History may very well look back on Michele Bachmann’s political career with much amusement. She was the conservative Republican congresswoman with the ever-present off-kilter look in her eyes, who spoke with an accent straight out of Fargo, told ridiculously intricate and laughable whoppers, mounted a quixotic 2012 presidential bid, and is married to a gentleman whose resemblance to Cameron from Modern Family has been noted by more than one comedian.
She’s probably the most clownish political figure in the history of Minnesota, a state that has also given us a current U.S. senator who played one of the gorilla wranglers in Trading Places, a professional wrestler-turned-governor-turned-9/11 truth conspiracist, and a perennial candidate who once got over tens of thousands of votes in a Democratic primary for state treasurer, while incarcerated for double murder.
All that comedy notwithstanding, I see Bachmann’s true impact on politics as something much darker, an approach to public service that embraces some of the worst American traditions, from proud ignorance to anti-intellectualism to neo-McCarthyism. Bachmann—who is scheduled to visit Philadelphia to address the Union League, of all places, this coming Friday—never came close to the presidency. But what’s much scarier is that maybe, someday, someone like her could.
Yes, Bachmann stretched the truth a lot. It’s a cliche that all politicians lie, but she took rank dishonesty in politics to an entirely different level. I don’t need to go through the litany of her glaring falsehoods over the years; just about every political website had a “greatest hits” package ready to go last week. In fact, Bachmann is the only politician in history whose retirement has led the Washington Post’s full-time fact-checker to write a wistful farewell column about how much dynamite material she gave him over the years.
But Bachmann did much more dangerous things than lie. She once claimed, in a presidential debate, that the HPV vaccine can cause adult-onset mental retardation. It’s one thing to tell fibs about the specifics of the Obamacare legislation. It’s another entirely to warn people, based on false information, against the use of necessary, life-saving vaccines.
Then there was the neo-McCarthyism. Bachmann famously said on Chris Matthews’ show in 2008 that the media should investigate members of Congress, and whether they were “pro-America, or anti-America.” Awful as that was, at least she didn’t name names. But she did do so a few years later, when she was part of an effort to claim, without a shred of evidence that Huma Abedin, the wife of former Rep. Anthony Weiner and a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, was an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, at a time when public support for gay rights has skyrocketed, Bachmann has been as synonymous with anti-gay sentiment as any elected politician in the country.
In doing all these things, Bachmann introduced a formula to American politics that has since been widely adopted among other elected officials:
1. Say something wildly outrageous and/or untrue, which you may or may not believe, something you know will outrage most people but gladden a small but passionate constituency of supporters.
2. Wait for the media denunciations.
3. Use those denunciations to point out how much the media hates you, is biased against you, has victimized you, and is afraid of The Truth.
4. Use the “controversy” to raise money, goose book sales, etc.
5. Bask, bask, bask in the attention.
6. Repeat over and over for as long as necessary, until you’ve made a career out of doing it.
Sure, Ann Coulter was doing the same thing a long time ago. But she wasn’t a four-term member of Congress. The formula succeeded wildly: In 2010, Bachmann raised more money for her House race than any other candidate nationwide, and was in the top 10 again in 2012. Not bad for an elected official who, not a single time in her Congressional career, sponsored a piece of legislation that was signed into law.
Assuming she beats the ethics rap currently hanging over her head, Bachmann is almost certainly headed for a long and lucrative career in the conservative media, a place where she can exercise her usual standards of truth-telling in an environment with much less oversight and significantly lower standards. That’s especially true if, as has been rumored, she skips Fox News and goes to work for Glenn Beck’s operation.
So next time a first- or second-term congressman you’ve never heard of issues a press release about President Obama’s obvious communist ties, or advances a bogus conspiracy theory, or proudly claims they get all their news from World Net Daily, know that Michele Bachmann helped make that possible. And much as Bachmann was a sideshow for much of her career, that legacy has potential to do great harm down the road.