Last night at the Republican debate in New Hampshire, Michele Bachmann announced that she’d formally filed her papers to run for president. Even more surprisingly, the post-debate punditry concluded that she’d won (or tied Mitt Romney) for the win in a debate peppered with inane questions about whether or not the candidates preferred Coke or Pepsi, Elvis or Johnny Cash. Bachmann got in her usual anti-Obama one-liners, but she also repeatedly mentioned that she’s a mother to twenty-three foster children and a tax litigation attorney. It worked for some; a lot of critics seemed to think a less overblown, more credible candidate Bachmann emerged last night.
It’s times like this that make me want to turn off the TV, but I know I've got to take a walk around the room and remember how Bachmann first emerged on the national political scene. I was there—in a studio one October evening at 30 Rock, on the set of Chris Matthews’ Hardball.
I figured it was just another pre-election 2008 segment, but suddenly this Congresswoman from Minnesota I really hadn’t heard much about is on the screen, by remote from DC. My spine stiffened as I heard Bachmann say, “I‘m very concerned that he [Obama] may have anti-American views.”
My retro-redbaiting antenna perked up. Here was this Congresswoman from the good state of Minnesota speaking about a man who was about to become President.
Bachmann then called on the media to “take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out—are they pro-America or anti-America?”
At that moment, all that I had learned about McCarthy and the deforming “–ism” he brought to our national politics came to mind. I also had a tough time believing I was hearing this language in October 2008. But neo-McCarthyism was roaming the land, stewarded by Sarah Palin and her passel.
So, when Matthews turned to me for a response I did my best to stay collected.
I told him then what still holds true when I think of Bachmann today, “This is a politics, at a moment of extreme economic pain in this country, that is incendiary, that is so debased. I think it’s very scary, because this is a country I love.”
Turns out in October 2008, plenty of people (though not quite enough people) felt the same way I did. As money poured in to support until-then largely unknown Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate, Elwyn Tinklenberg, the National Republican Congressional Committee pulled its resources out of the race. In the end, however, Bachmann defeated Tinklenberg by less than three points in her ruby red district.
It’s been a while since that encounter, but Bachmann has gone into overdrive, continuing to push her politics of fear and loathing and demonization, though usually in a less raw, more insidious way. We saw this last night in her response to questions about abortion, when Bachmann, who is “100 percent pro-life,” said that “all of the firepower” and the “real battle” is on the “issue of taking an innocent human life.”
Michele Bachmann’s rhetoric has an ugly history—here and elsewhere—one that emerges in times of deep economic anxiety as we are experiencing now. It’s a politics that channels the basest, meanest instincts of our political culture.
Just a few weeks ago, in fact, Bachmann sent out an e-mail saying that she is “prayerfully considering” a presidential run and asking for donations to her “Make Barack Obama a One-Term President Money Bomb.” She lunges forward to assert that “Obamacare is bringing socialism to our doorstep” and “we must protect our traditional values.” The e-mail links to a video in which she again appeals for donations to “lead an all-out assault on his socialist policies. That’s why we’re launching a money bomb today.”
Fearmongering and division—alive and well, courtesy of Bachmann.
She is no fool. Deft and adept at the noncommittal smear, she has used the “non-answer” to further her agenda, as she did in this interview with George Stephanopoulos back in February, when she repeatedly refused to say whether Obama is a Christian and a US citizen.
At other moments, she will still go full throttle and overt, as in this interview with the Financial Times. “People are beginning to realize that Obama is a socialist,” she said. “And that is not the way America is.”
In May, Bachmann’s neo-McCarthyism won praise from fellow witch-hunter Glenn Beck, who said on his radio show: “The country is in trouble. Michele Bachmann will admit that there are enemies within.”
Bachmann assured Beck that the admiration (and the ignorance) was mutual. “You’ve named names, you’ve named organizations, “ she said. “That’s empowered people. The infamous Glenn Beck chalkboard—that’s where the American people have been learning the truth.”
Bachmann is now the vanguard of the rightwing populist movement—particularly with the more genial Mike Huckabee out of the race and her sister-nemesis Sarah Palin not yet in it—she will be the voice of this strand of social conservatism in the campaign.
While her followers portray Bachmann as a “modern woman,” never forget that what she really represents is a retro throwback to a kind of American that is intolerant, bigoted and out of step with the best instincts and possibilities of this country.