The paranoid style of Michele Bachmann

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“In my opinion the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with communists.” –Senator Joseph McCarthy, 1950.

“Information has recently come to light that raises serious questions about Department of State policies and activities that appear to be a result of influence operations conducted by individuals and organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.” –Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, 2012.

Fear and prejudice make people do stupid things.

  • In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, fear of the new world and prejudice against the unknown resulted in the deaths of 24 people—19 hung, four dying in prison, and one crushed to death—all because they were accused of being witches. The story is told well in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—a banned book.
  • During WWI and the Depression 30s, fears arising out of hunger and desperation and prejudice against hope for a better life led to raids, beatings, and imprisonment for union members and those who wished to advocate for their political views.
  • After Pearl Harbor, fear and prejudice against the Japanese led to the forcible relocation and internment of over125,000 loyal Americans into concentration camps.
  • In the 1950s, fear of the Soviets and prejudice against those who saw the world differently from Senator Joe McCarthy were subject to communist witch hunts and Hollywood blacklists that led to the loss of life and livelihood of thousands.
  • And in civil rights protests in the 1960s, and at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, fear and prejudice against those advocating equal rights for Blacks and gays were treated to beatings and police brutality.

Then there is Michele Bachmann who seems to be cornering the market on fear and prejudice with her defamatory remarks about Congressman Keith Ellison and Huma Abedin as being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Bachmann’s latest accusations are so ugly and dirty that even Republicans such as John McCain and Speaker John Boehner are condemning them. Her comments and accusations about Muslims and the State Department take a page from Senator McCarthy’s comments about Communists and the State Department in 1950.

America is a beautiful nation, often filled with hope and promise of a better life for us and our children. Yet this country has an ugly side to it that we often forget and ignore. It is the story of America as told so well by Richard Hofstadter in his The Paranoid Style of American Politics. We often cloak fear and prejudice in the flag and persecute minorities or blame individual liberties as the cause of our insecurities. If only the government had more power or authority, if only people had less rights, some promise, then we could root out witches, communists, disloyal Americans, homosexuals, immigrants, terrorists, and Muslims and make the country safe for the rest of us God-fearing Christian Americans.

Yet Bachmann’s recent attacks are only the most recent episode of her appeal to fear, prejudice, and ignorance. Recall again her 2012 presidential candidacy. After a first place victory in the August, 2011 Iowa straw poll, she was on top of the world. Yet she suddenly fell from political grace. Yes the entrance of Texas Governor Rick Perry hurt her campaign by carving into her political base, but it was also her comments about vaccines that doomed her. In a September 12, 2001 presidential debate Bachmann criticized Perry for an executive order he issued mandating that all sixth-grade girls be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) as a measure to prevent cervical cancer. Bachmann’s criticism was that such an order was an overreach of government authority and an infringement upon individual liberty. This is a fair criticism. But she continued her attack the next day on the NBC Today Show. Describing her conversation with a woman after the debate Bachmann recounted: “She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. There is no second chance for these little girls if there is any dangerous consequences to their bodies.”.

Bachmann’s repeating of the urban legend that vaccines cause cognitive problems—retardation—was swiftly condemned by the medical community. The source of this claim was a long discredited and doctored study that purported to find this link. The medical evidence was significant—there was no connection and instead one could argue, as Governor Perry had correctly suggested in the debate, that HPV and other vaccines would be medically beneficial and would better promote public health than not getting the vaccine. Yet because of this urban legend connecting vaccines with autism, parents were refusing to inoculate their children.

Bachmann’s repeating and apparent embrace of this myth was roundly criticized. Suddenly she looked like some type of crackpot, ready to embrace outlandish and fringe ideas. Some might have concluded that Michele Bachmann believes the world is flat, the Earth is at the center of a universe God created on the evening of Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC (according to calculations by Medieval Bishop James Ussher), and that Elvis is still alive and well and living in hiding somewhere, thereby explaining why she wished him happy birthday on the anniversary of his alleged death.

Bachmann boiled a cauldron of fringe views and crank beliefs. She was often criticized for factual inaccuracies in many claims, ranging from assertions that the American Constitutional framers freed the slaves (they did not) to the claim that Dodd-Frank (the bill passed in 2010 to regulate Wall Street financial transactions to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) have already lead to the loss of millions of American jobs or increased health care costs despite the fact that most of the major provisions of both had yet to go into effect. She also simply and repeatedly made other assertions that were simply wrong or widely exaggerated. Louis Jacobson of Polifact points out that Bachmann through 2010 had earned five “Pants on Fire” on the Truth-O-Meter and has never scored better than “false” in her five truth tests. She is the hall of famer of political lies and inaccuracies.

I am not sure what is worse. Is she lying for political advantage? Is she that ignorant about facts and history? Is she dumb, lying, or appealing to prejudice? Neither of these explanations are praiseworthy. With the comments about the Muslim brotherhood I am not sure if her main failing is the falsehood about Ellison and Abedin or equating being Muslim with being un-American?

Joseph McCarthy’s end came in 1952 when Joseph Welch, Special Counsel to the Army asked of him in a hearing: “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

I wonder the same about Bachmann. Maybe the turning point came this week when Senator John McCain declared: “When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”