When former US Senator Mike Gravel announced that he was considering joining the already jam-packed 2020 presidential field, it set a very particular corner of the online political world ablaze. The 88-year-old Alaskan is something of a legend (if an obscure one) in left-wing circles: In 1971, he read part of the Pentagon Papers, a leaked study of the Vietnam War, into the congressional record. Though he lost his Senate seat in 1980, he reemerged in national politics during the 2008 Democratic primary. During that campaign, he distinguished himself through bizarre, avant-garde ads—in one, he stared into the camera before wordlessly throwing a rock into a pond—and also his unabashed progressive views. He was aggressively against the war in Iraq and the war on drugs and in favor of gay marriage, which at the time put him to the left of the major candidates.
Now he's back, thanks to some teens. According to Splinter and Politico, a crew of lefty teenagers in New York State reached out to Gravel (who they had heard about thanks to the podcast Chapo Trap House) to ask if they could set up an exploratory committee for a presidential bid and he said he'd be OK with it. The teens then launched a website and a Twitter account that quickly attracted attention for posting in the take-no-prisoners style of the online left:
Both the website and the Twitter account make it clear Gravel and his handlers don't want to win, just attract enough support to get into the primary debates and spread his message. "Our goal is to push the rest of the Democratic field toward policies, especially on political reform, climate change, and foreign policy, that, for the first time in decades, will truly challenge the American plutocracy and military-industrial complex," the website reads. Those are causes Gravel has been committed to for much of his career, and causes on which many leftists are aligned. But even though Gravel's sort-of campaign has been covered with bemusement by some media outlets (Rolling Stone called him a "teen sensation"), few seem to have discussed another aspect of Gravel's career: He's a 9/11 truther.
Gravel has spent a long time calling for a new investigation into the 9/11 attacks, and, less absurdly, condemning the war on terror. For instance, in 2008, he told Democracy Now, "90 percent of what the government does is held secret. It’s a whole cult. And that’s the thing that is really strangling our democracy, that we just don’t know what’s going on." In more recent years, he's gone a lot further than that: "There's no question in my mind that 9/11 was an inside job," he said on Kevin Barrett's Truth Jihad Radio in 2016. "We killed 58,000 American servicemen in the Vietnam War and all they did was die in vain. What's so unusual about killing 3,000 more in order to develop the grist for the mill to empower into infinity the military industrial complex?"
“Yes, Sen. Gravel has made these statements, and we disagree with them and don’t believe that 9/11 was an inside job,” the pro-Gravel group said in a Twitter message. “But he’s never caused anyone’s death or unjust imprisonment or helped keep people in poverty and pain, unlike Biden and Booker and Harris. Frankly, these are only words, aimed at the richest and most powerful among us, folks like Dick Cheney. Sen. Gravel’s views are ones that eminences like Woody Harrelson and Mark Ruffalo have voiced, too. If it’s acceptable to (like Biden did) help cause a surge in incarceration in the 1990s but not acceptable to voice skepticism like Sen. Gravel does, then progressives have already lost the fight. And whether or not you agree with Sen. Gravel—we’re not aiming to elect him president, just to get him on the Democratic debate stage. By no means do you have to agree with everything he’s done or said in 88 years of life.”
The idea that the Bush administration either let 9/11 happen or facilitated it is a relatively common one in fringe circles, though it's obviously a bizarre thing for a presidential candidate—especially one who aspires to be on a debate stage—to believe. It's also notable who Gravel was speaking to in that interview. Barrett is a former college lecturer who became briefly famous for his 9/11 skepticism in 2006 (he was denied a position at the University of Wisconsin the following year). Today, Barrett appears to embrace a wide range of conspiracy theories; in 2017, a petition circulated to deny him entrance to Canada because of his alleged Holocaust denialism. And as the Jewish Worker pointed out on Wednesday, Gravel has associated with other bizarre and anti-Semitic fringe figures, including the late Lyndon LaRouche's organization.
In statements to the Jewish Worker, Gravel's team disavowed Barrett and said, "Antisemitism and Holocaust denial are appalling, and they have no place in the United States." They also said that "the utter isolation of the anti-war left has given him very few places to present his views, so some might be less-than-respectable in the common view. "
Though the @MikeGravel Twitter account has grown to some 26,000 Twitter followers, it's hard to imagine a lot of people support Gravel even in the sense of wanting him to be on the debate stage. And given the many layers of irony the Chapo-affiliated left operates under, it's difficult to know whether tweets like "Mike Gravel fucking owns" are serious or not. Some certainly don't seem like jokes: Lee Carter, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Democratic Socialists of America, tweeted on Wednesday, "Wouldn't vote for him, which is convenient since he promises to drop out early, but he's THE anti-war voice."
"Clearly he has a lot of views that I could never support by voting for him, but conveniently he's pledged to drop out before voting begins," Carter said in a message on Twitter after I asked him about Gravel's 9/11 trutherism. "I support his stated goal of getting to the debates to talk about ending US wars overseas, because that conversation needs to be had bluntly and publicly. But that's as far as my support goes."
Gravel isn't the only potential candidate who could articulate an anti-war foreign policy in 2020. Bernie Sanders has beefed up his bona fides in the area since 2016, and Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is running as an anti-interventionist candidate. But Sanders will likely focus more on domestic policy like Medicare for all, and Gabbard has faced criticism for fringe views of her own, namely her doubt about whether Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons.
So there's clearly an appetite for someone like Gravel who is angry and righteous and willing to burn bridges—there are plenty of leftists who would cheer on a candidate who said, as Gravel did in 2007, that Joe Biden had a "certain arrogance." Gravel has real appeal when he's letting a group of Very Online teens run his Twitter account, or when he is silently throwing a rock into a pond. The appeal of the IRL Mike Gravel, who is more than just a mouthpiece for memes and holds views that go way beyond anti-war activism, is another story.
Update: This piece has been updated to reflect the Gravel camp's statement to the Jewish Worker after that article was published, and to include a statement from the team behind the @Mikegravel Twitter account that was received after publication.
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