So I’m watching the extended version of “Gladiator” the other night. I always thought the original was two more short scenes from being a true classic. It needed a touch of “Spartacus”, with the elite of Roman Senate calculating their chances of overthrowing the craven emperor Commodus. But it’s far from illiterate. For example, there was Oliver Reed, chewing up the scenery, advising Maximus, (Russell Crowe), the general-turned-gladiator that to win his freedom in the arena he had to “win over the crowd”. And then there was Gracchus, the idealistic Senator, saying of the woefully inexperienced, ill-equipped Commodus, “I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the Colosseum.”
Somehow — maybe the adult beverages helped — that last line reminded of watching Michele Bachmann work the crowd at the Sherburne County Republican Candidates Forum up in Big Lake last November. I was working on a magazine story about the Sixth District, her truest believers and most committed foes. After enough time, you reach the point where your expectations for relevant, interesting quotes from politicians are so low you diagram out stories assuming that even if they agree to be interviewed they won’t say anything of any value — other than meeting an editor’s demand for something “official”. So it was with Bachmann.
Prior to her arrival, the event — with more than a little “sand of the Colosseum” in evidence — was highlighted by House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers. Zellers paced back and forth conjuring up what might be (very) politely called “class fear” as he flogged the room’s lust for “socialist takeover” paranoia. He reminded the Big Lake mob crowd that if high-speed rail ever connects Chicago to Minneapolis “you are going to see welfare rates spike through the roof” … which, I think we can fairly translate as … “darkies riding bullet trains to our white exurbia”. As I say, “socialist” hysteria — sharing what we got with anyone other than us — was thick in the air.
Tom Emmer and Marty Seifert, the two leading Republican gubernatorial candidates were the only two of their pack to attend the Big Lake dog and pony show. I have to give Emmer, a trial lawyer, points on retail presentation. I seriously doubt the average Roman, Shurburnian has any real idea what “tort reform” is all about, or how much it really costs, but they hear their radio gurus talking about it so much that they just know trial lawyers are a part of Obama’s “Bolshevik plot”. But Emmer beat those worries back and fed them their Socialism-fearing meat. He was good; engaging and humorous with flashes of eagerness for the fight that every raging, mob-like base loves to see. Seifert was wonkier, but earnest. One of those two will get the nomination. But neither compared to Bachmann, when she finally arrived, like the cool chick making a late entrance at the party.
It isn’t possible to separate her unabashedly histrionic rhetoric from her appeal, so I won’t. But anyone who hasn’t seen her in person, in her bubble of adoration, will have a harder time understanding why any fan in the Colosseum Minnesotan takes her seriously. The contrast between a Michele Bachmann and — pick any DFLer you can name other than R.T. Rybak — Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Tom Rukavina, or good lord, Mark Dayton(!!!!) — could not be more extreme. If one vital asset for being a successful politician — i.e. someone with the ability to sell both the public and peers on his/her agenda — is the fundamental enjoyment of the process, Bachmann possesses that virtue. It helps if you can play, like her, within a tight, uncritical bubble and sustain your stardom by feeding the crowd in there with you exactly what they want to hear. But there’s no denying she plays her star role very well. She’s gracious to her fans, convivial with her colleagues, laces her … unabashed rhetoric … with just enough hyperbole to give it (crowd-pleasing) comedic effect, and is cordial enough to the press when necessary. When she motioned me over in Big Lake and asked if I wanted to talk we stepped outside where she very pleasantly dropped 15 minutes of standard issue boilerplate on me and said it was nice talking. I expected nothing more … and a lot less.
Bachmann is as much a spawn of Paris Hilton as she is of Sarah Palin, except that Hilton may expose herself (no pun intended) to more direct criticism than either of the two politicians. The latter two have learned a key lesson from this particular media age, namely that with folksy camera charm and good cheekbones comes credibility … if you avoid serious, prolonged cross-examination. Your base doesn’t care if you’re ever asked a follow-up question by Paul Krugman. (“Paul, who?’). Palin’s game, which I suspect is mostly about amassing as much cash as fast as she can before finding an excuse not to run for another office, is to permanently avoid anything remotely like the disastrous Katie Couric interview. As for Bachmann, she’s learned there’s no upside in batting her eyelashes at the likes of Chris Matthews. Neither of them will ever … ever … risk anything like Obama vs. the House Republican Caucus. Their act(s) are the anti-thesis of full exposure and free-fire exchange. And they can pull it off — up to a point — because all the crowd, all the numbers, they need to sustain them are available to them via bubble outlets like FoxNews, any of the dozen “religious” radio stations “serving” every major metro area and the key internet websites.
It’s tempting to say then that in the on-going battle for the “controlling narrative” of our time that the Democrats/liberals are hopelessly out-gunned. But that would imply that people like Bachmann and Palin have serious aspirations beyond one more term in an exurban Midwestern Congressional district … or a seven-figure hosting job on cable news. A “bubble strategy” whipping up the mob with silly rhetorical games and the slaughter of coherence and logic — “cut the deficit!”, “cut taxes!” — may still succeed within the GOP’s 21st century Southern/Bible Belt base, but that 22%-28%, while superb for fund-raising still comes nowhere close to a winning national strategy. (Ditto Bachmann v. Franken for Senate in 2014.)
By the sound and fury of the Tea Party and their favorite gladiators — good-looking women with terrific hair enjoying superb cosmetic attention — America is a mob little different than Rome. But the modern Colosseum is mainly a TV bubble, never jostled by anything other than stagecraft.