Michele Bachmann’s retirement from the House of Representatives is an obvious loss for political journalists and their editors, who could guarantee web traffic by just reprinting anything she said, with minimal comment. That was especially true during the Republican presidential primaries.
In her short time as a candidate, Bachmann blamed natural disasters on America’s unwillingness to cut non-defense discretionary spending, accused Texas Governor Rick Perry of spreading autism with mandatory vaccinations, warned that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had plans to bomb the United States with a nuclear weapon, and pushed for a full ban on pornography.
The unhinged insanity of all of this is worth noting. But what we should also point out is that none of this disqualified her from consideration as a presidential candidate. Not only did Bachmann win the Iowa straw poll—a symbolic victory, but a victory nonetheless—but at one point, she led her competitors for the nomination. In a July survey from Public Policy Polling, 21 percent of Republican primary voters said she was their top choice for the nomination, compared to 20 percent for the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, 12 percent for Rick Perry, and 11 percent for Herman Cain.
In other words, Bachmann may embarrass GOP elites, but actual Republicans don’t seem to have a huge problem with her or her antics. Indeed, if there’s a “Bachmann style” in conservative politics, it’s only grown more prominent since her moment in the spotlight. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is building his national brand by appealing to the same right-wing fever swamps. Conservatives describe him as a new “standard-bearer” for “constitutional conservatism”—a term popularized by Bachmann.
The entire Republican Party has taken a page from the Minnesota congresswoman with its obsessive focus on the Benghazi “scandal” and the situation at the Internal Revenue Service, using both to accuse President Obama of outright treason (in the case of Benghazi) and Nixonian tactics of intimidation (in the case of the IRS). The main difference between Bachmann and many of her Republican colleagues was of form, not content. Her view of President Obama—a dangerous left-wing tyrant—is shared by many on the right.
Look, for example, at Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination who has also been known to moonlight as a conspiracy- monger. Earlier this month, he lent his name to a fundraising email that accused Obama of working with “anti-American globalists plot[ing] against the Constitution.”
It’s of a piece with South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham’s assertion that the Obama administration manipulated talking points to avoid political blame for the attacks in Benghazi during the presidential election. “This is a story of manipulation by the government with the president being complicit of trying to tell a story seven weeks before an election that was politically beneficial for the White House, but did not represent the facts on the ground,” Graham said during an interview on Fox News two weeks ago.
And that’s just the national Republican Party. In states like Virginia, the party has elevated candidates who take Bachmann’s extremism and dial it to 11. E.W. Jackson, the Virginia GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor, has already made national news with his furious denunciations of same-sex marriage, LGBT Americans (they’re “sick people psychologically, mentally, and emotionally”), and Planned Parenthood (it’s worse than the Ku Klux Klan). Their gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, differs only by degree. He won’t accuse reproductive rights advocates of engaging in an anti-black genocide, but he will go after groups that attempt to dispense accurate information on sexually transmitted infections, contraceptives, and sexual health.
Observers from across the political spectrum are cheering Michele Bachmann’s departure from politics, and for good reason: She was a toxic influence on public life. But it’s worth remembering that what she represents—extreme right-wing paranoia—is still present and powerful on the national stage.