When #Donald Trump announced the establishment of an Evangelical Executive Advisory Board earlier this week, a surprising name was on the list amid several well-known televangelists and activists: Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota Congresswoman and 2012 Republican presidential candidate.
Trump and Bachmann might seem an unlikely pair: the three-times-married serial hedonist from New York and the prominent Christian conservative from the Upper Midwest. But beyond surface differences it turns out they have something pretty significant in common: The political style that Donald Trump has been using throughout his presidential campaign is one that was first honed by Bachmann and a few other prominent conservative elected officials in the Obama era.
The Bachmann backstory
Despite spending several terms as a Congressional backbencher with no record of legislative accomplishment to speak of, Bachmann ended up a prominent member of the party who ran for president and was even the #GOP frontrunner for a brief time in 2011. How’d she do it? Call it legislative trolling.
Bachmann followed a simple formula: say wild, outrageous, and factually suspect things, all the time, on national television and on the floor of Congress, in the process earning free media attention. Know that doing such things will outrage the majority of people but fire up the speaker’s own constituency, raise money and sell books. Know that the media will denounce these statements, allowing the politician to claim the media is out to get them, and repeat the cycle all over again.
Bachmann did this for years and years. She indulged virtually every Obama conspiracy theory. She called on the media to investigate members of Congress for “anti-Americanism.” She claimed in a presidential debate the HPV vaccine causes adult-onset mental retardation. And she succeeded so well that she raised the most money of any member of the House -- $13.5 million -- in the 2009-’10 election cycle. Bachmann’s reputation for whoppers was so legion that when she announced her retirement from Congress, the Washington Post’s fact checking columnist Glenn Kessler wrote a wistful column remembering all the great material she had given him.
Other elected officials soon began to replicate the formula, with Steve King of Iowa, Louie Gohmert of Texas, and Steve Stockman, also of Texas, playing the game most successfully. Stockman’s staff, in particular, was known for going out of their way to email all of his wildest pronouncements to every liberal journalist.
Trump takes the reigns
The Bachmann/Gohmert/King legislative trolling era, it turns out, was a mere dress rehearsal for Donald Trump’s presidential run. Intentionally or not, Donald Trump has used Bachmann’s formula, having much more success at it than Bachmann herself did when she ran for president, finished sixth in Iowa in 2012 and dropped out without winning any states.
Donald Trump too says outrageous things. He too has given fact checkers virtually limitless material. And he too has geared his strategy towards depending on the media -- for free coverage -- and vilifying the media for cultural resentment purposes. And Donald Trump, like Bachmann before him, has often left observers guessing whether the constant prevarication is a matter of keen strategy, general ignorance, or some combination of both.
The difference? Trump started out with built-in celebrity. And he’s just plain better at it, and more audacious and shameless. After all, not even Michele Bachmann ever called for a ban on Muslim immigration or insulted John McCain’s war service. Doing things this way will get you attention and raise you money. It might even, under the right circumstances, get you a party nomination. But it won’t make you president. Trolling, if Trump’s approval ratings are any indication, has its limits. #Election 2016