My new favorite micro-generic hallmark of the Michele Bachmman news story is the phrase “and then she did this.” It crops up again and again in baffled coverage from veteran reporters, and I think it captures something particular about her. What Michele Bachmann says so consistently contradicts what Michele Bachmann just said that her weirdness seems inevitable, and yet it keeps managing to surprise. After a while, her political communication takes on the sort of art-for-art’s-sake quality one sees in, say, Dadaism. It makes so little sense that you must accept it only for what it is—and then she did this. What Bachmann did this time was tell The Today Show that an anonymous woman approached her after Monday’s debate to say that her daughter got inoculated for HPV, and then she “developed mental retardation.” Is Bachmann saying that you shouldn’t vaccinate your child against preventable disease? Is she saying the HPV vaccine retards you? No—that would be irresponsible. But she is saying that “this is the very real concern, and people have to draw their own conclusions.”
Anderson Cooper has had enough of this bullshit. A responsible candidate for President does not A) use her television presence to disseminate the medical theories of a nameless stranger and B) absolve herself of any responsibility for what she’s doing by saying we’ll have to decide for ourselves. The American people do not have to decide for themselves whether vaccines cause mental retardation and post hoc ergoes propter hoc. We have scientists/centuries of logic to do that. When Bachmann acts otherwise, it forces us to decide whether she is cynically opportunistic or simply can’t think.
Like so many of us, Cooper has attempted to channel his frustration into that question. Why does Michele Bachmann act this way? He manages to get a fantastic quote out of her former chief of staff, Ron Carey, who—after praising Bachmann’s information intake if not her reading comprehension—gently advances the hypothesis that her head is maybe filled with garbage:
That’s one of the challenges I’ve found with working with Michele that’s consistent with other people who have worked with her…She will be out there speaking, and you’ll say, where did this come from? And it’s something that she maybe heard on TV.
So that’s why Bachmann consistently lies to everyone; she’s repeating stuff she vaguely remembers from sources she can’t quite identify. A crying woman in Florida said her daughter got vaccinated for HPV and is also developmentally disabled? Great—the American people will have to decide for themselves whether vaccines make your kid retarded.
The question of why an adult reasons in this fashion is just a stalking horse, though, for Cooper’s real question. You can see it eating at him throughout the segment: why do the American people put up with Michele Bachmann? Why is she not only an elected legislator but a candidate for President? The first time she told the country that Obama’s trip to India cost $200 million a day, why wasn’t she laughed out of politics forever?
And that is the sixty-dollar question of American democracy. Bachmann is currently running seventh behind all debate-level Republican candidates except John “That Didn’t Sound Crazy to Anybody Else?” Huntsman. She will not be President. If I had to lay money, I’d say she won’t be a congressperson in 2016. Yet she seems extremely important and bad, at least to people who follow politics. I submit that is because her popularity, limited though it may be, seems inversely proportional to her decency and intelligence in a way that makes a thinking person despair of popular judgment.
Michele Bachmann is like a robotic cat that is supposed to mimic all the behaviors of a real cat, but when you turn it on all it does is bite its own anus until it catches on fire. The robotics experts who have been called to witness its unveiling are insulted, then maddened when everyone else in the audience is like, oh my god, a robot cat! We love you, Robocat. So colorful!
It’s not that you’re worried Robocat will sell really well and dominate the robot pet industry. It’s that Robocat has taught you something about people in general that you’re afraid you can’t unlearn. A decent person who follows politics must believe that the American people are capable of looking out for their own interests. You have to believe that democracy works. Michele Bachmann’s career is a refutation of that foundational belief. I’m not scared that she will become President one day. I’m scared that she will convince me, once and for all, that everyone else is even dumber than her.