View from Middle America: Dissent in the Michele Bachmann heartland

By Kevin Bloom 4 September 2011

What does the Michele Bachmann phenomenon look like in close-up? In Iowa City, an island of progressive secularism in the vast prairie bible belt, the intellectual set makes a (cautious) sport of ridiculing her. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t got her supporters in this university town, or that the rest of her native state necessarily thinks she’s the best person for the Oval Office. By KEVIN BLOOM.

On Monday afternoon 29 August, in the head office of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, a senior member of staff informed us of the Wednesday night film club. It was the first day of orientation for the 2011 group – 37 writers from 32 countries, including myself and another South African – and the morning had been spent getting to know each other. Now it was down to business: how our non-writing time would be structured; the various panels, readings, and lectures that required our active participation. But it was the opening screening of the film club that got everyone’s attention – The Night of the Hunter, adapted for the screen in 1955 by the inimitable James Agee, a movie that would apparently give us “some insight into how the religious Right operates in these parts.”

The Night of the Hunter, for those who haven’t seen it, is a film that’s influenced the styles of modern-day directors all the way from David Lynch to the Coen brothers and Spike Lee. It was deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and has appeared on countless “greatest of all time” lists. In short, it’s supposed to be a pretty good movie, and the majority of our group who’d never heard of the work (myself included) showed up with big hopes.

We weren’t disappointed. Least of all because the subtext, as prompted, was the philosophical background and contemporary persona of one Michele Bachmann – candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and native of Waterloo, Iowa, a town about 110 kilometres from where we were sitting (the cinema in the journalism faculty building in Iowa City). The atmosphere of fundamentalist evangelical menace was superbly achieved, the director Charles Laughton infusing each owl, toad and rabbit with an inner darkness that bordered on the horrific (incidentally, The Night of the Hunter also scores high on a number of “scariest moments in film” lists). The key image, though, was the Ohio River, and especially the two children floating down it in a boat, fleeing the evil intentions of a psychopath disguised as a preacher.

As Margaret Atwood, who once named The Night of the Hunter her favourite film, wrote of that representation some time ago: “It’s a quintessential American image – the two floating innocents recall Huckleberry Finn and Jim, and, behind them, that favourite American biblical image, the Ark riding the Deluge with its Saving Remnant – in this case, the deluge that has overwhelmed the children’s mother. That this particular deluge is all mixed up with adult sexuality, and also with the repression of it, is quintessentially American as well – it being the nature of Puritanism to produce a world which repudiates sexuality but is also thoroughly sexualised.”  

Which of course is where Bachmann comes in. Earlier this year, famously, the congresswoman shaped in her outlook by a strain of hardcore Christian theology known as Dominionism (as noted in a Daily Maverick piece in mid-August, Dominionists seek to replace secular law in the US with Mosaic law) described homosexuality as “sexual dysfunction”. She has a husband who routinely tries to convince gays that they are straight, and she cites the direct word of God as the source of her inspiration.

So to the trillion-dollar question: can Bachmann get in? It’s a question that, in the medium term, is here to stay. Recently, progressives and centrists across the United States began asking it with a new urgency, mainly due to her win in the Iowa straw poll a few weeks ago. And in Iowa City, an island of progressivism and intellectual rigour in a vast prairie sea of Creationist fervour, the question is doubly urgent – nobody wants to be from the state that sank the country for good.

Unless, that is, you support Michele Bachmann; which some, even in this highly thought-of university town, do. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve heard of virtual catfights breaking out in sororities between pro- and anti-Bachmann factions, I’ve heard heated arguments in bars and a whole lot of angry swearing. And the scary thing is that these altercations aren’t about the woman’s religious affiliations, nor are they mainly between secular students and Christian students – they’re most often about the politics.

“It took two very strong leaders on the world stage, one a woman and one a man, to reverse the course of their respective countries,’’ Bachmann said to a group of US armed forces veterans on 2 September, comparing herself to Thatcher and Reagan. “We should heed the lessons that they hold for those who seek to wreak havoc on peace and on democracy across the world today.’’

This is the kind of finely-honed political talk we’ve heard before from a Republican candidate who should never have been president, the kind of vague and yet effective campaign speak that does wonders at the polls. Still, Bachmann has made more than her share of gaffs. Just last week she offered a comment that implied Hurricane Irene was God’s way of telling Washington to listen to the American people. Her campaign spokesman quickly said it was a harmless “joke”, but the damage had been done. A Christian columnist writing in the The Daily Iowan explained why the joke wasn’t funny:

“First, more than 40 people have died. If God is trying to get the attention of the politicians, then why did he take out 40-plus people who have not been elected to any office? What about the flooding on the Missouri River this spring? What political missteps have the elected officials in Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Nebraska taken that has garnered the attention of the Most High God?”

Meaning, there is a measure of dissent in the ranks. The word here now is that Rick Perry’s entrance into the presidential race has dented Bachmann’s chances, with even volunteers in the latter’s campaign considering a switch of allegiances. Will President Perry be healthier for America and the world than President Bachmann? That’s another question entirely. DM

Read more:

  • “Why I love Night Of The Hunter,” by Margaret Atwood in the Guardian;
  • “Bachmann’s Irene ‘joke’ not in the least funny,” in The Daily Iowan;
  • “Bachmann faces complications in Iowa,” in CNN Online.

Photo: Reuters.


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