09.26.09

The Craziest Town Hall Ever

What happens when ultra-religious neocon Michele Bachmann co-hosts a town-hall meeting with anti-authority libertarian Ron Paul? Wingnut worlds collide. Maureen O'Connor reports.

Ask a liberal to describe a “crazy Republican,” and their description is likely to fit one of two archetypes. First and most classically would be the fanatically religious Bush-era neocon, a flag-waving patriot who likens gay sex to bestiality and fantasizes about lobbing nukes at Iran. The second, newer iteration would be members of the “Ron Paul Revolution.” Though Rep. Ron Paul’s philosophy is grounded in constitutional libertarianism, he is also notorious for attracting conspiracy theorists and people who own multiple assault rifles.

Logically, the camps are mutually exclusive; “family values libertarian” is practically an oxymoron. But on Friday night Congress’ evangelical mascot du jour, Rep. Michele Bachmann, nevertheless co-hosted a town-hall meeting with Paul at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium, drawing 2,000 people and marking a tenuous foray into a potent—if paradoxical—political syncretism.

Her voice rising to a high-pitched chant, Bachmann ticked off the list of financial aggressors: “Income tax, property tax, gas tax, sales tax—everytime-you-turn-around tax!”

In the hours leading up to meeting’s start, activists waved signs and stood in clusters of like-minded people. A trio of men wearing black "9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB" T-shirts handed out DVDs explaining various conspiracy theories. A lone drummer, dressed in full Revolutionary garb and a white powdered wig, marched back and forth across the plaza without speaking to anyone.

Fresh from the introduction of HR1207, a bill to audit the Federal Reserve, Reps. Bachmann and Paul arrived at Northrop to paint a portrait of financial dystopia where “100 percent of your paycheck is being spoken for.” Bachmann predicts this will happen some time around 2050. Her voice rising to a high-pitched chant, she ticked off the list of financial aggressors: “Income tax, property tax, gas tax, sales tax—everytime-you-turn-around tax!” Meanwhile, over at the United Nations (the very mention of which drew a chorus of boos), they’ll likely work with China and Japan to “insist on replacing the American dollar with the international one-world currency.” More boos, and some emphatic waving of handheld American flags.

The Federal Reserve audit, she explained, would “pull back the curtain” on the shadowy organization that controls the value of the dollar. Two-thirds of the House of Representatives support the bill, including the Financial Services Committee’s famously liberal chairman, Rep. Barney Frank. During the Q&A session, Paul explains that, though an audit is far more modest than his goal— End the Fed is the title of his new book—once everyone sees how dirty the Fed is, “the next thing that happens is the Federal Reserve is over.”

Amid applause and wolf whistles, Bachmann grabbed the microphone: “Congressman Paul is a master of perseverance. It has been 26 years that he’s been trying to do this.”

Though she once credited God with recruiting her to run for Congress in 2006, Bachmann is generally considered a Karl Rove success story. Campaign visits from Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and Laura Bush put Bachmann squarely in neocon territory, and unlike Paul, she supported the Iraq War surge. She twice introduced anti-gay marriage laws to Minnesota’s state legislature, and last year a call to “investigate” members of Congress for “anti-America” sentiments left civil-rights advocates banging their heads against the wall.

Nevertheless, Bachmann has always harbored a Ron Paulian distrust of authority. She cut her political teeth protesting Minnesota’s "Profiles of Learning" graduation standards, and was fed up with taxes even as a student at William and Mary getting an advanced degree in tax law. When Paul invited her to join his weekly monetary-policy lunch circle, she became his star pupil. The timing was good: Her old mentors' popularity was plummeting, and Obama’s agenda was about to bring the old anti-Fed sawhorse back to the fore.

But she didn’t abandon her neocon or family-values convictions. As Paul spoke passionately about ending all military operations and keeping government out of people’s “lifestyles,” a lone heckler began to shout, “Tell her!” Bachmann remained serene, hands folded in her lap, facing Paul. Bringing up Obama’s announcement that Iran had secret underground nuclear facilities, Paul announced that he had had enough of “fear-mongering” for the sake of the “military-industrial complex.” Bachmann, who once advocated nuking Iran, kept her eyes trained on Paul as her heckler repeated, “Tell her! Tell Michele! Tell her!”

Finally, a second audience member snapped, “He’s trying to, OK?”

Stylistically, too, Bachmann continues to fall into the evangelical neocon archetype. In a move that combined Paul's government wariness with her high-drama style, Bachmann won the scorn, even, of members of her own party this month when she advocated a boycott on the Census, which she said was “how the Japanese were rounded up and put into the internment camps.”

Michele’s Census comments came under fire last week when the apparent murder of a Kentucky Census-taker was revealed to resemble an anti-government hate crime. Think Progress noted Bachmann’s “inflammatory and fear-mongering rhetoric,” a phrase that could have easily fit into Ron Paul’s diatribe about the hoopla over nuclear proliferation.

I wanted to ask Bachmann about the Census controversy, but after the town-hall meeting she made herself scarce, while Paul stepped down from the stage and waded into the crowd. Under the watchful eye of several security guards, he walked back and forth in the front of the room, signing books, posters, and one man’s wallet. When my turn came I asked about the Census taker’s death. Paul stood still and looked at me, silent for a moment, then said, “I am against violence.” I then asked: “Do you worry that you might inspire your more radical followers to violence?”

Like clockwork, a man in a hunting jacket descended on me and began to yell. “You think the Constitution is radical? You think my rights are radical? How can you even ask that, you stupid, stupid—” Ron Paul ignored the sputtering man, repeating, “I am against violence.” He paused a moment, then moved on. The yelling man faded back into the crowd, while Paul drifted down the line of autograph-seekers, posing for pictures and answering questions.

There was never any doubt that Ron Paul was the draw at this event. Bachmann—who, by appearing on the university’s campus, was not only outside her district but in the state’s most liberal one—was incidental, letting the congressman answer questions first and waiving some questions entirely when his answer sufficed. But she held her own and clearly impressed the crowd. “She’s getting there with the Federal Reserve and monetary stuff,” said Jenny Schreiter, vice president of the local Young Americans for Liberty chapter. As for the rest, “I’m hoping we can convert her.”

Maureen O'Connor is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.