What’s happening:

The first night of CNN’s two-part Democratic presidential debate series featured strong moments from top contenders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but it was an unlikely candidate who drew the loudest support from the audience. Marianne Williamson spoke just nine minutes during the two-hour-plus debate, but may have left a lasting mark with her impassioned statements on race and the purpose of government.

The famed self-help writer has up until now been known as a wellness advocate who keeps company with celebrities like Oprah, Cher and Kim Kardashian. But on Tuesday, she turned heads with reasoned arguments on reparations for the descendents of slavery and the causes of the Flint, Mich., water crisis, while invoking New Age-y concepts like the “dark psychic force” of racism.

She was the most-searched candidate during the debate, according to Google Trends, despite regularly polling at – or below – 1 percent.

Why there’s debate:

Before the Tuesday event, Williamson’s campaign had been seen by many as a fun but ultimately frivolous oddity of the 2020 primary cycle. Statements like her plan to “harness love for political purposes” led to significant online reaction, the tone of which varied somewhere between admiration and mockery.

But some of Williamson’s self-described “Orb Gang” of online advocates, many of whom say they started backing her ironically, have become sincere supporters of her candidacy. Her earnest answers on the large moral issues facing the country, they say, make her “so much more accessible than normal politicians.” She was considered by many pundits to be one of the big winners of the this week’s debates.

As Williamson has gained visibility, some of her past comments have become a major source of criticism, especially those regarding mental health and vaccines.

What’s next:

Williamson’s chances of actually contending for the Democratic nomination are still quite small. She’ll have to improve her polling numbers and donor base just to make the stage for the next debate in September. She reportedly hasn’t said whether she’d stay in the race if she failed to reach the debate or if she intends to run for office in the future.

Perspectives

She’s proven herself to be a serious candidate.

“Her candidacy is unlikely to win, but it’s far from the joke that many people have pitched it as.” — “Young Turks” host John Iadarola to The Hill.

Her presence in the debates makes Democrats look silly.

“Many Democrats worry that Williamson lends credence to the Republican talking point that the Dems’ primary field is a ‘clown car.’” — Douglas Perry, The Oregonian

Williamson’s sincerity helps her connect with voters in a way career politicians don’t.

“Williamson is an example of how normal people talk about race and racism works in a way that’s so much more accessible than normal politicians but they all just largely avoid that frank language. When you’re freed of typical political calculus, you can.” — Astead Herndon, New York Times

Her new popularity will help perpetuate hazardous health conspiracies.

“I don’t want to be a downer, but Marianne Williamson is genuinely dangerous and bad. She has said that people should get off their antidepressants and railed against vaccines — ideas that can literally kill people.” — German Lopez, Vox

Beneath the spiritual jargon, there’s a truth to her message.

“There’s something magnetic in hearing racism described as a ‘dark psychic force,’ as Williamson did Tuesday night. On the first level, that sounds absurd, because those are funny ghost words. On the second level, isn’t racism a dark psychic force? Isn’t this country’s original sin slavery, and doesn’t racism poison too many interactions big and small?” — Katherine Miller, BuzzFeed

Other candidates could learn from her earnestness.

“In a sense, Williamson has the luxury of speaking plainly and passionately because she has zero chance of being the Democratic nominee. But those who do might take notice, and stop squabbling about the finer points.” — Dana Milbank, Washington Post

She has turned her tongue-in-cheek online fandom into sincere support.

“Suddenly, volunteer moderators who made Williamson an ironic social media star over the last month for her sometimes metaphysical policy prescriptions started to realize that their candidate was the unironic breakout star of the second Democratic debate.” — Ben Collins, NBC News

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