For true connoisseurs of wingnuttery, there’s no one in elected office quite like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Sure, her House colleague Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia is more regularly dopey, and her close friend Rep. Steve Smith of Iowa can be as shrill, but day in, day out, Bachmann exhibits the glowing heart of conservative extremism in all its forms with impressive consistency.
To some extent, Bachmann’s notoriety flows from her willingness to say outrageous things for which she has absolutely no evidence. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking service PolitiFact has rated 23 Bachmann statements since 2009. Sixteen were either “false” or “pants-on-fire” false. Another six were “half-true” or “barely true.” And that’s aside from her frequent gaffes, most notably her relocation of the Revolutionary War sites of Concord and Lexington from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, and her proud claim just yesterday that John Wayne hailed from her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa (as all Iowans are taught from birth, the Duke was from Winterset).
But what makes Bachmann most distinctive isn’t her fast-and-loose connection to facts, but the fierce ideology that underlies her interpretations of reality. She has staked a claim in her presidential candidacy of being the sole “constitutional conservative” in the field. That term is perhaps the mother of all wingnut dog whistles, connoting a belief that liberalism of any sort is not simply in error, but is fundamentally incompatible with the laws and traditions of the Republic, and indeed, with the Divine Plan for the nation and the universe, which requires absolute private property rights, the “right to life” for the unborn, and state recognition of absolute moral values as reflected in a conservative take on Christian scripture. It’s no accident that Bachmann first achieved national fame in 2008 for suggesting an investigation of Members of Congress to determine how many of them were “anti-American.” Instead of just a slip of the tongue, the remark reflects an intense counter-revolutionary conviction that extraordinary action is necessary to save America from the socialists and secularists who are consciously plotting its ruin. She is standing at the crossroads where the overlapping tribes of Tea Party folk and old-fashioned Christian Right activists meet, smiting the godless foe on behalf of the righteous.
Bachmann’s extremism on specific issues reflects her zeal. She made her bones in Minnesota politics fighting for “traditional values” in school curricula and against recognition of same-sex unions. She has long exemplified the determination to purge her party of anyone who doesn’t share a hard-core conservative ideological outlook. She has eagerly embraced any number of peculiar conspiracy theories, including the claim that the Census is intended to give the community-organizing group ACORN sinister access to personal information about its enemies, and the suggestion that AmeriCorps is a Hitler-Youthish indoctrination program. She has flatly attributed the entire housing meltdown and financial crisis to poor and minority people who aren’t “creditworthy.” She was the first member of Congress to make total repeal of “ObamaCare” a precondition for any vote for any fiscal measure. It goes on and on.
Her personal background strongly reinforces her character as perhaps the most extremist politician to run a viable presidential campaign in recent memory. As a student at Oral Roberts University’s law school (subsequently relocated to Virginia to become part of Pat Robertson’s Regent University), one of Bachmann’s mentors was John Eidsmoe, a leading theoretician of neo-theocracy. Back in Minnesota, she and her husband (now the proprietor of a “Christian counseling” facility) founded a charter public school that immediately ran afoul of church-state separation principles. She is almost certainly the first candidate for president to have spent some time on the sidewalks outside abortion clinics protesting their existence.
So why my focus on Bachmann right now? Aside from the rave reviews she received for her performance in the first 2012 Republican presidential candidate debate in New Hampshire on June 13, Bachmann has vaulted to the front of the pack in Iowa, achieving a statistical tie with Mitt Romney in the first Des Moines Register poll of likely caucus-goers. Herman Cain, who had created some early buzz among the Tea Party faithful in Iowa, is now far behind Bachmann (at 10 percent, as opposed to her 22 percent and Romney’s 23 percent), and more importantly, Tim Pawlenty, who has devoted enormous resources to Iowa seeking to become the “conservative alternative to Romney”, is mired in sixth place at six percent.
With Romney having already announced he would not compete at the August 13 Iowa GOP Straw Poll, the table-setter for the Caucuses, Bachmann becomes the odds-on favorite to win that contest, which typically winnows the field. Pawlenty’s organizational strength in the state could still save him, or at least give him a respectable showing in the Straw Poll, but the intensity of Bachmann’s support—in a state where conservatives are uniquely obsessed with Bachmann’s signature issue of opposition to same-sex marriage—will make her formidable.
It’s unclear at this point which phenomenon is more remarkable: Bachmann’s sudden viability, or the fact that the entire field is taking positions similar to hers on the big issues. Either way, it continues to be a very good year to be a wingnut.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore