Inside Bachmann's Brain

Written by David Frum on Monday August 8, 2011

Where is Michele Bachman coming from? What does the latest Tea Party champion really stand for? Ryan Lizza attempts an answer in a em>New Yorker profile.<

Here's a route into her head; remember Bachmann's statement about the Founders tirelessly working to end slavery? The statement was widely ridiculed as an expression of pure ignorance. Lizza takes the statement instead as a route into Bachmann's own personal alternative knowledge system:

Bachmann’s comment about slavery was not a gaffe. It is, as she would say, a world view. In “Christianity and the Constitution,” the book she worked on with [John] Eidsmoe, her law school mentor, he argues that John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams “expressed their abhorrence for the institution” and explains that “many Christians opposed slavery even though they owned slaves.” They didn’t free their slaves, he writes, because of their benevolence. “It might be very difficult for a freed slave to make a living in that economy; under such circumstances setting slaves free was both inhumane and irresponsible.”

You don't want to invest a lot of time nit-picking the historical inaccuracies here. (For example, John Adams was a Unitarian who rejected the divinity of Christ, Alexander Hamilton avoided church, and while all three genuinely abhorred slavery, only Jay can be said to have worked to end it.) The anecdote is valuable as an illustration of the way in which Bachmann processes information. Lizza found a 2005 interview in which Bachmann was asked about books she liked. She praised two: Ann Coulter's Treason and Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey. Lizza explains the latter:

[Pearcey] teaches readers how to implement Schaeffer’s idea that a Biblical world view should suffuse every aspect of one’s life. She tells her readers to be extremely cautious with ideas from non-Christians. There may “be occasions when Christians are mistaken on some point while nonbelievers get it right,” she writes in “Total Truth.” “Nevertheless, the overall systems of thought constructed by nonbelievers will be false—for if the system is not built on Biblical truth, then it will be built on some other ultimate principle. Even individual truths will be seen through the distorting lens of a false world view.

As Lizza points out, Bachmann regards even the most mundane political facts through the prism of a worldview that would probably seem extremely strange to most Americans. One of her first great political causes was to attack federal vocational education programs on the grounds that they promoted:

a “new restructuring of American society,” beginning with “workforce boards” that would tell every student the specific career options he or she could pursue, turning children into “human resources for a centrally planned economy."

This kind of talk would sound paranoid to most of us. It emerges from a religious philosophy that rejects the federal government as an alien instrument of destruction, ripping apart a Christian society. Bachmann's religiously grounded rejection of the American state finds a hearing with many more conventional conservatives radicalized by today's hard economic times.

Lizza asked Bachmann to explain the convictions that animate her:

If there was one word on a motivation or world view, that one word would be ‘liberty,’” Bachmann told me in early August, when I asked about her world view. “That’s what inspires me and motivates me more than anything—just the concept of freedom, liberty, what it means. Whether it’s economic liberty, religious liberty, liberty in our finances, liberty in being able to choose the profession we have.

He comments tartly:

It is a peculiarity of the current political moment that a politician with a history of pushing sectarian religious beliefs in government has become a hero to a libertarian movement.

But is it so peculiar? The Tea Party is not exactly a libertarian movement - otherwise it would not so passionately defend Medicare for those over 55. It's a movement of relatively older and relatively affluent Americans whose expectations have been disrupted by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. They are looking for an explanation of the catastrophe - and a villain to blame. They are finding it in the same place that Bachmann and her co-religionists located it 30 years ago: a deeply hostile national government controlled by alien and suspect forces, with Barack Obama as their leader and symbol:

During the last Presidential campaign, [Bachmann] told Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, that Barack Obama held “anti-American views” and then admitted, “I made a misstatement.” (In 2010, she said that she had been right about Obama’s views all along: “Now I look like Nostradamus.”)