Monday, January 23, 2012

Newtpocalypse Now

Just as it seemed like we were about to see the Season Finale of the 2012 Republican race, we got a rerun. Newt is back. Again.

The big question is "why?"

I would like to think that Gingrich's victory was due to the fundamental questions he raised in his attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital. But everyone who saw the two debates last week knows that it was something else, something much more base and disturbing. Newt didn't win this primary with economic populism.

If Gingrich's victory in South Carolina on Saturday was in fact a Tea Party victory--and it is repeated elsewhere--then we will have to put to rest the idea that that movement is just about taxes and spending. It will be the culture war all over again.

It was, I think, extremely revealing to see Gingrich in victory. For one brief moment at the start, he actually seemed, as he said, "humbled." It didn't last long.

Within minutes, Gingrich seemed to forget he no longer had to demagogue for votes in South Carolina. But that's because the demagoguery he used here during the last week was nothing new. It was vintage Gingrich. You see, he's on a mission to save America.

As I've noted previously, Newt Gingrich is a child of the 1960s. His is not the 1960s of the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, anti-war demonstrations, and the sexual revolution, however, but of the opposition to all of those things.

I thought the most telling lines from his speech were those that clearly referred to Newt's pining for a bygone, pre-1960s, era. He unambiguously dated the start of the decline he proposes to reverse. He attacked the "elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system."

The decline began, in other words, in the early 1960s. In Newt's world, the progressive changes of all the years since amount to an attack on--or even the destruction of--what he calls "the America that we love." The proponents of those changes, he sneered, don't like "classical America."

(Somehow, this does not constitute "dividing" Americans in his book--since, of course, those "others" don't love "the America that we love" and thus are not real Americans.)

This is unabashedly reactionary politics. For all his dabbling in futurism, candidate Gingrich has his gaze fixed firmly on the past.

Nothing Gingrich said better demonstrated how out of touch with modern America he is than his extended ode to the diversity of the current Republican field. "We produce leadership from an amazing range of places," he said. "I watched tonight the fine speeches of the other three candidates on our side and I was struck by how much they reflected the openness of the American system.... You look at the four of us and you see that anyone can come from a wide range of backgrounds."

Think about that for a moment. A 68-year-old white man with a net worth in the millions of dollars, looked around him, saw three other fairly wealthy white men also running for president, and saw diversity, a "wide range of backgrounds." In what world is that true? In the America of the 1950s, of course.

Certainly, there are differences among the four--geographic, religious, economic, etc. Only Romney was born to wealth and privilege. But compare that to the last primary contest in the Democratic Party, that came down to a battle between a white woman and a black man, neither of whom would have been able to vote 100 years ago. That's what diversity looks like in modern America. And Newt's coded message to his supporters was that is not "the America that we love."

The rest of the speech, as others have noted, was a long list of resentments against various kinds of "elites." If it weren't so despicable, I could almost admire how effortlessly Gingrich appeals to bigotry without resorting to the overtly objectionable terms that the progress of the last half century has driven from polite political discourse.

He doesn't use racial epithets, he calls President Obama a "food stamp president" who wants "your children to have a life of dependence." He doesn't call him a communist, he says Obama isn't inspired by American exceptionalism but by "the radicalism of Saul Alinsky" and the ideas of "people who don't like the classical America." And, of course, Obama has "extremist left-wing friends in San Francisco."

This is not about taxes and spending. Those topics were barely mentioned by Gingrich. He has no real answers to our economic woes, other than the tired Republican bromides of cutting taxes and abolishing regulation. So, in the grand old reactionary tradition, he rails against imaginary threats like the "growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites."

That line worked in South Carolina, but will it work outside of South Carolina? Perhaps this state will prove an aberration, and Gingrich's reactionary culture war will not play elsewhere. The answer will be telling.

No doubt, part of Gingrich's strength was due to Romney's weakness. Back in November, before the Republican debate here at Wofford, a CBS News reporter asked me about the contest here:
"If you look at politicians who've done well in South Carolina historically - Strom Thurmond, Jim DeMint - generally speaking, they're people that at least the public perceives as straight shooters," Byrnes said, "I don't think a lot of people feel comfortable that they know who [Romney] is."
I think the results Saturday reflect that fact. Romney, bless his heart, tries to tap some of the same cultural anger and resentment that Gingrich does. Saturday night, he again said that this election is a fight "for the soul of America." But to most voters here (and elsewhere, I suspect), Romney comes across as someone without a soul--or, perhaps, as someone who would sell his soul for the presidency.

By contrast, when Gingrich turned his wrath on Juan Williams and (in the disgusting words of supporters here in South Carolina) "put him in his place," he seemed all too sincere and real.

"I articulate the deepest held values of the American people," Newt solemnly intoned. For anyone remotely familiar with the facts of Gingrich's life, that assertion was jaw-dropping. "Yes, you just don't live them!" is the only reasonable response.

But as I noted last month, Gingrich sees himself as a world-historical figure. His utter shamelessness comes from that conviction. Gingrich holds himself to a different standard. "It doesn't matter what I do," he told his second wife when she called him on his hypocrisy. "People need to hear what I have to say."

He believes he is above conventional morality, because only he can save civilization. He truly believes that. That conviction served him well in South Carolina, particularly when contrasted to Romney's self-evident falseness.

The irony is that the combination of "authenticity" and willingness to place ends over means was typical of the '60s leftist radicals Newt disdains. As George Will nicely put it, Gingrich "would have made a marvelous Marxist." Tactically, he is one.

Gingrich's portrait of Obama is a fantasy, a left-wing mirror image of Gingrich himself. The Manichean divide Newt presented Saturday night exists only in his mind--because, for him, it must exist. His reactionary ideology demands it. He needs Obama to be the embodiment of everything he despises, so that he can save America from disaster.

Last week, David Brooks observed: "I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return."

Gingrich's speech last night was the primal scream of that receding roar, and his current rise in the polls suggests that he and what he stands for will not go quietly.


  1. Something that I have issue with is that many don't call him on his "morality" because they believe him when he says he has asked God for forgiveness. When he told SC that what they needed was someone who could defeat Obama and that he was it, Newt wasn't lying. Only Newt would attack with whatever means at his disposal to beat Obama and he will be best at deflecting any critisms as well. Romney has already starting talking out against Newt's history, but I'm sure Newt won't loose any sleep because he knows he can fight dirtier than any other canidate and he has been shown that the voters want that.

  2. No doubt Newt fights dirtier. But he also has more dirt, so there's that.

    There is a certain thuggishness to Newt's rhetoric. He said last week: "I don't want to bloody [Obama's] nose, I want to knock him out.” A Limbaugh listener recently said: "What I really want, Rush, for our side is to have somebody in the White House who is gonna be a street fighter for us, not the class president." Newt's thuggish bombast appeals to such voters.

    But I doubt it appeals to independents, and they decide national elections.