I will strive a bit longer to avoid concluding that Michele Bachmann is as irresponsible, dishonest and dangerous as I strongly suspect that she is, though my determination may not last the time it takes to write this post. I won’t wait any longer to conclude that she is a fool.
In one short week since the controversy erupted over Fox News anchor Chris Wallace daring to ask her on the air, “Are you a flake?” and her subsequent botching of both her answer and the question’s fevered aftermath, she has stumbled into two flaky episodes. One—her mixing up Western movie star icon John Wayne with serial child killer John Wayne Gacy—was at least funny. The other, far less forgivable—her claim that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States”—has signature significance.
Bachmann literally doesn’t care about facts. She is a pure ideologue, and her belief in her ideology is stronger than truth, stronger than logic, stronger than history. Since facts are the tools of persuasion, Bachmann trims, distorts or invents them to suit her message. She doesn’t check facts very carefully because she doesn’t care very much whether her facts are correct, confident that her supporters don’t care either. So far and sadly, she has been right about this.
Really skilled demagogues, and there are many masters in the political world today, manipulate facts deftly. They don’t lie exactly; deceit is their mother tongue. When President Obama exonerates his own party of its undeniably central role in the housing market disaster that triggered the nation’s economic collapse, in order to lay the whole fiasco at the feet of Republicans, he is being deceitful, though in a way that is considered acceptable in partisan advocacy (though not, I believe, from a President). Deceit, however, is usually at least partly correct, though in a misleading way. Bachmann’s manufactured and genetically-altered facts aren’t like Obama’s half-truths, which, thanks to confirmation bias, he probably believes himself. They are the equivalent of brain-washing, or the pods from “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers,” designed to create allies for her fact-free ideology without the benefit of fair analysis.
Bachmann’s choice of fake facts to bolster her arguments are spectacularly dumb, because, and there’s no nice way to say this, she is. In the trinity of gaffe-prone conservative women embraced by the Tea Party, Bachmann comes in a clear second in the intelligence category. She has better quality gray matter than Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell, who thoroughly embarrassed herself while running for the U.S. Senate in Delaware; O’Donnell believed the ridiculous things she said. Bachmann makes Sarah Palin, on the other hand, look like a “Jeopardy!” champion.
The tip-off with Bachmann is that she repeatedly counters the “flake” accusations, brought on by her own recklessness, by telling us about her degrees, her resume and how serious and substantial she is. Smart people are almost always smart enough to know that they look stupid when they argue by saying that they are smart. I call this the “Fredo Syndrome.” In “The Godfather” movies, the only character who protests that he is smart is the one who is the dumbest of all.
Bachmann’s use of false facts is not just stupid, but also sinister. She would make the public more misinformed than it already is (and it is already sufficiently misinformed to endanger the nation’s viability) in order for them to find her ideology more palatable, though her ideology is not built on facts.
This brings us back to her Founding Fathers comment. Bachmann dogmatically defends her ahistorical assertion by arguing that the career of John Quincy Adams, who as a member of the House of Representatives in the mid-1800’s was a strong advocate for abolishing slavery, proves she was correct. J. Q. Adams was the one “Founding Father” she cited in her original statement. It is hard to know what Bachmann was thinking here. The Tea Party’s reverence for the Founding Fathers (yes, the reverence is justified) makes its leaders vulnerable to a cynical, simplistic and ignorant charge that this makes the movement racist, since many of the Founders were slave-holders. There are excellent and accurate ways of countering this argument, but claiming that the Founding Fathers kept striving to abolish slavery until it was ended isn’t remotely one of them.
The Founders made the essential utilitarian decision to allow slavery to stand in order to allow the United States to be born, acknowledging in their conversations and writings that the evil of slavery would have to be eradicated by a future generation. Even those, like George Washington, who came to the conclusion that slavery was wrong later in life acted on it in their personal lives only. Washington’s freeing his own slaves had no impact on slavery as a whole, and could not be called proof of his “working tirelessly” to abolish the institution.
It is possible that Bachmann got Sixth President John Quincy Adams mixed up with his Founding Father father, Second President John Adams, and was attributing the career of the son to the father (which would have meant that John was in the House of Representatives well past the age of 100). I’m sympathetic; I used to get the two men mixed up too—when I was nine years old.
In the alternative, it is possible that she really believes that John Quincy Adams qualifies as a Founding Father. This is, after all, what she said in defense of her statement:
“Well if you look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, that’s absolutely true. He was a very young boy when he was with his father serving essentially as his father’s secretary. He tirelessly worked throughout his life to make sure that we did in fact one day eradicate slavery….John Quincy Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.”
There are two obvious problems with this. First, even if J.Q. was a Founding Father, which he wasn’t, that would mean that only one Founding Father “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more,” not “the Founding Fathers,” which suggests that they all did. Even the younger Adams doesn’t qualify completely under this rationalization, because he was dead before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Second, by no strained logic can John Quincy Adams be called a Founding Father. The term already has a historical definition—the men (and Abigail Adams, arguably) who fashioned the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and engineered the establishment of the British Colonies in America into a new nation. That’s who the Founding Fathers are, and John Quincy Adams has never been regarded as a Founding Father because he had no substantive role in this whatsoever: he was a child at the time. Bachmann’s Bizarro World definition— he was “part of the Revolutionary War era”—would make King George and Gen. Cornwallis, plus Adams’ other minor children, Sally Hemmings, Benedict Arnold and thousands of Revolutionary period individuals lost to history “Founding Fathers.” It is an ignorant, foolish, indefensible claim.
People who make foolish claims and refuse to retract them are either ideologues, fools, liars, or all three. They are certainly not potential presidents, or shouldn’t be. Rather than recognizing this, however, Bachmann’s faithful, like the misguided acolytes of Sarah Palin when she tried to brass through her “Paul Revere warned the British” gaffe, are willing to make their standard-bearer “right” by changing history. Wikipedia reported that the John Quincy Adams entry in the on-line reference was changed to describe him as a “Founding Father,” an Orwellian tactic that was fortunately blocked by the site’s administrators.
This is the kind of America extremists like Bachmann want to create, a culture in which belief, moral strictures and lock-step ideology dictate what we regard as truth and facts, and where facts that are inconvenient will be altered to make sure that the “right” view cannot be challenged. Acquiring the power to so transform the culture requires a pliant public that is passionate, gullible, and misinformed, and making it so is what Bachmann’s cynical use of faux history is designed to accomplish. That she has generated followers who believe that enshrining a complete fabrication in the historical record is justified should be warning enough of the kind of values her candidacy reinforces.
OK, that was enough time. I’ve convinced myself. Bachmann is irresponsible, dishonest and dangerous.
And a fool.