Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) is a weird person running a weird presidential campaign. That doesn't make her a stooge for Nazis or Russian intelligence.
On Saturday, The New York Times published an article whose headline asks, "What, Exactly, Is Tulsi Gabbard Up To?" Gabbard's brief flirtation with boycotting the upcoming Democratic debate, Lisa Lerer writes, has "some Democrats wondering what, exactly, she is up to in the race, while others worry about supportive signs from online bot activity and the Russian news media."
"Alt-right internet stars, white nationalists, libertarian activists and some of the biggest boosters of Mr. Trump heap praise on Ms. Gabbard," Lerer continues. "They like the Hawaiian congresswoman's isolationist foreign policy views. They like her support for drug decriminalization. They like what she sees as censorship by big technology platforms." These are, of course, all stances that could appeal to progressive voters as well.
To make the case that something sinister is afoot, the Times relies on a mix of thin evidence, guilt by association, and conspiratorial framing of actions that any single-issue-focused dark horse candidate is liable to do.
That's particularly true of the Russian support Gabbard is supposedly receiving. The alleged evidence for this includes the popularity of a #kamalaharrisdestroyed hashtag that exploded on Twitter following Gabbard's criticism of Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) during a July debate, which the Times says "appeared to be amplified by a coordinated network of bot-like accounts."
The article notes that "no evidence of coordination between these networks and the campaign itself." It doesn't mention that a Twitter investigation found no evidence of bot activity boosting the hashtag. A Wall Street Journal article that initially advanced that theory later had its headline watered down.
Also cited as evidence of Russian support is data from the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a project of the German Marshall Fund, which purportedly shows Gabbard getting a disproportionate amount of coverage from Russian state-sponsored media given her low poll numbers.
"The Russian activity could be part of a longer-term effort to drive a wedge among Democrats," mused ASD director Laura Rosenberger in the Times article. "This messaging has echoes of 2016."
The ASD's Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, which tracks the coverage of Russian state-sponsored outlets like RT and Sputnik, reports that Gabbard has been mentioned in 33 articles since mid-June, and on three TV broadcasts (two of which were about the Democratic debates as a whole).
So a candidate focused on criticizing U.S. foreign policy is getting mentioned about once every four days by outlets that also spend a lot of time criticizing U.S. foreign policy. This strikes me as falling short of a full-blown influence operation. The fact that Gabbard is polling poorly despite all that coverage from RT and Sputnik suggests this is, at worst, a rather ineffectual conspiracy to disrupt and divide Democrats.
There's a lot of nut-picking in the Times piece too. It spends a lot of time on ex-KKK leader David Duke's endorsement of Gabbard, and on neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin's evidence-free claims that his support was responsible for getting Gabbard over the donor threshold to qualify for the first two debates.
This might be fair to mention if Gabbard—a stridently progressive congresswoman of color—had actually done anything to court the support of explicit right-wing racists. But she has done the opposite, forcibly denouncing Duke and white nationalism when asked.
Lerer notes her disavowal of Duke, but then immediately implies that Gabbard is seeing support from people like him: "But her frequent appearances on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show have buoyed her support in right-wing circles."
Gabbard's criticism of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) gets the same treatment: The Times acknowledges a non-sinister explanation for Gabbard's stance while hinting that worse is afoot. Longshots like Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson have joined Gabbard in criticizing the DNC's criteria for getting into the debates. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) has gone so far as to say the 2016 Democratic primary was "rigged" in Hillary Clinton's favor. But when Gabbard says this sort of thing, Lerer writes that it's "an argument that reminds some Democrats of the narrative pushed by Russian actors during the 2016 presidential contest, when an operation by internet trolls worked to manipulate American public opinion."
It's true that no other Democratic candidates have volunteered to go on Tucker Carlson's show (although Carlson has praised Warren's economic program). But it shouldn't be surprising that Gabbard, with low poll numbers and a campaign that's focused as much on spreading her anti-interventionism message as it is about actually winning the nomination, would jump at an opportunity to go on prime-time television for a sympathetic interview about ending wars in the Middle East.
A byproduct of running an anti-establishment campaign is that you end up criticizing people and institutions that various kooks and jerks also happen to hate. But there's a distinction between that and actively encouraging the support of those kooks and jerks.
The media should be able to make this distinction, and to criticize candidates' positions on their own terms. But Lerer prefers to ignore Gabbard's arguments for a less interventionist foreign policy. I guess that might get in the way of all those conspiratorial speculations.