They began the day at 4:30 with a cold bucket shower, followed by hours of chanting in the dark. They watched a video of “homosexual biker types in Folsom Street Fairs doing each other in the middle of the street. That would pan off to a guy in a wheelchair who has AIDS. Then at the end of the video the guy dies.” There was, Koviak says with equanimity, “light sexual abuse, the kind of thing that happens when you put 30 boys in a bunch of rooms. People groping you at night.” Koviak stayed at this boarding school for four years, from age 12 to 16, during which he saw his mother only once.

The Fall

When Tulsi was 14, her father founded a nonprofit called Stop Promoting Homosexuality America and began hosting a radio show called “Let’s Talk Straight Hawaii.” Her parents owned an organic deli, located inside a larger natural-foods store owned by Butler’s followers. On his show, Gabbard declared he would always hire a straight person rather than someone of nontraditional sexual orientation, at which point the deli was picketed and quickly went out of business. The station pulled the program, but Gabbard was energized; he led the fight against gay marriage in the state. Tulsi began political life in her teens, knocking on doors with her father, who went on to be elected to the city council, and eventually the state senate, where, socially conservative and pro environmental regulation, he remains.

At 21, Tulsi was Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, having married a man involved with Butler’s group, and like many people at that age, she had yet to outgrow the views with which she was raised. But unlike most 20-somethings grappling with the ideological legacies of their parents, Tulsi was elected to Hawaii’s house of representatives at 21, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to a state legislature. Her early opposition to abortion and gay marriage would be a part of her political record. After a single term, she joined the military, later saying she’d been motivated by 9/11, and deployed in Iraq and Kuwait. Critics might draw a line from her deployment at a time of American Islamophobia through her later sympathies for Assad and Modi. But that story may be too neat. Her tours were her first time as an adult out of Hawaii, away from her family and the religious sect in which they were enmeshed.

In Iraq, Tulsi was in a medical unit on a base 40 miles north of Baghdad, an area sometimes known as “Mortaritaville,” where shells exploded and sirens wailed as she took cover in a concrete bunker. She worked 12-hour shifts out of a mobile trailer with a small window; during storms, she watched “an orange wave of sand” envelop everything and shook with the wind. Every day at 9 a.m. she scrolled through an Excel spreadsheet of casualties. These were American troops for whom she was supposed to organize treatment. “That daily task — it left an indelible impression on me,” she says, “understanding behind every one of these names is a soldier, sailor, seeing the volume of people paying the price for war. It caused me to think about those who made a decision to start this war. I wondered if they ever thought about these people, their families.”

When she returned, her positions on social issues eventually fell a bit more in line with the party; she said that living in a theocracy had changed her, and she no longer believed the state should dictate the romantic or reproductive lives of its citizens. She divorced Tamayo, won a seat on the city council, and ran for Congress against the Democratic Establishment candidate, a pro-life, anti-gay-marriage former mayor of Honolulu 27 years her senior. A Democratic National Committee in need of speakers for the party’s national convention turned to a young, attractive multicultural woman veteran and Congressperson who voted left but sounded credible on national security.

“I can’t tell you how many people have mentioned your name and said, ‘This is the one to look out for,’ ” Suzanne Malveaux said to her on CNN. “Tell us why. I mean, people see you as a rising star.” She was called a rising star on ABC and she was called a rising star in the Washington Post and she won her election easily, at which point she became no longer the youngest woman in a state legislature but the youngest woman in Congress. A rapturous Vogue profile praised her for her “fit physique,” soldier’s stamina, and a “smile so warm that it’s no surprise Web sites have offered polls rating her ‘hotness,’ ” a truly curious reading of hotness polls.

The fall from rising star to party pariah began with a gift from the Establishment. As a 31-year-old freshman representative, she was chosen for a DNC vice-chairmanship, an easy way for a new face to achieve visibility. During the Democratic primary season, Tulsi began arguing with DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz, demanding that there be more than six debates in the Democratic primary (a move that would theoretically benefit Sanders); Wasserman Schultz, according to Tulsi, suggested that she not come to the next one. When Tulsi later endorsed Bernie Sanders over a woman who supported campaigns in Iraq and Libya, it was after Sanders had suffered a devastating loss to Clinton in South Carolina; once again, this was not a move that could be explained by political calculation.

Syria doesn’t get much airtime on American television news — it’s a horrifying, complicated proxy war involving Iran and Saudi Arabia and Russia to which Americans have neither answers nor the will to meaningfully intervene. It is not good content. But when Tulsi Gabbard appears on any given news program, a Blob-driven game ensues: corner Tulsi into insulting Assad.

“Do you think Assad is our enemy?” asked Kasie Hunt on a February episode of Morning Joe.

“Assad is not the enemy of the United States, because Syria does not pose a direct threat to the United States,” said Tulsi in her slow monotone.

Joe Scarborough broke in: “Is he an adversary?”

“We have to look to who poses a threat to the United States — ”

“Is he an adversary?” Scarborough asked again.

“What would you say he is?” asked Mika Brzezinski. “If you cannot say he is an adversary or an enemy, what is Assad to the United States? What is the word?”

At this Tulsi finally smiles, incredulous — a look of condescending skepticism. “You can describe it however you want to describe it. My point is — ”

“I want to know how you describe it!” said Brzezinski. “Adversary,” she says to herself, very quietly. “It’s not hard.”

The Silence

For many years in Kailua, the Gabbards’ known involvement with the Science of Identity went largely unremarked upon. It took an outsider, a 45-year-old special-education teacher and independent journalist Christine Gralow, who moved to the island just three years ago, to get curious enough to start asking questions. She mapped a web of relationships among devotees. “I had no idea,” she told me, “that this was going to lead me to Tulsi Gabbard.”

Soon after, she attended a town hall run by Tulsi. It was alarming for her to recognize so many faces from her research, and the whole production felt oddly staged. Gralow asked some questions about Syria, to boos from the crowd, and held up a piece of paper that read QNET INDIA, TIBBY, BISMARK WANTED? which relates to complicated, long-standing allegations of money-laundering against the group. She interviewed anyone in the community who would talk, went deep into the group’s alleged association with organized crime. She published it all on her website, meanwhileinhawaii.org, which is when the DDOS attacks started. She says, undaunted, that she has seen members of the group waiting outside her home, taking pictures. “I’m a special-ed teacher,” she says, “and special-ed teachers don’t like bullies.”

Tulsi Gabbard’s response to questions about the Science of Identity frequently begin with accusations of religious bigotry and “Hinduphobia.” Her campaign website once mentioned her years in the Philippines, but that reference has been removed. When The New Yorker asked her if she had a spiritual teacher, she said she had had “many different spiritual teachers,” that none was more important than the others, and that she has never heard Chris Butler say an unkind thing. (“I don’t even know what to say about that,” says Ian Koviak.) The campaign’s position is that any serious inquiry into Tulsi’s religious background constitutes a Hinduphobic line of attack to which other candidates would not be subject, though again, Butler’s group does not identify as Hindu.

I knew nearly nothing of Tulsi’s backstory when I found myself in her car back in February, and so in April, when she returned to Iowa City, I arranged for a follow-up conversation at a vegan restaurant. On the day before the interview, a staffer texted me to ask about the gist of my questions. The morning of, I was told that the interview was canceled. I then reached out to another staffer, who eventually said Tulsi would take questions on religious matters via email, at which point I sent a series of questions regarding Chris Butler, the Science of Identity, the beach gatherings to which Greg Martin had referred, her time in the Philippines, and when, precisely, Tulsi began to identify as Hindu. Tulsi replied with an email that declined to mention Hinduism, Butler, the Science of Identity, the gatherings, or the Philippines.
“My ‘religion,’ ” she wrote, “is my loving relationship with God, and the motivation that springs from that relationship to try my best to use my life in the service of humanity and the planet.”

But as late as 2015, in a video still up on YouTube, Tulsi publicly acknowledged her guru-dev to be Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa, Chris Butler.

No one I spoke to with personal experience of the group, including Tulsi’s aunt, thought it possible that Tulsi Gabbard had somehow left Chris Butler’s sphere of influence, that her thirst for world peace and her persistent concerns about Islam were positions held independent of his counsel. “I don’t think that she is a bad person or in any way malicious,” says Koviak. “Butler’s agenda from way back in the ’70s has always been to have a political hold in some way. Now he has realized his dream through Tulsi Gabbard.” Says Rama Ranson, who maintains the blog RamaRansonvsthecult.com, “Her success is Butler’s success.”

The Storm

The analysis is like, ‘Oh, she just loves dictators,’ ” says Vrindavan.

“She loves dictators,” says Abraham, “and is also an opportunist who wants to advance politically.”

The snow is coming down harder now as we make our way to Iowa City. Flights are canceled. Cars have been abandoned on the side of the road. They consider canceling the stump speech, but here we are in Iowa and no one has anywhere else to be.

“Looks like this may be a very intimate event!” jokes Vrindavan.

Tulsi looks slightly concerned but holds it all in. For once, Abraham is not filming. He’s watching surf videos on his phone. Tulsi leans forward, suddenly spontaneous.

“Do you know who Kelly Slater is?” she asks. She’s telling me about a surfing competition featuring men and women, where the women slayed. She leans forward to show me. “This is Kelly Slater’s wave pool. This is the first time in a sanctioned competition hosted by the world surf league where men and women have competed in the exact same wave conditions, size and everything! That finals day that we were there? I think seven of eight men did not even complete their first wave!”

Vrindavan is cracking up. “That should not make me happy!” she says. Abraham hands me his phone so I can watch a GoPro video of Tulsi surfing.

“Every time she goes home, she’s on the water,” says Vrindavan. “Every morning”

“The best spot to go is [redacted],” says Abraham.

“You can’t publish that name!” says Vrindavan.

“We walk to the beach,” says Tulsi.

“It’s a two-minute walk,” says Abraham.

“It’s not two minutes,” says Tulsi.

“Like five.”

“It might take two minutes to skate there,” says Tulsi.

“Oh yeah,” says Vrindavan. “They skateboard.”

The Last Straw

Over the few months I was reporting this piece, Tulsi’s transient aunt called me from a plane; from an apartment in Portland, Oregon; from her home in Hawaii; and finally, unexpectedly, from a new home in Samoa, deep in Oceania, “as far as you can get from anywhere else.” It was a surprise even to her, but she had had a charged email correspondence with the island’s high ranking official and on a whim decided to return in retirement. “It was not my plan at all, not at all,” she says. “I’m here in the ancient world now. I’m operating in a framework of unbroken antiquity. It’s a riot of joy. I’m sprouting into a rain forest.”

Tulsi’s candidacy was not the first time that Sina felt compelled to speak to the press. When, in the early ’90s, her brother became the poster boy for homophobia in Hawaii, she very much wanted to say something, but in the thick of personal and medical challenge, she was advised by her therapist to say nothing much and left journalists’ calls unreturned.

Years later, when Trump emerged victorious on Election Night 2016, she was inert for two days, and it wasn’t until she heard a rousing statement about resistance out of the mouth of Elizabeth Warren that she “literally got off the couch.” She thought about her only vector to power. She texted Tulsi, Sina says, and while she waited for a response, Tulsi met with Donald Trump, declined to join her colleagues in denouncing Steve Bannon, and met with Assad. When the family invited her to Thanksgiving dinner, Sina did not go. Tulsi never called back.

It was, finally, the failure to sign the letter denouncing Bannon that pushed Sina over the edge of reticence. “An alarming pattern of Tulsi’s priorities is becoming increasingly clear and problematic,” Sina wrote on Facebook. “Having been a citizen twice as long as I’ve been Tulsi’s aunt, I hold my responsibilities for both roles as equally significant.”

She is still in frequent contact with the family despite everything. She and her brother share responsibility for an intellectually disabled relative, and so Sina and Tulsi’s mother confer about her care. “I used to think lifelines are what you toss to someone who falls overboard,” she writes in her book Alchemies of Distance. “But my sailor friend says, ‘No, lifelines are the ones that help keep you inside the boat.’ ”

The End

How far does our commitment to religious diversity extend? Is it weirder to follow the dictates of a surfer guru who believes the moon landing was a hoax than to claim, as does Evangelical Mike Pence, that the establishment of Israel represents biblical prophecy? Georgia representative Jody Hice believes you can predict major political events through a succession of “blood moons.” A recent member of Congress claims pregnancy by “legitimate rape” is impossible. Because he believes bee pollen cured his allergies, former Iowa senator Tom Harkin has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars failing to prove the legitimacy of various alternative medicines, pollen among them.

In February, Tulsi Gabbard introduced a draft bill intended to keep Trump from pulling out of a nuclear-arms treaty; the move was supported by representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. (Abraham shot a Facebook Live video of a press conference for the bill, during which an expert on nuclear war spoke of Armageddon while red hearts floated past his face.) Three months later, she said she’d pardon Edward Snowden and drop charges against Julian Assange. The Democratic front-runner in every poll was a man who both signed the Authorization of Military Force, which has since been used to justify interventions in 14 countries, and hailed its signing as an inspiring act of democratic legitimacy. And when it appeared possible that the United States was gearing up for a military intervention in Venezuela under the guise of humanitarian aid, only one presidential candidate was willing to condemn the idea. As Bernie Sanders has moved toward a compromise position on military intervention abroad, Gabbard has chosen not to accept “this worldview, this regime-change-war addiction,” and has not backed down from the statement about “people whose whole careers have been built around support for these wars.”

Maybe Tulsi Gabbard is a toady, or naïve, or negative-attention seeking, or maybe a boy who grew up watching his father ridiculed decided to build a world in which he never would be, and in the world he built appeared a girl capable of holding firm to brazen ideas the world disdains. There are good actors and bad ones, but you don’t get to know what is in a candidate’s heart. If you think you do, you’ve been fooled. There is only the story they tell and the one you choose to believe. There are the votes they show up for and the forces they resist — the strength of the lifeline and into what strange waters they steer the boat.

*This article appears in the June 10, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Tulsi Gabbard Had a Very Strange Childhood