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“A Perfect Product of the Religious Right”: Deconstructing Michele Bachmann’s GOP Presidential Bid

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The rising star of the Tea Party movement, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has launched her bid for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination. On the eve of her announcement, Bachmann was tied with Mitt Romney in the Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll, the first survey of voters who plan to attend the Republican caucuses. The former tax lawyer identifies as a conservative Christian and is a fierce opponent of abortion and gay marriage. Bachmann also supports teaching intelligent design in public schools, and she’s claimed that global warming is a hoax. She has largely built her campaign around accusing Obama of favoring government intervention, pushing the U.S. toward socialism, and having “anti-American views,” and is a particularly fierce critic of Obama’s healthcare overhaul. While Bachmann is known for advocating a limited government, she has recently come under scrutiny for allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in agricultural subsidies for her family farm in Wisconsin. We are joined by journalist Karl Bremer, who has covered Michele Bachmann’s political career for the last decade from Stillwater, Minnesota, which is where the Bachmanns currently reside. We also speak with journalist Michelle Goldberg, author of the book “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The rising star of the conservative Tea Party movement, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, launched a bid for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination yesterday.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: Good morning. It is so great to be here in Iowa this morning, and even better to be here in Waterloo, where I was born. I think it is entirely fitting that we are here today at the Snowden House, the site that was once the Waterloo Women’s Club. So thank you for being here. My name is Michele Bachmann. I stand here in the midst of many friends and many family members to announce formally my candidacy for president of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: On the eve of her announcement, Bachmann was tied with Mitt Romney in the Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll, the first survey of voters who plan to attend the Republican caucuses. The Tea Party favorite and former tax lawyer identifies as a conservative Christian, is a fierce opponent of abortion and gay marriage. On CBS on Sunday, she commented on New York legalizing gay marriage.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: I stand for the proposition that marriage is between a man and a woman. I think that Minnesota, for instance, this year, just about a month ago or so, passed at the legislative level the constitutional amendment to allow the people to decide what the definition of marriage will be. So that ballot question will be on the ballot in 2012. The people of New York came to a different conclusion. I think what we know is that, ultimately, you have all the various laws in the various states. There will be a conflict. If someone from Pennsylvania—or from New York, for instance, moves to a state where marriage is between a man and a woman, will these marriages be recognized? Ultimately, it will go to the courts. As president of the United States, I will only nominate judges who are not activist judges, who are not legislating from the bench. And so, I think that’s why it’s going to be very important to have this debate.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Would that be a litmus test for you, someone who was for same-sex marriage?

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: I want people who are for the Constitution. That’s my litmus test.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Congress Member Michele Bachmann being interviewed by Bob Schieffer on CBS. She also supports teaching intelligent design in public schools and has claimed that global warming is a hoax. Bachmann has largely built her campaign around accusing Obama of favoring government intervention, pushing the U.S. toward socialism and having “anti-American views.” She is a particularly fierce critic of Obama’s healthcare overhaul.

While Bachmann is known for advocating a limited government, she has recently come under scrutiny for allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in agricultural subsidies for her family farm in Wisconsin.

Congress Member Bachmann flubbed her hometown history when saying in an interview, quote, “John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. That’s the kind of spirit that I have, too,” in an interview she did on Fox talking about running for president. Well, John Wayne was born nearly 150 miles away. It was the serial killer John Wayne Gacy who lived for a time in Waterloo.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: Well, what I want them to know is, just like John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa, that’s the kind of spirit that I have, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Bachmann’s flubs are reminiscent of when she traveled to New Hampshire in March to speak to supporters. She suggested the Revolutionary War began in Concord, New Hampshire, rather than Lexington and Concord, [Massachusetts].

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: What I love about New Hampshire and what we have in common is our extreme love for liberty. You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world, at Lexington and Concord.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to discuss all this and more, we’re joined by two guests. From Minneapolis, Minnesota, we’re joined by local journalist Karl Bremer. He has been following Michele Bachmann’s political career for the last decade, from Stillwater, Minnesota, which is where the Bachmanns currently reside. Karl Bremer runs the blog “Ripple in Stillwater.” This year, he was one of the winners of the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists’ Page One Awards for “Best Use of Public Records.”

Here in the studio, we’re joined by journalist Michelle Goldberg, author of several books, including Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Goldberg’s work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Nation, The Guardian and elsewhere, senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a columnist for The Daily Beast.

Karl, let’s start with you. As Michelle Goldberg launches her campaign for president—as Michele Bachmann launches her campaign for president, give us her background. Talk about who Congress Member Bachmann is.

KARL BREMER: Michele Bachmann got her start in Stillwater, Minnesota, running on a school board slate of candidates in 1999. School board races are traditionally nonpartisan in Minnesota, but she was part of a very partisan GOP slate of candidates that ran that year. They lost. And the following year, Bachmann ran for state senate. She knocked off a longtime moderate Republican incumbent in a district in Stillwater in 2000 and won the race. Two years later, she ran again. That was following redistricting in 2000. And she won in 2002, served there until 2006, when she ran for Congress. Her entire political career has been pretty much aimed at promoting Michele Bachmann first.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Goldberg, you, too, have been following Michele Bachmann. Talk about the views that you feel are especially important to understand in her whole career development.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. Well, I think, to understand her, she is, even more than Sarah Palin, probably more than any political figure maybe short of Mike Huckabee, a perfect product of the religious right. You know, she came out of the big fundamentalist—or the big evangelical upsurge of the 1970s; like many evangelicals, including Pat Robertson, was initially enamored of Jimmy Carter, who was the first modern born-again candidate. Like the movement as a whole, she shifted abruptly to the right in the run-up to Reagan’s election.

And she often talks about, in her speeches, what she calls a “Christian worldview,” which is a really important concept, I think, for people to understand, not just Michele Bachmann, but much of the modern right. It essentially holds that Christianity, or at least their version of Christianity, is a total ideology. It has all the answers, not just to theological questions, but to historical questions, scientific questions, economic questions. And so, you know, what I’ve tried to get across in writing and speaking about Michelle Bachmann is that she’s not stupid, you know? And she’s not Sarah Palin, in that she doesn’t—she’s articulate. She’s, I think, a little bit faster on her feet. She’s just incredibly steeped in a body of knowledge, that is not—she’s incredibly steeped in a corpus of facts that aren’t true facts. She’s incredibly steeped in the alternate reality of the movement that I called “Christian nationalism” in my first book.

And so, a lot of things that she says—you know, when she—for example, one of her most celebrated gaffes was when she talked about the founders of this country working tirelessly against slavery and how, you know, at the dawn of America, it didn’t matter what color you were, it didn’t matter your economic status. Of course, now, this is absurd, and everybody laughed at it, but if you look at some of, say, the books that she worked on when she was a student at Oral Roberts University, or you look at the whole kind of canon of Christian nationalist revisionist history, this stuff is all a truism. And so, to a lot of her base, this isn’t going to sound like gaffes. This is their reality.

AMY GOODMAN: What books did she work on?

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, one of the—I don’t know why this hasn’t gotten more attention. So when she was at Oral Roberts University, which is, you know, kind of a charismatic Pentecostal school in Oklahoma, she was a research assistant to a guy named John Eidsmoe, who she still cites as a major influence on her. John Eidsmoe is—often people on the Christian right are kind of called theocratic. But he is unquestionably a theocrat. He wrote a book that she worked on called Christianity and the Constitution, which argued that the United States was founded to be a Christian theocracy and that it should become one again. He, John Eidsmoe, is an interesting figure. He’s someone who has been asked not to speak at Tea Party—who has been—has had invitations to speak at Tea Party rallies rescinded because of his ties to white supremacist groups and history of advocating for Southern secession.

AMY GOODMAN: Her family doesn’t all agree with her.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. Yeah, she was born in a family of working-class Democrats and became born again in high school, you know, and kind of went on that path on her own. She has a stepsister who’s a lesbian, who has been—they were close when they were growing up. And her stepsister has really shied away from the public eye, in part because her father is still married to Michele Bachmann’s mother. But the stepsister, Helen LaFave, you know—there are a couple of other siblings on that side of the family who have been really appalled to see—not just to see Michele Bachmann take the lead on anti-gay—on opposing gay marriage, especially given the fact that Helen and her partner have been together for over 20 years, but also the way that she has kind of distorted the family’s history, that she claimed at one point to have polled the nine siblings—it’s a blended family with five kids on one side and four on the other. She had claimed to poll them about gay marriage and said that the majority agreed with them, which—

AMY GOODMAN: With her.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: With her, right, which shocked her stepbrother enough to go public, because he just said, not only is it not true, but, you know, what a shocking accusation to think about brothers and sisters kind of taking a vote about one of their members.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about her family, her kids, her husband?

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, her kids—you know, she—her kids have not been that public. I think her older son is sometimes—she sometimes talks about his being one of her closest advisers. She has another son who joined AmeriCorps, which, as you remember, she at one point talked about as being, you know, part of a kind of sinister campaign to indoctrinate children into one world government. And so, we can assume that maybe he doesn’t entirely share her fear.

But her husband is an interesting figure, because he is a—you know, she often talks about how they run a business. Their business is his Christian counseling service. It’s hard to overestimate what a big role not just anti-gay marriage, but kind of anti-gay politics, period, played in her early political career. And her husband is really a part of that. He has often talked about the need—he has called—in some interviews, he has called homosexuals “barbarians who need to be educated.” He says, you know, “Just because you have certain impulses doesn’t mean you need to act on them.” He has been associated with, you know, reparative therapy, which can be obviously incredibly damaging to people who undergo it and kind of try to change their immutable sexual orientation.

AMY GOODMAN: Do they raise foster children?

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: I think “raise” is the tricky word. You know, she has often said—she often says—as recently as this week, she said that she—her family has raised 23 foster children. Sometimes she talks about it as if they’re all in the house. You know, she’ll say, “I know the cost of food, because I have 28 children, and I go shopping, and I have these huge bills.” I think there’s no doubt that she’s had foster children, and that’s commendable, but when you say “raise,” you probably, I think, assume that you’re talking about a long period of time. And she had a foster care license for seven-and-a-half years. It allowed her to have three children at a time. Everyone I’ve talked to, including, you know, senior social workers in Stillwater, said that some of these kids she had for—some of them she might have had for more than a year, some of them she had for a couple of days or a couple of weeks. I don’t know if you could say that somebody who stayed in your house for a couple of weeks—you certainly deserve a lot of credit for giving them shelter. I don’t know that you could say that you raised them.

AMY GOODMAN: Karl Bremer, how is Congress Member Bachmann perceived in Stillwater, where you’re based?

KARL BREMER: Well, she may live in Stillwater, but she’s never really had the support of the city of Stillwater. In her three elections to Congress, she has never won the city of Stillwater. She moved from her home in the city to a very much more conservative precinct two years ago. And it wasn’t until last year that she could even win her own precinct. So, you know, her base of support in her district is more to the west side of the district and north, northern Washington County, Forest Lake, Hugo, the rural areas of outside of St. Cloud, Wright County, where the former GOP candidate for governor, Tom Emmer, came from last year. So, it’s kind of a mistake to come looking at Stillwater to find the typical Bachmann supporter. This is a mistake that national reporters are already starting to make. And I think you really need to look at the votes to find out who really did put Michele Bachmann into office.

AMY GOODMAN: Who put Michele Bachmann into office, Karl Bremer?

KARL BREMER: I think, predominately, conservative Christians, evangelical Christians in this district, very conservative businessmen, Tea Partiers, Tea Party types who don’t believe that government can serve really any useful purpose in their life, and they don’t want to pay for government. Small-government, low-tax supporters, I think, are the predominant base of Michele Bachmann

AMY GOODMAN: Who funds Congress Member Bachmann, Karl?

KARL BREMER: Well, she does get a lot of contributions, small contributions that are, of course, unreportable to the FEC. Most of her financing has come from outside the district. Her first election in—her first congressional election in 2006, I tracked her campaign contributions and found over $50,000 in that year alone came from members of an organization called the Alliance for the Separation of School and State. They’re an organization that calls for the abolition of all public education, not just eliminate the Secretary of Education, but all public schools. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Alliance for the Separation of School and State?

KARL BREMER: Yes. And they used to post their contributors, or their supporters, rather, online. And researching Bachmann’s contributors, I came across a businessman from Georgia by the name of Barry Conner, a housing developer, and he donated thousands of dollars to Bachmann. And I started to wonder, why would a businessman from Georgia be donating to a member of—somebody running for Congress the first time? Found that he was one of the big supporters of this Alliance for the Separation of School and State—if you note the acronym, ASSS. I started to dig a little further and tracked their supporters against her contributors list and came up with, like I said, over $50,000 from these people alone. Much of her money, early money, came from Phyllis Schlafly’s group, the Eagle Forum, Americans for Prosperity. She sits on the Financial Services Committee in Congress, and as a result, she’s gotten thousands of dollars from the financial services sector. So she’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Who is Franklin Vennes?

KARL BREMER: Frank Vennes, Jr., was one of her largest contributors in 2006. He’s a convicted money launderer. He did time in federal prison in Sandstone Prison in northern Minnesota. And upon his release, he became involved in Tom Petters. And if you are familiar with the Petters Ponzi scheme, about a $3.5 billion Ponzi scheme that operated in Minnesota, Frank Vennes steered primarily evangelical Christian groups to invest with Tom Petters. And he became implicated in the Petters scandal in 2008. But that was after Michele Bachmann had written a recommendation for pardon for Frank Vennes. Vennes and his family and his personal lawyer have given Bachmann tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Vennes also contributed heavily to another Minnesota presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty, and the state Republican Party. And Vennes got letters of recommendation from Tim Pawlenty, or recommendations for a pardon from Pawlenty, from Norm Coleman, former U.S. senator from Minnesota, and from Bachmann.

When Vennes was implicated in the Petters scandal in 2008, Bachmann withdrew her letter of support for a pardon, and she gave back a portion of the money that Vennes had donated to her campaign. Just in April of this year, Vennes was actually indicted in the Petters scandal, and he’s scheduled to go to trial later this year, which could make for an uncomfortable time for Michele Bachmann, because in her letter of support for a pardon, she indicated she had a very close personal relationship with Frank Vennes and was quite familiar with his personal finances. She has, of course, never returned my calls regarding Frank Vennes, and she’s really never explained fully her relationship with this convicted money launderer.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Goldberg, would you like—

KARL BREMER: He is under indict—

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, yeah, I mean, obviously—you know, the local bloggers in Minnesota have been doing amazing work on this for years now. And it’s amazing to me—I mean, I’ve written about it a little bit in The Daily Beast. It’s amazing to me that this issue hasn’t yet broken into the mainstream media, in part because it’s not just about Michele Bachmann, it’s also about Tim Pawlenty. And one of the interesting things about Frank Vennes is that, you know, the reason that he was able to kind of insinuate himself into Republican Party politics both—was both financial and ideological, right? He claimed to have found Jesus when he was imprisoned for cocaine—for money laundering and cocaine trafficking. And then he came out, having found Jesus, and made himself a kind of stalwart of Minnesota’s evangelical community. He, you know, kind of cultivated all of these powerful allies. And it was because of these powerful allies that he was able to accomplish his fraud.

I mean, that’s what I think is important, is that when people like Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann say that he deserved to be readmitted to—readmitted to polite society, that he needed this pardon in order to kind of further his financial career, one of the results of that was to build up his credibility and his credibility with evangelicals. Now, his role in the fraud, as Karl said, was to get evangelicals to funnel their money through him, you know, evangelical charities, also some funds that deal with retirement funds for pastors and ministers. He used his kind of credibility in that community, I think credibility that Bachmann and Pawlenty helped him build, to channel many, many millions of dollars from these communities into this massive, massive Ponzi scheme. And also, one of the reasons you haven’t heard about this Ponzi scheme is that it broke about the same time as Bernie Madoff, so it was really overshadowed, but it was really quite an enormous fraud.

AMY GOODMAN: Karl, Michele Bachmann is known for attacking government intervention. Talk about the money she has made. Is it tens of thousands? Is it hundreds of thousands? It’s something she has denied. PolitiFact has—out of St. Petersburg—has said she’s simply not telling the truth, have gone through her records. The money she gets from her husband’s farm, the family farm in Wisconsin?

KARL BREMER: Well, I started looking into this in 2007, when I first broke this story. Bachmann had reported on her congressional federal—her financial disclosure statement that she and her husband had an interest in the Bachmann Farm Family Limited Partnership. So I started to poke around in the records for the Bachmann Farm Family Partnership. It’s in Buffalo County, Independence, Wisconsin, about 70 miles or so from Stillwater. And I found that her father-in-law, Paul Bachmann, who died in 2009, had collected—it was close to $260,000 in federal farm subsidies from 1995 through, at that time I guess it was 2006, 2007. All this data is online with the Environmental Working Group. And the Bachmann Farm Family Partnership was formed in 2001. It’s on record in the state of Wisconsin. And Michele Bachmann and Marcus are part of the Farm Family Partnership. So, she’s reported upward—anywhere upwards of from about $2,500 to $105,000 in profits from that family farm on her federal financial disclosure statements.

Well, if the family farm is getting federal farm subsidies, and the Bachmanns are profiting from the family farm, it only stands to reason that they’re profiting in part from federal farm subsidies. And yet, on Sunday, she told the media—I believe it was Chris Wallace on Fox News—that she and her husband had not received one penny from that farm. That’s simply a lie. You can look it up; it’s out there. And I, quite honestly, don’t understand why she would say such a blatant lie, when she knows it can be looked up in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately, even our local political reporters here can’t seem to take the time to verify that. And it was reported locally in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that she just denied ever getting money from the farm, and that’s where they left the story. So, you know, as Michelle said, it’s shocking the lack of coverage on Michele Bachmann other than her outrageous statements that we’ve seen in the local media. But, you know, that’s where journalism is at these days.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, PolitiFact has reported a number of lies, ranging from the regular ones to the “pants on fire” false lies, but, among them, saying that—oh, that President Obama released all of the oil from the strategic reserve. Bachmann said, “It’s ironic and sad [that] the president released all of the oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve.” The fact is, Obama did not release all the oil; he released something like four percent of the oil. And it goes on from there, saying that NATO, in one air strike alone in Libya, had killed something like 30,000 Libyan civilians in one air strike. Some of these are mistakes, some of them lies. Michele Bachmann—I mean, Michelle Goldberg, I wanted to ask you about—you know, your book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism—looking at how the Christian right is viewing two of the more prominent Republican candidates being Mormon—

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: You know, it’s interesting—

AMY GOODMAN: —Huntsman and Romney.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Right. It’s really interesting, because in 2008, Mitt Romney actually had the support of a lot of the Christian right—or not the Christian right grassroots, but Christian right intellectuals. And part of that was because there was so much antipathy towards John McCain, and so Romney was seen as being kind of the anti-McCain. He was—he would be a little bit more cooperative. You know, he was kind of—he was going to be more indebted to that movement.

This time around, things are very different, partly because there is no pro-choice candidate in the race, like Rudolph Giuliani. There is no McCain. There are a whole host of kind of genuine evangelicals, people who are genuine products of that movement. And then, at the same time, there is a base that is—a significant portion of which is extremely reluctant to vote for a Mormon. I think that the polls have shown something like a fifth of Republicans said they won’t vote for a Mormon under any circumstances. You can add that to the fact that Mitt Romney’s positions on a lot of issues that are close to their hearts have been incredibly mercurial. You know, his record on—his statements on abortion are kind of almost comic in their vast swings, depending on where he is in his political career. So, my sense is, is that he is going to get—there will be a lot more opposition to him among that movement, in part because there’s nobody like John McCain to channel some of their disaffection.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Michelle Goldberg is a New York-based journalist, author of a number of books, including Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines, senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a columnist for Daily Beast. And Karl Bremer, journalist who runs the blog “Ripple in Stillwater,” has been following Michele Bachmann’s political career for the last decade, from Stillwater, Minnesota, which is where the Bachmanns currently reside. Karl Bremer won the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists’ Page One Awards for “Best Use of Public Records.” We will continue to come back to both of you in this political year.

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