‘Mentality of dictators’: Republican convert Tulsi Gabbard takes aim at former party at CPAC

<span>Gabbard speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference annual meeting in Maryland on 22 February 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters</span>
Gabbard speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference annual meeting in Maryland on 22 February 2024.Photograph: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters

Once a prominent supporter of leftwing senator Bernie Sanders, on Thursday she was greeted by far right activists with a standing ovation and a group of supporters brandishing gold letters that spelled T-R-U-M-P.

Such is the journey of Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democratic congresswoman and presidential candidate who has an entire Wikipedia page devoted to her “political positions” and is now seen as a possible running mate for Donald Trump.

Related: ‘We need a bigger bazooka’: Liz Truss takes aim at left ‘deep state’ at CPAC

There are few better examples, critics say, of how the Trump era has scrambled the ideology not only of the Republican party but opportunists seeking media cache and a book deal. Gabbard’s isolationist foreign policy views, disdain for “wokeness” and desire for attention from the rightwing ecosystem made her a natural headline speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the National Harbor in Maryland.

“Today we see the Democrat elite leaders say, with great concern in their voice, that if the American people elect Donald Trump again, they warn us, he will destroy our democracy,” said Gabbard, 42, in a speech that portrayed Trump as a victim of the political persecution and sounded like an audition for the vice-presidency.

“They say he will be the dictator-in-chief, that if he’s elected it will be the last election this country sees. It’s laughable. This is so crazy, it’s laughable. They’re justifying their actions by telling themselves that they need to destroy our democracy in order to save it. It’s lunacy and it’s the mindset and mentality of dictators. They are waging a multi-front battle and they will stop at nothing until they’re successful.”

The scene would have been unimaginable in 2012 when Gabbard, a military veteran, became the first Hindu elected to Congress, representing Hawaii’s second congressional district.

Over time the progressive rising star became an outspoken critic of Democratic party leadership. She once called Hillary Clinton the “embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic party for so long”.

Gabbard endorsed independent senator Sanders’ run against Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. But in November that year, Gabbard held a surprise meeting with Trump at Trump Tower in New York following his election victory.

She briefly ran herself in the 2020 election, when her foreign policy views came under scrutiny. In a primary debate, Gabbard was criticised by then candidate Kamala Harris for not calling the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, a “war criminal”. Gabbard had secretly visited Syria in 2017 and met Assad on what she called a “fact-finding mission”; she expressed skepticism about the atrocities carried out under Assad’s leadership.

She eventually dropped out of the 2020 race and backed the eventual winner, Joe Biden. “I’ve known Joe Biden for a long time,” she told CPAC, drawing a contrast with Trump. “I used to consider him a friend. Do you think he could handle this pressure?” The audience laughed.

She continued: “I don’t think so. I think even a fraction of this pressure and stress and attacks that Trump has endured would cause him to crumble.”

Gabbard went on to lavish praise on the former president, which was well received in the room. “I’ve had the chance to meet with him and speak with him at length, and I’ve seen firsthand his heartfelt interactions with friends of mine, veterans, and I’ve seen how he has touched their hearts and moved them to tears as he expressed his appreciation for their service and their sacrifice. No cameras, no crowds. Just that heartfelt conveyance of appreciation.”

She added: “I’ve gotten a sense for what motivates him and it’s got nothing to do with what the Washington establishment is accusing him of. This is a man who’s a fighter, his strength and resilience can only come from one place. His ability to endure this much can only come from one place, a sincere love and concern for the future of our country and his care for the American people.”

Tulsi Gabbard was on the fringe as a Democrat and ... in order to find relevance, recognised an opening in the Republican party that was pro-Putin friendly

Tara Setmayer

Gabbard was a frequent guest on Fox News, became a paid contributor and enjoyed a spell filling in for host Tucker Carlson. She launched The Tulsi Gabbard Show on YouTube.

In 2022 she left the Democrats, saying they were dominated by “an elitist cabal of warmongers who are driven by cowardly wokeness, who divide us by racializing every issue and stoking anti-white racism”. She campaigned for election-denier Kari Lake and other Republicans in the midterm elections.

Gabbard has been quicker to blame Biden than Vladimir Putin for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She has been a harsh critic of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy – now a guaranteed applause line in the “Make America great again” universe.

Her speech at CPAC on Thursday met with a standing ovation and cheers that showed notably more enthusiasm than that for former British prime minister Liz Truss. Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, is among her admirers. To commentators, it is a pact rooted in self-interest on both sides.

Tara Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, a pro-democracy and anti-Trump group, said: “Tulsi Gabbard was on the fringe as a Democrat and, when she flamed out there, in order to find relevance, she recognised an opening in the Republican party that was pro-Putin friendly.

I guess that she has no soul, conscience or moral code

Kurt Bardella

“She has been an apologist for Putin and for Assad in Syria and, as someone who was in the military, she brings a certain credibility to that wing of the Republican party when she speaks glowingly about Putin and Russia.”

Setmayer added: “As the Republican party drift further and further away from the party of Reagan, who I would presume is spinning in his grave as we see the Republican party go down into this, isolationist, anti-democratic, pro-Putin party, people like Tulsi Gabbard have a place and she knows that. That’s the only reason why she has any relevance in politics today.”

A poster advertising Gabbard’s book, For Love of Country: Why I Left the Democratic Party, is prominently displayed at the CPAC venue, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, along with a book by Truss and biography of Carlson. In recent years the conference has become a celebration of Trump’s cult of personality.

Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist and former Republican congressional aide, said of Gabbard: “I guess that she has no soul, conscience or moral code.

“It’s a situation more about the pursuit of power and relevance and notoriety and less about ideology. I just don’t think it’s possible to go so far one way and then have that pendulum swing like that. It just seems like there’s other motivations at play.”

Gabbard might serve in a Trump cabinet but is unlikely to be vice-president, Bardella added. “The idea that he would pick her over someone like Kristi Noem or Elise Stefanik or Tim Scott just doesn’t seem likely because Tulsi doesn’t have a constituency that she can bring to the table that’s going to help Donald Trump win a general election.”