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Michele Bachmann's one-hour speech at an Iowans for Tax Relief event has so many highlights I can't even decide which ones to share with you, but there are three that stood out for me. This is certainly a preview of what a Bachmann candidacy would look like. Imagine being in the hall of mirrors with the echoing voice repeating nonsense over and over, louder and louder. No matter where you turn it follows you. That's Bachmann's speech.
Some general observations first. Note the Sarah Palin haircut. It's eerily similar to the 2008 Palin look. Also, she has been well-coached and this speech was crafted carefully. It's not an off-the-cuff effort. It was professionally written and crafted to have populist appeal and reach into populist anger, a la Richard Nixon. Many, many times she pivots back to the claim that she is not one of the "Washington elite", and is "just like YOU." Now, on to specifics.
I. The Biography
True to form for potential candidates for President, Bachmann begins with her biography and her Norwegian ancestors who migrated to the United States in the 1840's. That's the video at the top of this post. In Bachmann's narrative, she claims her ancestors left Norway because the government wouldn't permit an accumulation of wealth, and because the land they had was barren. Scarce farmland is certainly cited as a reason for Norwegian emigration by historians. Inheritance restrictions aside, Norway also limited voters to a small subset of elites, which made the United States a more attractive place to be.
And so, we come to contradiction #1 in Bachmann's world view. This is the one where she loudly proclaims that her ancestors did not come to this country for handouts, welfare and socialized medicine, but for mere opportunity. Oh, and free land. Yes, the free land had much to do with it. So they didn't come here for handouts, but they came with their hand out for that free land. And eventually, for the farm subsidies that came with farming in the Midwest during the 20th century. The Bachmann family farm received $252,000 between 1995 and 2006 in farm subsidies, which I think might qualify as a "handout".
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II. History Rewrite: Mashing up the Mayflower Compact, Slavery, and Founding Fathers
This is probably one of the most significant parts of her speech. Not because any of it is accurate or particularly true, but because it's carefully crafted to send a very high-pitched dogwhistle to every bigot on the planet.
Bachmann begins by rewriting history. Having brought her ancestors over from Norway and into the Midwest via the Dakotas, they have now come to settle in Iowa, where she declares with enthusiasm and aplomb that it "didn't matter that they spoke different languages, were different colors, came from different countries, they were 'all the same.'" I'd like to see her tell that to Chinese immigrants of that time with a straight face. In what might be one of the more bizarre linkups, she draws upon the Mayflower Compact as a "founding principle", referring to it many times as a "covenant". Of course, the Mayflower Compact included this language:
...constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
That 'general good' clause lands in our Constitution as the "general welfare" clause. Tut, tut, Michele. You might be a socialist.
Even as Bachmann romanticizes the 'wonder' of that period in our history, she manages to weave the slavery theme into her tapestry, and in such a bizarre way. First she claims that our founding fathers fought slavery 'to the death', citing John Quincy Adams' opposition to it. Of course, she forgets to tell her audience that John Quincy Adams was a one-term president because he faced rock-solid opposition to his ideas, including abolishing slavery. But, he was a Republican in the traditional sense of the word, and that was really where she was going with it.
Her conclusion is really the most significant, where she claims we are a "self-correcting nation" and ending slavery was a "self-correcting act." In this segment, she never mentions that the end to slavery came via a bloody civil war that isn't over to this day, nor did she bother to mention that it was ended by the sweep of a Presidential proclamation -- a unilateral act which bypassed Congress. For Bachmann, the battlegrounds are different, but the war rages on. She ties all of this up in a bow with the claim that the 2010 midterm elections were a major step forward on the path to self-correction now, too, because that's what self-correcting nations do.
Although the parallels were more subtle, this was a call to "take our nation back," a call she amplifies in the final clip.
III. Kill ObamaCare; Repeal the President
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Now we finally come to the heart of the matter, the reason for Bachmann's presence before these people. This is the linchpin of any possible candidacy, and she's playing it here for the choir and the crowd. Her statements on the House floor during the Affordable Care Act repeal vote were no accident. She said "repeal the President" then, and she said it again here. They are absolutely intentional.
Here's my translation of the "repeal the President" call. Repeal is defined as "abolition of law". Putting it in her context, it is yet another way to de-legitimize Barack Obama's presidency. Instead of calling for a challenge, or to take the Presidency back in 2012, calling for a repeal of the President suggests it was wrong for him to be President at all. It is subtle, intentional, and full of even louder, shriller dog whistle. It is, in effect, a call for a coup d'etat. She isn't calling for an election. She's calling for an impeachment, an abolition.
You really have to listen to her say this. The sequence is important. "Kill ObamaCare. Repeal the President." Interesting too that she says this MUST be done in 2012. She's right, because by 2016, it will be fully in effect and enough people will be benefitting to make it stick. By 2016, Bachmann will be claiming credit for it because she'll have no other choice.
IV. It's a mistake to write Bachmann off as a wingnut
We do so at our own peril. She may be previewing her own candidacy, or she may be previewing Sarah Palin's. One thing is sure: Their message will be identical.
Rick Perlstein wrote this at the end of his wonderful book Nixonland:
“What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans. On the one side, the “Silent Majority.” The “nonshouters.” The middle-class, middle American, suburban, exurban, and rural coalition who call themselves, now, “Values voters,” “people of faith,” “patriots,” or even, simply, “Republicans” — and who feel themselves condescended to by snobby opinion-making elites, and who rage about un-Americans, anti-Christians, amoralists, aliens. On the other side are the “liberals,” the “cosmopolitans,” the “intellectuals,” the “professionals” — “Democrats,” who say they see shouting in opposition to injustice as a higher form of patriotism. Or say “live and let live.” Who believe that to have “values” has more to do with a willingness to extend aid to the downtrodden than where, or if, you happen to worship — but who look down on the first category as unwitting dupes of feckless elites who exploit sentimental pieties to aggrandize their wealth, start wars, ruin lives. Both populations — to speak in ideal types — are equally, essentially, tragically American. And both have learned to consider the other not quite American at all. The argument over Richard Nixon, pro and con, gave us the language for this war.”
He concludes with this:
Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not.
How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.
Bachmann's speech was the next chapter in the war. She delivered it this time, and to those of us who have paid attention to history, it sounds like nothing more than bizarre, wingnutty nonsense. But it has clear signals to those with ears to hear, and it's worth paying attention to how they respond.
There will be no excuse for being caught off-guard this time around, like we were with the town halls. The signals are there, the strategy clear. Bachmann is building her own Nixonland and inviting all to join her.