Marianne Williamson talks to reporters after the first of two...

Marianne Williamson talks to reporters after the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN on Tuesday in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

Self-help author and political novice Marianne Williamson stands as one of the most unlikely of the two dozen people seeking the Democratic nomination for president, but on Tuesday she also delivered one of the best performances. And she did it by not acting like the others.

And no, Williamson doesn’t have much chance of winning the nomination. Sure, a lot of folks said the same thing about Barack Obama 12 years ago, and Donald Trump four years ago, but those two eventual presidents worked in different landscapes, with Obama winning by selling hope, and Trump by selling fear.

Williamson is selling love, and justice, though there doesn’t seem to be much of a political market for those particular goods.

As the other nine Democrats parried back and forth Tuesday night over differing visions of how to address healthcare access — too left? too Republican-lite? — Williamson argued for a bigger view.

“Everything that we’re talking about here tonight is what’s wrong with American politics, and the Democratic Party needs to understand that we should be the party that talks, not just about symptoms, but also about causes,” Williamson said. “When we’re talking about healthcare, we need to talk about more than just the healthcare plan. We need to realize we have a sickness-care rather than a healthcare system. We need to be the party talking about why so many of our chemical policies and our food policies and our agricultural policies and our environment policies and even our economic policies are leading to people sick to begin with.”

If the applause meter measures success, Williamson did well. She argued for reparations for African Americans to try to mitigate generations of racial injustice, and sought to put the water crisis in economically battered Flint, Mich., into a broader context than the specifics of government errors and mismanagement that led to a municipal water system too tainted by lead to be used safely by the black-majority city.

“I lived in Grosse Pointe,” Williamson said, referring to one of the region’s wealthier — and whiter — suburbs. “What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry, and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight — if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”

And that is the underlying perversion in American politics. Trump didn’t lead a wave of nativism and political divisiveness, he surfed it. He is a symptom rather than the cause of a political environment in which we can’t even agree on basic facts (see global warming), and in which so many elected Republicans back a party leader who not only is incapable of telling the truth, but who abuses the power of his office (see the Mueller report, part two) and exploits dog-whistle racism (see black-majority Baltimore as a place where Trump says “no human being would want to live”).

“Our problem is not just that we need to defeat Donald Trump,” Williamson said. “We need a plan to solve institutionalized hatred, collectivized hatred and white nationalism. And in order to do that, we need more than a political insider game and wonkiness and intellectual argument. Those things will not defeat Donald Trump. We need some radical truth-telling.”

Indeed. Elections tend to turn on emotions, and symbols, and fears and hopes. While Williamson likely won’t win the Democratic nomination, she may well have done the party a service by reminding it of the importance of making that connection with voters.

“I want a politics that goes much deeper,” Williamson said. “I want a politics that speaks to the heart, because the only way to fight — you keep talking about how we’re going to fight Donald Trump. You can’t fight dog whistles. You have to override them.”

Scott Martelle wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.