A World of His Making: Newt Gingrich and the Far-Right Mind
I still think Romney’s going to win the nomination, but it’s going to be damn fun watching Gingrich make him work for it. Newt’s major advantage, of course — perhaps his only advantage — is that he intimately understands the workings of the GOP base’s collective mind. Romney, on the other hand, can only speak to the base in one language and on one topic: antipathy for Barack Obama. That’s been the mantra of his campaign thus far, and it’s worked OK. But it’s not enough to get the people he needs, the remaining hold-outs, the less-wealthy, less-educated, more-religious, and more-conservative to feel truly inspired by his candidacy.
Not the case when it comes to Newt. While no one man can ever be accredited as the author of a political movement or era, the Republican Party of the past 20 years has very much been a creature of Gingrich’s making. More so than even Reagan, Gingrich was able to stitch together the various wings of American conservatism into a mostly coherent and quite successful (at least when it comes to winning elections) coalition. This was a trend that was going to happen with or without Gingrich, I believe; but he nevertheless was the man who had his hands on the tiller when the modern iteration of the conservative movement set sail. And, really, he is today’s GOP: white, male, wealthy, Southern, pension-aged, devout, and, perhaps most importantly, unapologetically combative.
If the man had truly wanted to be President from the start of this campaign — if, instead of hawking books, he had devoted himself to amassing the campaign infrastructure (and cash) so vital in winning a major electoral contest — he very well may have been able to topple Romney. Because, again, he “gets” it. As a recent Times report makes plain, Newt knows how to talk to these people with an uncommon authenticity and intimacy. He effortlessly weaves winks and nods toward the far-right id into his pronunciations, and taps into enduringly powerful themes that make-up the GOP base’s worldview. Watch how, like George W. Bush in his prime, he’s able to turn an acknowledgment of his many flaws as a candidate and a person into a graceful affirmation of his faith:
“We think there has to be a solid conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” Mr. Gingrich told WSC Radio in Charleston, S.C. “I’m the one candidate who can bring together national security conservatives, and economic conservatives, and social conservatives in order to make sure we have a conservative nominee.” …
Mr. Gingrich’s campaign swing through South Carolina comes a day after he received an endorsement from The Union Leader, the largest newspaper in New Hampshire, in an editorial that said Mr. Gingrich was not a perfect candidate.
“I think that’s right,” Mr. Gingrich said. “I think anybody who is honest about it knows that no person except Christ has ever been perfect.
“I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate. I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anybody else.”
Of course, there are many more examples of Gingrich’s insight and skill.
His challenging the President to multiple hours-long, Lincoln-Douglas-styled debates is a brilliant stroke, playing on the resentment and insecurity many hard-right partisans feel over a national media and political mainstream that, in their eyes, considers them ignorant and stupid. What better way to prove Them wrong than by eviscerating the President — a man who, in the GOP base’s universe, is an empty-suit tongue-tied hack, completely adrift without a teleprompter — and thus vindicating not only Newt and conservatism, but conservatives. It would be like the moments during the GOP debates when Gingrich has bickered with debate moderators and earned the audience’s approval in response; but bigger, on a far greater scale and with far greater psychological potential.
Ditto his plan to established WWII draft board-styled community councils that will look at every undocumented immigrant in their midst and determine whether or not they’d be allowed to stay (though, of course, still not as citizens). Besides referencing WWII — the time of the Greatest Generation, when America was pure and righteous, the savior and redeemer of the world — Gingrich’s plan also taps into the belief among many on the right that they are the victims of unfair accusations of being racist.
Paper-thin as this logic would seem to many liberals, Gingrich’s plan allows its proponents to insist that they’re not racist: they don’t want all undocumented immigrants to go, just the bad ones! (Note that Gingrich has also claimed that the “vast majority” of those brought before these citizenship tribunals would be deported…) What determines the good and the bad is left fuzzy, but besides Gingrich’s mentioning length of stay and number of family members in the United States, one imagines the criteria would more or less become “Americaness” as defined by the members of these community councils.
Culturally chauvinist? Yes. Inherently dehumanizing and degrading for those called before the councils? Yes! Rife with potential small-scale and easily ignored abuses of power? Absolutely! But racist? Plausibly not!
And that’s the sweet-spot for the contemporary far-right in America. It’s a befuddling and perhaps intimidating place for those without prior experience; it’s clearly not a realm Mitt Romney finds entirely to his liking. But for Newt Gingrich, it’s very nice indeed.