The XX Factor

Michele Bachmann’s Conversion Fantasy

Sometimes I can really see why Chris Matthews insists that there’s something robotic about Michele Bachmann.  She does resemble nothing more than a computer program written for the sole purpose of pressing right wing populist buttons. Christine O’Donnell should really take some notes.

Take this post from Alex Pareene at Salon’s War Room about one of Bachmann’s favorite stump stories .  A computer programmed to hit every note on the right wing nut resentment scale could hardly do a better job.  Bachmann claims she was a liberal until she read Gore Vidal’s Burr , and suddenly switched over to a fire-breathing, tax-hating, science-denying Bible thumper, all because she found Vidal kind of snotty. Sure, it doesn’t make sense in logical terms, but it’s exactly the sort of myth that pumps the base up because she punches no less than ten right wing resentment buttons in that short little tale.

It’s not just that Vidal is a gay (1) liberal (2) intellectual (3) with a wry sense of humor (4) who writes dauntingly thick novels (5) with pretentious titles (6) that require a lot of research (7), thus making him the perfect target for a Two Minute Hate. It’s also that this story really hits that sweet spot between right wing populist envy and loathing of the “liberal elite” they obsess over.  (The best book I’ve ever read on the development of this envy-hatred-obsession loop is Nixonland by Rick Perlstein.)  This push-pull between envy and loathing produces the “ustabe” narrative, wherein said right wing nut can say, “I want to be an open-minded, thoughtful liberal type who wears well-fitted suits, but my moral fiber is too great for that.”

The theme of this story is that Bachmann totally had the option to be the kind of person who reads morally complex novels, but her conscience wouldn’t allow it (8).  And also that she totally had the option to be one of those liberals who thinks of the Founding Fathers as historical people who didn’t always agree with each other, but her Real Americaness forced her to believe the Founding Fathers are demigods that exist so that your prejudices and ideology can be projected on them (9). Thus, her audience indulges the fantasy that conservatism isn’t the result of knee-jerk authoritarianism, but something that you come to after actually entertaining the other side’s arguments (10). Of course, I no more believe that as many conservatives used to be liberals than I believe that all the evangelicals that claim to have a past of Satan-worshipping actually did so.

After all, Bachmann’s story of her supposed conversion changes depending on what flavor of right wing nut she’s talking to.  If her audience is more evangelical than Ted Kennedy-obsessive, then her story is that Jimmy Carter broke her heart by being pro-choice. But when she’s talking to the much-older Tea Party audiences, then she’s going to reference someone they mostly know because he used to make William Buckley look like a fool (11).