We now have the likes of Nate Silver suggesting that Michele Bachmann is "a legitimate contender to win the Republican nomination." She's polling 22 percent in Iowa, a point behind Mitt Romney, with strong "favorables" from that state's rabid social conservatives. Bachmann is a very accomplished fundraiser and highly effective retail politician. By all accounts, she "won" the most recent Republican debate a couple weeks ago.
She is also--there's simply no polite way to put this--certifiably fucking crazy, and one of the most vicious and hate-filled people in American politics. The evidentiary points here are almost innumerable, but Matt Taibbi has a good short primer of Bachmann's career to date. His summary assessment:
In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.
Think about the characteristics you value in a leader. For me, the first four that come to mind are humility, intellectual curiosity, pragmatism, and a calm temperament. Bachmann claims that God has communicated with her personally, a la the microphone in the braces from "Real Genius"; gets facts wrong at a pace and on a level that makes Sarah Palin seem like Daniel Patrick Moynihan; and has claimed that lesbians are trying to kill her, that we're all at risk of having to live under Sharia law, and that President Obama and many if not most Democrats are "anti-American" and should be "investigated." She also has a legislative record pretty much entirely devoid of any actual accomplishment.
What she has, in addition to (as Taibbi perfectly puts it) "the gigantic set of burnished titanium Terminator-testicles swinging under her skirt," is, one, innate political talent, and two, a perfect, better-than-Palin story to tell of anti-intellectual, liberal-hating grievance that alone will swing something like 30 percent of the electorate. Under the wrong set of circumstances--say, a debt-limit default and deep double-dip recession, plus disentanglement from our various wars in a manner that reads as "defeat"--she could win not just the nomination, but the general election. A few months ago I would have put the odds of this below one percent; now, it's maybe in the high single digits.
One test I've started to apply in simply thinking about presidential candidates is whether I'd rather they have the office than me. Bear with me for a minute: this isn't nearly as egotastic as I'm sure it sounds. I think I would be, if not the worst president in American history, easily down there with Bush II, Buchanan and Harding. I'm lazy ("sloth"), I often don't prioritize well, and I overreact to things. I'm not even good at Civilization, despite having put probably thousands of hours into that wonderful and highly addictive game. But I'd rather see myself in there than Batshit Bachmann. Possibly even after suffering brain damage.
(Edit: though I sort of loathe him and his blatant soullessness terrifies me, I wouldn't hesitate to vote for Mitt Romney if the only two choices were him and me. Likewise, among the Rs running, Huntsman and Gary Johnson. Pawlenty, whom I see as a more pathetic Romney--he's empty without the money to create an impressive facade--I'd have to think more about, but probably. Gingrich no, Palin no, Perry probably not, and trying to put Ron Paul through the exercise makes smoke come out of my ears like a robot from a 1950s sci-fi flick caught in a logic paradox.)
No doubt, any journalist who watches this person will reach the same conclusion. So I'd suggest that Bachmann's candidacy isn't even a test of the electorate's collective intelligence and attention span--they failed that one in 2004, and as the line between democracy and entertainment completely disappears, I don't see them passing a re-test--but whether we still have anything like a press corps capable of playing its assigned role as the protector of small-r republican-government. I don't doubt that many of the corporate overlords who own media companies will look at Bachmann, with her right-wing ideology and absence of critical thinking skills, and see a powerful instrument for their own advancement. But profit doesn't mean much, I would think, if it comes amidst a general collapse.