Of all the things said by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on "Meet the Press"Sunday, her slam of the Obama administration as a "gangster government" is the one that has gotten the most attention. Chris Matthews devoted an entire segment, which featured yours truly, to the Tea Party Queen's comment on "Hardball" last night. But on my Facebook page and in two conversations within the last 24 hours, folks are ascribing an even more sinister reason for Bachmann's use of "gangster." I have to admit that I was wondering. So I did some research.
Bachmann has been parroting "gangster government" since it was first used by Michael Barone in a May 2009 column on the Chrysler bailoutfor the Washington Examiner. In it, he basically accuses the Obama administration of corruption.
The Chrysler negotiations will not be the last occasion for this administration to engage in bailout favoritism and crony capitalism. There's a May 31 deadline to come up with a settlement for General Motors. And there will be others. In the meantime, who is going to buy bonds from unionized companies if the government is going to take their money away and give it to the union? We have just seen an episode of Gangster Government. It is likely to be part of a continuing series.
About a month later, Bachmann trotted out her new rhetorical sledgehammer on the House floor.
"I saw [an article] today where a constituent had contacted one of the representatives, a Democrat representative here in this chamber, Representative Barney Frank. Barney Frank was able to go and talk to the right people and get this dealership back open," Bachmann said before leveling her charge against the Obama administration.
Is that what we have come to in this country, that rather than a private business with a private contract with another private corporation, they're no longer able to work out their agreements because, as [Washington Examiner] columnist Michael Barone has called, he said, now we've moved into the realm of "gangster government. We have gangster government when the federal government has set up a new cartel and private businesses now have to go begging with their hand out to their local -- hopefully well-politically connected -- congressman or their senator so they can buy a peace offering for that local business. Is that the kind of country we are going to have in the future?
Clearly, the implication was that the Chicagoans in the West Wing were emulating Chicagoans who made the Windy City and gangsterism synonymous. In fact, Barone reiterated his charge almost a year later in a piece for National Review Online. "Gangster Government may look good to those currently in favor," he wrote, "but as some of Al Capone's confederates found out, that status is not permanent, and there is always more room under the bus."
But for many, particularly African Americans, "gangster government" conjures up another, equally violent image. Not that of the white, fedora-wearing, machine-gun totting criminals of the 1920s and 1930s. But of the black, bandana-wearing, drug-dealing, drive-by-shooting thugs glorified and celebrated in gansta rap.
Both my dinner companion last night and my lunchmate today said they thought Bachmann was engaging in ugly dog-whistle politics. In the tradition of "welfare queen," which fostered negative images of black woman having babies and collecting government checks, "gangster government" is heard as "gangsta government" and conjures up a repugnant image of a lawless, out-of-control black man in the White House -- who shouldn't be there.
Inevitably, someone will ask if it is possible to criticize the president without being tagged a racist or being implicitly racial. My answer is, "absolutely." I would also add that every criticism leveled at Obama is not motivated by racial animus. There are deep philosophical and ideological divisions between Democrats and Republicans, Obama and Bachmann. But I don't think Bachmann was going "gangsta" on Obama when she brandished her broadside in 2009 or when she stood by it on "Meet the Press" on Sunday.