The cover of this week’s Newsweek features Michele Bachmann. As many observers noted, it is not a flattering photo. Anyone old enough to have seen the movie Hot Resort, starring a very young Johnny Depp, will recal a minor character who is in thrall to some Maharishi figure. The expression she wears when venerating his image is the same look Bachmann wears — that is, exalted, credulous and completely out to lunch.
Was it nice of Newsweek to depict the GOP’s front-runner looking her like this? No. Should Bachmann and her supporters cancel their subscriptions? If any subscribe to Newsweek, no one would blame them for stopping now. So much for common ground. The question now under debate is, was this a sexist move on the editors’ part?
In Slate, Jessica Grose says yes: “I hate it when Michele Bachmann makes me defend her, but I’m with [Dana Loesch on this one: The Newsweek cover was unnecessarily unflattering. I doubt Newsweek would portray a male candidate with such a lunatic expression on his face. As much as it pains me to admit it Bachmann is a legitimate candidate and major magazines should treat her like one.”
Myself, I’m inclined to disagree. The intention wasn’t to make Bachmann look ugly, on the cynical assumption that she owes her appeal to her looks. It was to make her look crazy, specifically, crazy in the manner of a fanatic.
As I wrote a few weeks earlier, Bachmann’s media enemies took a long time to get an accurate read on her weaknesses, having been spoiled by the combative, mercurial Sarah Palin. The strategy that has emerged since then: paint her like a nice Midwesterner who just happens to be a frothing ideologue. For some, this has meant hitting her right in the church. In the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza writes of Bachmann’s attachment to the theology of Francis Schaeffer:
Francis Schaeffer instructed his followers and students at L’Abri that the Bible was not just a book but “the total truth.” He was a major contributor to the school of thought now known as Dominionism, which relies on Genesis 1:26, where man is urged to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Sara Diamond, who has written several books about evangelical movements in America, has succinctly defined the philosophy that resulted from Schaeffer’s interpretation: “Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.”
In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published “A Christian Manifesto,” a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed. In his movie, Schaeffer warned that America’s descent into tyranny would not look like Hitler’s or Stalin’s; it would probably be guided stealthily, by “a manipulative, authoritarian élite.”
The Newsweek article doesn’t go there (although it does mention in passing that Bachmann addresses crowds with “the earnestness of a preacher”).Instead, it seeks to depict her as “the living embodiment of the Tea Party,” in particular, its fiscal conservatism:
At a time of population growth, increasing health-care costs, swelling ranks of retirees, and a sharp and prolonged economic slump—all of which point to the need for increases in federal spending just to meet government’s existing obligations—Bachmann and her Tea Party allies demand that Washington spend less. But they don’t just demand that spending increase less from year to year than previously planned; that’s what Congress and the president agreed to in the deal that ended the debt standoff, to the tune of $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years (albeit followed by a downgrade four days later). Rather, Bachmann and the Tea Party go much further, insisting that the federal government actually shrink over time, spending less money from year to year as its commitments grow.
That means, of course, that its commitments would have to shrivel as well. In the Tea Party’s ideal vision of America, large federal agencies and federal programs would be dismantled and the savings redirected to states with block grants and individuals through lower taxes. Whether that would leave people at the mercy of the freewheeling (and often treacherous) marketplace remains an open and untested question.
In other words, that look you see in Bachmann’s eyes? That’s the look of a government dismantler right there.
Bachmann’s already shown an uncanny knack for not sweating the small stuff. If I were in her shoes, I’d cite A First-Rate Madness, the book in which Tufts University professor Nasser Ghaemi describes how various celebrated world leaders, including FDR and Churchill, were a few cups short of a tea set. “If I’m crazy, I’m in good company” is a slogan to run on.