A block down the road from where the debate was being held was the Fillmore Detroit theater, where a portion of Williamson’s robust following from her days in the city gathered to watch the debate. A woman glumly ate blueberries out of a large Ziploc bag as the debate began. Williamson raised her finger once or twice to answer a question, only to be bulldozed by another candidate. Having had enough of this, the woman eating blueberries stood up and said, “I came here to hear Marianne talk, and nobody is letting her talk.”
The woman left, and I wondered if she regretted it, considering how things turned out that night. Just a few commercial breaks later, Williamson was asked by CNN’s Don Lemon what made her qualified to determine how much “financial assistance” was due to black Americans in reparations for slavery. She corrected Lemon and said it wasn’t financial assistance; no, it was a “debt that is owed.” “I’ll tell you what makes me qualified,” she said. “If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule, given that there were four to five million slaves at the end of the Civil War — they were all promised 40 acres and a mule for every family of four. If you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars. And I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult, and I believe that $200 to $500 billion is politically feasible today, because so many Americans realize there is an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface.”
Earlier she had talked about how the continuing water crisis in Flint, Mich., would never have happened in her old (wealthy) neighborhood, Grosse Pointe. “Flint is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We have an administration that has gutted the Clean Water Act. We have communities — particularly communities of color and disadvantaged communities all over this country — who are suffering from environmental injustice.” The wind was at her back now. She shook her fists at the heavens as the audience cheered. Even her use of the phrase “dark psychic forces” resonated not just with the meme factory but with voters, who knew that psychic doesn’t always mean psychic; sometimes it just means psychic. People saw that someone was finally calling out white nationalism and anti-Semitism and xenophobia, something her fellow candidates wouldn’t do so consistently for another week, when two mass shootings in one day killed 31 people.
After the debate, she arrived to greet the press, triumphant. Chris Matthews was doddering around. Last time, he wouldn’t interview her on the post-debate panel on MSNBC (“We were too unclean for him,” a campaign staff member told me). Now he shook her hand warmly and congratulated her. There was a line of media waiting for her — CBS, Bloomberg, the Young Turks, a kid reporter who wanted to know what kind of pet she had. (A cat; it died a few years ago.) She’d been scheduled to go on the post-debate panel on CNN at 1 a.m., but the kingmaker Jeff Zucker himself had called down and asked that she be put on earlier, so there she was sitting. Was it perfect? No. Did Anderson Cooper ask her whom she’d been supporting in the election, so that she had to politely remind him that no, really, she was running in it, too? Yes. But he was warm, and smiling, and there she was, sitting right between him and Van Jones.
When Williamson walked into the Fillmore, it was nearly 1 a.m. Her loyal acolytes had been waiting in vigil, singing “Amazing Grace,” and they erupted in applause and hugs when she entered. One of the several political reporters who had made fun of me for doing a Williamson article texted me to ask how I’d seen it coming. Across the room, Williamson talked about angels and Abraham Lincoln and took selfies. A few campaign staff members danced around in victory a little. David Brooks said, in this newspaper, that while some of her ideas were “wackadoodle,” she might be the miracle the Democrats, and this country, needed.
We probably will never know. Right after the second debate, just as love seemed to be making its mark, a rash of alarming articles came out, based on things Williamson had written and said in the past, that seemed to spell the end for her. They included a response to an audience question she had answered while campaigning in which she called mandatory vaccines “draconian” and “Orwellian.” These articles quoted from her book “A Return to Love,” in which she said she believed that “sickness is an illusion” and that “healing doesn’t come from the pill. It comes from our belief” and that “cancer and AIDS and other serious illnesses are physical manifestations of a psychic scream.” People had dug up old tweets and were passing them around — tweets like, “How many public personalities on antidepressants have to hang themselves before the F.D.A. does something, Big Pharma cops to what it knows and the average person stops falling for this? The tragedies keep compounding. The awakening should begin.” She was accused of telling AIDS patients not to take their medication. She was accused of shaming people who took antidepressants. Someone tweet-quoted highlights from her book “A Course in Weight Loss,” implying she was a fat-shamer.