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The Michele Bachmann Reader: Mehdi Hasan reviews

A short selection of recent articles on the Republican presidential wannabe and Tea Party darling.

In today's Sunday Times (£), there is a profile of the Minnesota congresswoman and wannabe Republican presidential candiate, Michele Bachman, who is fast emerging as one of the rising stars of the GOP.

According to the Sunday Times:

Few American presidential campaigns would be complete without the slapstick banana-skin pratfall. Now that Sarah Palin, the prime Republican exponent of the art, is in the wings inspecting her bruises, the Tea Party's latest poster girl has obligingly stepped in. Perversely, Michele Bachmann's gaffe-strewn performances are giving her the last laugh.

...[A] cavalier disregard for historical accuracy prompted a fact-checking agency to examine 24 of Bachmann's statements, some relating to her personal finances. Only one was found to be completely true and 17 were rated false (of which seven were categorised as "pants-on-fire" untrue).

This record of a politician who claims to have lived by Christian principles ever since she "surrendered my life over to Christ" at the age of 16 might have spelt her Waterloo. On the contrary, her popularity ratings have leapt by eight points in New Hampshire, where she is in second place behind Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and the Republican frontrunner. Her name recognition has jumped 17 points to 69 per cent in the latest Gallup poll, ranking her fifth behind Palin, Newt Gingrich, Romney and Ron Paul.

 

But the Sunday Times says the views of Bachmann's husband could prove to be her downfall:

Marcus Bachmann, her spouse of 32 years, is her main political adviser and a clinical therapist who runs a Christian counselling clinic in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, that tries to turn homosexuals "straight". He told a Christian radio station last year: "Barbarians need to be educated. They need to be disciplined and just because someone feels this or thinks this doesn't mean that we're supposed to go down that road." At the Minnesota pastors summit in 2005 he gave a presentation featuring several people who said they had been "cured" of being gay. His views are shared by his wife.

The FT has its own profile of Bachmann, penned by the paper's Washington correspondent, Stephanie Kirchgaessner:

In a field of uninspiring Republican contenders, Bachmann is the dark horse. Many believe she has the political skill to challenge former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the frontrunner and a man whose polished veneer makes him appear both presidential and - to his critics - totally inauthentic. A recent poll shows Bachmann trailing him by just one percentage point in Iowa.

Such a meteoric rise might seem like a one-off in a year with a shallow talent pool. In fact, Bachmann's career reflects something bigger: the steady shift to the right in Republican politics that has found new intensity with the emergence of the Tea Party. For Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson, it is Bachmann's uncompromising conservatism, the very trait that may spoil her chances with mainstream voters, which will lead her to victory. "It took a Jimmy Carter for us to get a Ronald Reagan, so it may very well take a Barack Obama for us to get a Michele Bachmann," he says.

Then there is John Cassidy's New Yorker piece:

. . . Obama's campaign managers should be trying to build her up, on the grounds that she is unelectable. However, it seems that David Axelrod and the rest of the boys in Chicago, where the Obama 2012 campaign is based, are in the dissident camp. Evidently, they believe Bachmann needs taking down before she gains more momentum.

Why is that? My guess is that, having themselves swept from nowhere to the White House on a wave of public disgust at the Bush Administration, the Obama strategists recognize a potentially dangerous rival. On the face of it, Bachmann is a classic right-wing protest candidate. But in centering her announcement speech on a critique of President Obama's economic record, and stating baldly that he can be beaten, she was signalling that she intends to be more than that.

To be sure, much of what she says about the economy and many other subjects doesn't add up. For now, that doesn't matter much. In courting the grass roots of the Republican Party, she inhabits an alternative universe to the one where many of her critics live: Bible-bashing, Fox News-watching white America, a land where all too many eagerly accept the notion that East Coast élites are busy selling hard-working Americans down the drain for the price of a Wall Street campaign contribution or a hat-tip from George Clooney.

Meanwhile, the inimitable Matt Taibbi is scathing in his must-read Rolling Stone profile of the controversial congresswoman:

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and, as you consider the career and future presidential prospects of an incredible American phenomenon named Michele Bachmann, do one more thing. Don't laugh.

. . . Don't do it. And don't look her in the eyes; don't let her smile at you. Michele Bachmann, when she turns her head toward the cameras and brandishes her pearls and her ageless, unblemished neckline and her perfect suburban orthodontics in an attempt to reassure the unbeliever of her non-threateningness, is one of the scariest sights in the entire American cultural tableau. She's trying to look like June Cleaver, but she actually looks like the T2 skeleton posing for a passport photo. You will want to laugh, but don't, because the secret of Bachmann's success is that every time you laugh at her, she gets stronger.

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy -- crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

And Britain's Matthew Norman has had a crack at Bachmann too, in the Independent:

Lovers of sledgehammer irony, stand by for a doozy. Patience is required, while the odds are both fairly long and mortifyingly short, depending on the closeness of one's acquaintance with sanity. For all that, there is a quantifiable chance -- about one in 20 on Betfair -- that we will awake on November 7, 2012, to the news that Michele Bachmann is to be the 45th president of the United States.

If so -- here's that irony -- the person to thank for the election of a sensationally ignorant, anti-gay rights zealot will be not Rush Limbaugh or Rupert Murdoch. It will be that venerable grand dame of out-and-proud homosexuality, that paragon of cultured liberalism and intellectual hauteur, Gore Vidal.

It was while reading a novel of his that the Minnesota congresswoman, then a liberal and erstwhile Jimmy Carter campaign volunteer, swapped sides.

. . . At this point, convention demands the disclaimer that stranger political things have happened. But unless I slept through Lembit Opik's appointment as high chancellor of a federated Europe, or Eric Pickles shaving 0.02 seconds off Usain Bolt's 100m world record, they haven't.

However wretched the US economy, however stubbornly unemployment hovers close to 10pc, however self-destructive America's mood as it rages against the dying of the imperial light, Michele Bachmann is surely a lurch along the politico-comic interface too far.

Common sense insists that Mr Vidal will never come closer to deciding the presidency than any influence he exerted over his cousin Al Gore. Then again, what role has common sense played in her rise so far? All we know for sure is that her name's Michele Bachmann, that she's running for president, and that watching her do so will be as much fun as anyone has a right to expect within the law.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era