Though she is for all practical purposes currently on the sidelines of the 2020 presidential race -- or at least that's how it appears at the moment -- don't count McSpirituality guru Marianne Williamson out of the larger game. You can't keep a good New-Wage crapitalist down.
On November 5, 2019, the Rolling Stone site ran a feature by Tessa Stuart, "That Marianne Mind$et: Obeying the Law of Divine Compensation." Stuart opens with a mention of an early August 2019 email blast directed to those who had signed up for Williamson's campaign mailing list earlier in the year. The message featured a "soft-focus portrait of the presidential candidate gazing placidly at the pages of a hardcover tome beside a golden Buddha and an orchid."
That's so Marianne.
The email came from something called the Williamson Institute, and the subject was, "Summer Sale Now On!"
“For one week only, indulge in any of our on-demand courses and seminars for 45% off!” the email read. “Whether you want to invoke the romantic mysteries, create a career that matters, divinely align your body and soul, or focus on another area of your life in a miraculous way, now is the time to treat yourself. As always, we hope this offering will enrich your life and nourish your soul.” Interested parties were advised to use the code “SummerSale.”There was one teeny-tiny little problem, though. At the time the email was sent out, the Williamson Institute did not yet technically exist, though a note on Williamson's personal web site said that it would be launching "soon." But skilled hucksters never let the unicorn status of anything stop them from promoting that thing.
The email linked instead to Marianne.com, where for a cool $249 one might enroll in a four-part online course on “aging miraculously” or a five-parter on “miraculous relationships.” The four-part weight-loss seminar, five-parter on making money (or, rather, obeying “the law of divine compensation”), and a three-part “Aphrodite Training” were each comparative steals at $149 a piece.Heck of a bargain, right? Can you say, "New-Wage sales funnel," boys and girls?
Williamson’s campaign blamed the email on a “vendor error” and, perhaps because Williamson isn’t a top-tier candidate, the use of a public campaign for private profit barely registered as news.Yep.
Or maybe it didn’t register because, at this point, it’s basically accepted that many (if not most) people who run for president are ultimately running one grift or another. Herman Cain used the email list he amassed during a failed bid for the Republican nomination in 2012 to hawk dozens of get-rich-quick schemes and dubious cures, including an erectile dysfunction drug called “TestoMax 200.” Rick Perry parlayed his aborted campaign into a turn on Dancing With the Stars. Mike Huckabee’s failed White House run transformed him into a one-man media empire, complete with a terrestrial radio time slot opposite Rush Limbaugh and a hosting gig on Fox News. (Alas, the long-promised Huckabee Post never materialized.)
Of course no review of presidential candidate hucksterism would be complete without a mention of one candidate who actually won the presidency, and is without a doubt the biggest huckster of them all, Donald J. Trump, Scammer in Chief, whose arguably most infamous contribution to Scamworld was the totally bogus "Trump University." Trump U actually did exist, for a few years, but it wasn't a real university, and Trump, who was known for boasting that he "never settles" in a lawsuit, ultimately agreed to pay $25 million to settle three of the suits against his ersatz education endeavor.
Stuart doesn't mention Trump U in the Rolling Stone piece, but she does remind us of a few other points.
Donald Trump — despite having boasted in 2000 he could possibly be “the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it” — lost money on his run for president, but he has since turned his presidency into a four-year-long paid advertisement for his hotel chain. (He also, apparently, had a contingency plan: By election night 2016, when most everyone was predicting him losing, the candidate and his family had compiled a list of ideas to capitalize on his newfound cachet, including a budget line of Trump hotels and a TV network to rival Fox News.)Not to mention the apparently well-founded rumors that Trump has been talking, at least casually, with Apprentice creator Mark Burnett about another future "reality" show, a "White House" edition of The Apprentice. Trump denied it, of course. But his lips were moving, so that should give you an idea of how credible his denial is. In any case, there's a very good case to be made that Trump has been running his entire presidency like a reality show. Unfortunately, as Sean Illing, the author of the Vox piece linked to in the previous sentence, noted, it's "the show we can't turn off, the car crash we can't look away from the news cycle we can't escape."
But we were discussing Marianne Williamson, right? Not that revisiting Trump's various scams and hustles is irrelevant -- not at all. After all, as some observers have noted, Trump and Williamson are in several significant ways just two sides of the same (narcissistic, celebrity-culture) coin. (Williamson has even been called a left-wing version of Trump.) And Williamson herself has famously declared on several occasions that she is the most qualified of all of the Democratic candidates to meet Trump on the battlefield that really matters: the one where the battle for the heart and soul of America is being fought (this being one of her more recent declarations).
And what about the Williamson Institute? I still can't seem to find a separate web site for the thing. There is a Facebook page, plugging a ten-part online "course" called "The New You: A Total Life Makeover," and currently Williamson's main web site leads with basically that same plug, and follows with an announcement that the Williamson Institute will be "launching soon." Of course the site contains various other links to ways you can fork over your hard-earned lucre to Williamson.
Williamson insists she is not driven by the profit motive, though. From Tessa Stuart's Rolling Stone piece again:
But ask Marianne Williamson if her campaign has a profit motive, and a beatific expression will shimmer across her face. “It’s quite the opposite,” Williamson tells me, sitting at a sun-drenched rooftop bar a few blocks from Manhattan’s Bryant Park in early fall. “I’m not doing the things right now that you do in my career to make a living — speaking fees, etc. I’m not off giving seminars. A senator running for president is still getting a Senate salary, right? This is the opposite of a lucrative thing to do.”Condescension duly noted, Marianne. (By the way, considering the many millions of new books that are constantly being published, and zillions of older ones still actively on the market, those press-time Amazon numbers aren't really all that bad.)
Williamson continues, plugging her most recently released book by name, “If you look at my Politics of Love that came out, it is not a bestseller. It is way down on Amazon.” (It was, at press time, ranked Number 25 in “Religious Studies: Church & State,” Number 74 in “Spiritual Healing,” and Number 79 in “History of Religion & Politics.”) She fixes me with a bemused look. “If I want to, I kind of know how to sell a book. It’s called a book tour.”
Tessa Stuart writes that Williamson's campaign denies that she planned from the beginning to capitalize on the exposure she'd get from a presidential run with money-making schemes like the Williamson Institute. In fact Williamson's campaign manager, Patricia Ewing, expressed surprise that Stuart would even ask such a question, and suggested that perhaps there was a bit of sexism behind the inquiry. "Is the same question being asked of businessmen in the race?" Ewing asked, adding that no one seemed to be questioning the motives of Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang et al. when their respective businesses continued to "innovate" while they were on the campaign trail.
But the difference, Stuart points out in her article, is that neither Steyer nor Yang is launching a new business predicated on asking fans or supporters "to pay for the privilege of hearing what they have to say."
Exactly. Furthermore, there has been plenty of criticism about Donald Trump continuing to profit from his own businesses while in office. So it isn't just a matter of giving "businessmen" a pass while the poor put-upon "businesswoman" catches all of the flak. This is not to deny that sexism and double standards riddle our political landscape. They most certainly do. But this is not that.
Marianne Williamson has said that the only way we can defeat the "outrageous lies" of Trumpism is by telling "outrageous truth." She is clearly branding herself as the standard-bearer of this truth, but anyone who truly believes this is as misinformed or deluded in his or her own way as any of the MAGA-cap wearing Trump devotees who cheer at his fascist rallies. And while I am emphatically not suggesting that Williamson's fans are hate-filled bigots like so many (not all, but so many) of Trump's fans, nor am I insinuating that Williamson's crapitalism is on a scale with Trump's, or that her narcissism is even remotely as dangerous at this point as Trump's, the devotion of her base is not necessarily a harmless thing.
Lest you accuse me of Williamson-bashing, I am not categorically declaring Marianne Williamson to be devoid of truth. As I've noted here in previous posts about her -- and as was noted in this excellent August 2019 piece in The Intercept -- there is validity in some of her core messages, despite the wackadoodle new-agey veneer in which so many of them are wrapped. But it's gonna take a whole lot more than abstract declarations of moral and spiritual truths to defeat the orange blob and fix our egregiously broken system, which was broken for many years before Trump but has been immeasurably damaged even more since he's been in power. Marianne Williamson is simply not the person to accomplish this. And I am pretty sure that at some level, she knows it.
But don't cry for her, because one way or the other, with or without the "Williamson Institute," she'll be laughing -- beatifically, of course, and with a shimmering expression of thinly veiled condescension on her lovely face -- all the way to the bank.
Related on this Whirled:
- 10 January, 2011: Snippets for a Monday afternoon (under "What's wrong with this (big) picture?") -- Marianne's weight loss book and the totally contrived marketing backstory that she cooked up with Oprah.
- 5 July 2019: So wrong, Marianne -- Musings on Williamson's first debate performance in late June, on her history as a New-Wage icon, on the new-agey "love and light" mindset, and on why Marianne is the wrong choice to go up against Trump.
- 31 July 2019: Marianne Williamson: still so wrong -- Williamson got to talk more during her second performance at the Democrats' "debate," and some of what she said made sense, but as the title of the post noted... still so wrong.