Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has spent her longshot presidential bid amassing an odd coalition of lefty contrarians and pro-Trump internet celebrities looking to blow up the establishment.
Hillary Clinton gave them the spark they needed to detonate.
“It’s time for you to acknowledge the damage that you’ve caused,” Gabbard said in a social media video addressed to Clinton on Tuesday night, four repetitive days after she dunked on the former secretary of state as “queen of the warmongers” in a viral Twitter thread.
The 2016 Democratic nominee said Trumpland is “grooming” the Hawaiian Democrat for a third-party run — not the Kremlin. Media outlets misrepresented the hard-to-parse remarks, and Gabbard ran with it en route to a 2019 Trump card: She owned the biggest lib of them all.
Clinton’s actual comments, during a podcast exchange about the Republican Party’s 2020 strategy, have been muddled in the ensuing media hubbub. Her aides have added to the confusion by suggesting she was in fact referring to Gabbard.
“They’re also going to do third party again,” Clinton said of the GOP’s approach to securing an electoral college win. “And 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.”
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The ensuing Democratic Party infighting, drawing in Sen. Bernie Sanders, who came to Gabbard’s defense, has been catnip for cable news. The three major networks mentioned Gabbard 815 times between Friday and Wednesday, according to the media monitoring tool GDELT Project, more than a third of her total for all of 2019.
Fox News referred to Gabbard on air 675 times this year up to last Thursday. From her Friday dustup till Wednesday, the channel did so 485 more times, producing endless coverage long after its competitors. Many of its discussions about the Democrat featured videos pulled directly from her social media feeds running on loop.
“We’ve never had a worse set of leaders in this country,” primetime host Tucker Carlson said in one of his segments defending Gabbard and attacking Clinton. “So it’s not surprising that this group — the ones who wrecked the country — don’t take criticism well. Don’t like their program? You must be a spy.”
It was an explosion of the compliments from Trump supporters, including pro-Trump troll Mike Cernovich, onetime White House aide Steve Bannon, and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, that have bubbled beneath Gabbard’s presidential bid.
Since Friday, media outlets and pundits across the pro-Trump internet have continued pumping out content in an apparent attempt to elevate a campaign polling in the low single digits. While Gabbard has met the donor threshold needed to qualify for the next Democratic primary debate in November, she needs three more qualifying polls showing her at 3 percent support nationally or in early nominating states. The past week of attention could help put her over the edge.
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“Possibly the most epic burn in history,” read a Daily Caller Facebook post describing Gabbard’s initial smackdown of Clinton, one of at least 20 Facebook posts about the exchange published by Wednesday.
Of the 30 top-performing Facebook posts measured by interactions during that span, the analytics tool CrowdTangle says that 15 have come from Breitbart, The Daily Caller, Fox News and its personalities, and own-the-libs pundit Ben Shapiro. Most of the others likewise come from right-wing pages; no mainstream media outlet cracked the list.
“BURN: Tulsi Gabbard slams Hillary for insinuating she's in cahoots with the RUSSIANS…” read a post from CNSNews, a conservative outlet that contributed two top-performing posts.
Disinformation experts have indeed warned that Gabbard’s campaign could be targeted by state-backed propaganda efforts, as she has rubbed shoulders with authoritarians and argued against even a minor U.S. presence in Syria. But Clinton’s comment struck all the right notes to activate the left and right flanks of Gabbards extremely online support in response. Both have painted liberal fixation on Russian influence as a conspiracy theory absolving them of 2016 sins.
Gabbard’s campaign has continued driving that conversation with a PR barrage across social and traditional media, including an interview with Carlson, where she did not dispute his characterization that Clinton called her a Russian asset. Gabbard’s campaign did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment on this distinction.
Gabbard did share a clip of Carlson on Instagram, one of 11 times she’s laced into corporate media or the Democratic establishment on the platform in the past week. “If you’re sick of the new McCarthyism and warmongering by Hillary and her cohorts,” the caption read, “then join our campaign.”
Cover: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)