STANDING ROCK, N.D. — Tulsi Gabbard is running for president of a country that she believes has wrought horror on the world, and she wants its citizens to remember that.
She is from Hawaii, and she spends each morning surfing. But that is not what she talks about in this unlikely campaign. She talks about the horror.
She lists countries: Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq. Failure after failure, she says. To drive the point home, she wants to meet on a Sioux tribe reservation in North Dakota, where, she explains, the United States government committed its original atrocity.
“These Indigenous people have been disrespected, mistreated with broken promises and desecrated lands,” Ms. Gabbard says.
Ms. Gabbard, 38, was a soldier in Iraq and currently serves as a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, which she cites to temper her message: Get out of foreign wars. Leave other countries alone. Not everyone wants democracy.
The method she has chosen to get this message to a wide audience, however, is through democracy — campaigning for president as a Democrat.
A Democratic member of Congress from Hawaii who was first elected in 2012, Ms. Gabbard is a singular figure in the 2020 race. She doesn’t fit neatly into any one established ideology or school of thought.
She has a relatively bare-bones political operation and a history of outlier positions, from her foreign policy stances to suing Google for free-speech impingement. Some of her own advisers do not think she will win. She may not make it to the September debate. Candidates need 2 percent support in four polls to qualify, and she has crossed that threshold in only one. On Thursday, her campaign said it had reached the necessary 130,000 individual donors, though its own website had not yet been updated to reflect the milestone.
But her run, and the unusual cross-section of voters she appeals to — Howard Zinn fans, anti-drug-war libertarians, Russia-gate skeptics, and conservatives suspicious of Big Tech — signifies just how much both parties have shifted, not just on foreign policy. It could end up being a sign that President Trump’s isolationism is not the aberration many believed, but rather a harbinger of a growing national sentiment that America should stand alone.
To Ms. Gabbard, it is the United States that has been the cruel and destabilizing force.
On the far left, her supporters appreciate how she talks about respecting Native cultures. On the right, as liberal democracies see authoritarian strongmen rise, Ms. Gabbard’s allies like that she would not meddle with dictators.
The threat from Russia is severely exaggerated, Ms. Gabbard says. Do not beat the drums of war with Iran. Make nice with North Korea.
She flew to Syria in 2017 and had what seemed to be a friendly meeting with Bashar al-Assad, shocking her colleagues in Congress, and voted against a House resolution condemning the dictator’s war crimes. More recently, she said Mr. Assad was “not the enemy of the United States.”
Critics have called her actions un-American. After Ms. Gabbard tore into presidential candidate Kamala Harris for her prosecutorial record during the second Democratic debates on Wednesday, the California senator on CNN called Ms. Gabbard an “apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered the people of his country like cockroaches.”
To Ms. Gabbard, it is the United States that has been the cruel and destabilizing force.
“We should be coming to other leaders in other countries with respect, building a relationship based on cooperation rather than with, you know, a police baton,” she says.
A few days before the Democratic debates, Ms. Gabbard is spending a brisk July morning in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
She is with her husband, Abraham Williams, a 30-year-old cinematographer, and her sister, Vrindavan Gabbard, a former U.S. Marshal who is now volunteering for the campaign, lives with Ms. Gabbard in Washington, and got in some trouble after complaining about NBC’s Democratic debate moderators from Ms. Gabbard’s Twitter account.
Ms. Gabbard is also accompanied by her campaign adviser Solomon Moore, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, who says that the reasons he likes Ms. Gabbard and how he started working for her are off the record.
“Aloha,” Ms. Gabbard says. She is standing on the crest of a hill, her long, thick dark hair accented with a shock of white gray that she sweeps back. She is wearing a bright red silk shirt and capri pants, and she is mic-ed up. Her husband is almost always filming.
The agenda of her visit here is to ride horses out to see a new solar farm. Ms. Gabbard commiserates with the Sioux guides over their desire for more independence.
“It’s, like, how dare you do something for yourself — so much for self-determination,” she says to them. “You know that bringing that understanding of what sovereignty means is my mission.”
Ms. Gabbard is a confident rider. Her stirrups are too long, but she says nothing about it.
The horses are milling around as the crew saddles up, and Mr. Williams has his viewfinder trained on Ms. Gabbard. The conversation turns to how they met.
“We — ” Mr. Williams begins, but Ms. Gabbard cuts in.
“We got to know each other when he volunteered for my congressional campaign,” Ms. Gabbard says.
(They had met years before as part of the tight-knit community around the controversial socially conservative guru Chris Butler.)
Everyone mounts the horses, and the animals start ambling forward.
It is a sunny day, and Ms. Gabbard is a confident rider. Her stirrups are too long, but she says nothing about it. The ride picks up pace. The ground is rough, cluttered with rodent holes. The horses themselves are a little squirrelly, some more broken than others.
Her sister Vrindavan’s foot slips out of a stirrup, and she is thrown from her horse behind us. Mr. Moore stays behind with her.
“I was always the cautious conservative one, she was always ‘throw caution to the wind,’” Ms. Gabbard says. “But as she would say, she comes from good stock. She’s never broken a bone. And she’s broken a windshield with her skull.”
At one point Ms. Gabbard sees a bird and pauses — for a second she thought it was a drone.
She drops military language into conversation.
“Phase one: Mission complete,” Ms. Gabbard says as the ride ends.
The Democratic Party and the progressive movement have always had their share of peaceniks. But even those who opposed military intervention still argued for the promotion of human rights abroad. Ms. Gabbard is different. Does she think America should spread democracy?
“It doesn’t matter what I — slash, what our country — thinks or believes,” Ms. Gabbard says. “This is a decision and a choice and a process that people in other countries have to make for themselves.”
Ms. Gabbard’s coalition is a motley crew.
“Tulsi Gabbard by far is the very, very best,” former Republican congressman Ron Paul said in an interview with Russia Today.
“Go Tulsi!” the right-wing commentator Ann Coulter said on Twitter.
“Tulsi Gabbard’s my girl, I’m voting for her I decided, I like her,” the popular podcaster Joe Rogan said on his show.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, donated the maximum he could to her.
After both debates, she was the most searched for candidate on Google.
She also has attracted the attention of some figures in the alt-right, in part because they imagine that a reordering of America’s role abroad also means pulling away from its longstanding alliance with Israel. David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, has tweeted approvingly of her.
Asked about this unsavory support, Ms. Gabbard, exasperated, says she disavows it, as she has several times before.
After both debates, she was the most searched for candidate on Google, according to the company’s analytics. And the hashtag #KamalaHarrisDestroyed was trending.
As this fan base has risen around her, some who track Russian disinformation campaigns say they see troll activity pushing for Ms. Gabbard as well.
“Tracking metrics of Russian state propaganda on Twitter, she was by far the most favored candidate,” said Clinton Watts, a former F.B.I. agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “She’s the Kremlin’s preferred Democrat. She is such a useful agent of influence for them. Whether she knows it’s happening or not, they love what she’s saying.”
The appeal, Mr. Watts explained, is clear: “She’s a U.S. military officer and a Democrat who says the U.S. should withdraw from the world.”
To the Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who has consulted for several of the candidates, including Ms. Gabbard, her foreign policy is not surprising for a veteran. “It’s not an unusual trait to see in someone who served in those wars, Iraq or Afghanistan. They all have deep qualms about the way we’ve made decisions to go to war. Her line is just a lot further out there.”
He said if she does not break through in the Democratic contest, it is unlikely a third-party run would get much support. And he added that the unusual right-wing fan base is actually good, because more people are paying attention to the primaries.
At the official debate watch party on Wednesday in San Francisco, where several of her campaign staffers are based, the dozen or so attendees cheered when Ms. Gabbard strode onstage in all white. They booed when the word Russia came up, even though it had not been directed at Ms. Gabbard. A laptop had a BERNIE sticker covered over with a TULSI 2020 sticker.
“I just want people to know: We’re not Russian bots,” said Anthony Rutherford, who heads the San Francisco volunteer group and works as a line cook at a local vegetarian restaurant, Greens. “We’re real people and we want to spread that aloha spirit.”
Stephen Kinzer, a fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, is not deluding himself about Ms. Gabbard’s chances.
“A lot of us in Tulsi world, we don’t have the fantasy that she’s going to pull ahead, but she serves a great purpose in this campaign because she is saying things that no one else is saying,” he said.
The only personal topics she talks about easily are veganism and fitness.
On Wednesday night, as criticism of Ms. Gabbard’s stance on Syria raged, Mr. Kinzer said on Twitter in defense of her that the White Helmets group of volunteer rescue workers in Syria is “an arm of the terror movement” there. “They are heroes to #ISIS but not to any humanitarian,” he wrote.
Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, thinks worries over Russia’s danger to the United States are overblown.
“Her critics wanted to argue that she was somehow Putin’s candidate, which is utter nonsense,” he said. “He doesn’t have a horse in this race.”
Ms. Gabbard is the candidate who understands that America’s singular leadership is over, he said.
While she is the embodiment of this anti-interventionist message onstage, there is a much larger movement brewing. There is big money in peace. Two billionaire philanthropists from opposite ends of the political spectrum — George Soros and Charles Koch — came together this summer to fund the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank to argue against American intervention abroad.
Many of Ms. Gabbard’s advisers and allies celebrate this new peace movement, but go quiet when asked about specifics, like Ms. Gabbard’s trip to Syria.
“No comment,” said an otherwise loquacious Eli Clifton, the co-founder of the Quincy Institute.
Ms. Gabbard comes across as shy or maybe tense. She is not the jovial politician cracking jokes with her staff or buttering people up.
Doom is her main talking point. The only personal topics she speaks about easily are veganism and fitness. She says she is a big fan of mixed martial arts and drops in on classes while on the trail. As a child, she could not afford taekwondo classes, so she started doing capoeira, which was taught in the park for free, she said.
Her husband is more chatty. At a snack break, Mr. Williams grabs a Capri Sun and sticks the straw in the opposite way, which he says is better.
“When we were first dating, one of my best friends said, ‘Dude, you’re gonna be in the White House one day,’ and I was just like, ‘Yeahhh.’”
Ms. Gabbard will not say what podcasts she listens to, but she does say she just finished Oliver Stone’s television series “The Untold History of the United States.”
“Check it out,” she suggests. “It fills in the spaces that aren’t told in the history books.”
Mr. Stone has had his own controversy around coziness with Russia: In June he called Vladimir V. Putin’s anti-gay laws “sensible” and asked Mr. Putin to be his child’s godfather, in a transcript on the Kremlin’s website and as reported by Buzzfeed News. Ms. Gabbard has in the past made anti-gay statements, and worked for an anti-gay campaign run by her father, a Hawaii state lawmaker, for which she has since apologized.
In a race with a lot of history-making candidates, Ms. Gabbard lays claim to many potential firsts — she would be the first female president, the first American Samoan, the first from Hawaii, the first surfer, the first vegan.
She would also be the first Hindu. She was raised in part on the teachings of the guru Mr. Butler, who founded The Science of Identity Foundation, and whose work she said still guides her.
“Muslims have imams, Christians have pastors, Hindus have gurus, so he’s essentially like a Vaishnava Hindu pastor,” Ms. Gabbard said. “And he’s shared some really beautiful meditation practices with me that have provided me with strength and shelter and peace.”
Before discussion can continue about Mr. Butler’s role, Mr. Moore, her campaign adviser, interjects.
“How much do you think Jeremiah Wright affected Obama’s presidency?” he asks.
Ms. Gabbard says the interest in Mr. Butler and her faith has been fueled by a Hindu-phobic bigotry.
That night, Ms. Gabbard attends a dinner party in a field to celebrate the installation of the solar panels, an event that features a large cohort from Los Angeles, including the actresses Frances Fisher and Shailene Woodley.
Her sister is there, and seems to have recovered from the fall, though she says she is suffering from memory loss.
Ms. Gabbard gets onstage to give a speech. She talks for about four minutes, barely mentioning her policies or even the campaign itself.
Ms. Gabbard says she is driven by the feeling that death could come at any moment, which she realized at age 10 but which became more intense in Iraq.
“My first deployment was at the height of the war in 2005. We were 40 miles north of Baghdad. And there was a huge sign by one of the main gates that just read: ‘Is today the day?’” she says. “It was such a stark reminder that my time could come at any moment. That any day could be my last.”
She is not sure who put the sign up or why. But it was this message of potentially imminent doom that she wanted to leave the audience with at the second Democratic debate.
“As we stand here tonight,” she told the crowd. “There are thousands of nuclear missiles pointing right at us, and if we were to get an attack, we would have 30 minutes, 30 minutes, before we were hit.”
Ms. Gabbard continued.
“There is no shelter. This is the warmonger’s hoax. There is no shelter. It’s all a lie.”