May 29, 2013

It’s fitting that on the day Michele Bachmann announced her retirement from Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opted to defend his tenure with an ad that borrows liberally from Bachmann’s style of politics.

In a spot that includes footage of IRS official Lois Lerner pleading the Fifth Amendment, McConnell ties the scandal at the IRS to President Obama, and compares it to Richard Nixon’s effort to suppress dissent and intimidate opponents with tax investigations. The ad features a lengthy voice-over from McConnell, who describes the Obama administration in stark, almost conspiratorial terms.

“Again and again, this administration and its allies have used the resources of the government itself to intimidate and silence those that oppose it,” McConnell says. “I think that the leader of the free world and his advisers have better things to do than to dig through other people’s tax returns.”

The ad ends with a quote from Obama, where he seems to admit to punishing opponents of his administration: “We’re going to punish our enemies, and we’re going to reward our friends.” But this is an out-of-context quote, pulled from a comment made more than two years ago in an interview with Univision radio. “If Latinos sit out the election instead of, ‘we’re going to punish our enemies and we’re going to reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us’ – if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s going to be harder,” Obama said in that interview. McConnell’s use of the quote is the dishonest capstone to an intensely dishonest piece of political rhetoric.

What makes this a nice partner to Bachmann’s retirement from the House of Representatives is the fact that it mirrors her rhetoric, which draws heavily from the conspiracy-mongering of right-wing media. Like Bachmann has her entire career, McConnell is drawing on the widely-held view, among conservatives, that Barack Obama is corrupt, dangerous, and hostile to the Constitution of the United States (hence the comparison to Nixon). Only McConnell is the leader of Senate Republicans.

The broader point is this: Bachmann has left Congress, but her style of politics — steeped in paranoia and resentment — has become the norm for the Republican Party. Prominent figures in the party — ranging from McConnell to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul — are happy to stoke conspiracies if it means gaining a political advantage over Obama and the Democratic Party. The difference between Bachmann and the rest of the Republican Party wasn’t one of kind, it was just one of degree.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.