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The Republican Nightmare

Matthew Putney/ABC/Getty Images
Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich during the ABC News Republican presidential debate, Des Moines, Iowa, December 10, 2011

Glimpsed on CNN at 5:45, the network crawl on caucus night: “Rap on Iowa: Too White, Too Evangelical.” The words were polemical but not untrue, and the thought might have occurred to someone before. But it had never been in the crawl before; there was a shortage of ideas at 5:00, and elections have become a yearlong entertainment. If, in the day of Lincoln and Douglas, they were outdoor dueling sermons with a picnic thrown in and freestyle challenges from the congregation, the paradigm seems to have shifted to American Idol or Survivor. An astonishing amount of the talk in the Iowa campaign was amateur talk; but, as on the reality shows, that is the point. The politicians are climbing the amusement ladder of January, March, and April. Only the prime time of the general election presumes that they be halfway informed, semicogent.

The new model may account for the number of candidates who participated in the twelve debates in Iowa, and the liberality of caprice shown by Iowa Republicans in shifting favorites. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich each enjoyed a swollen moment at the top. The evident aim of the “surge” for these candidates was to find the force that could destroy the Mitt Romney juggernaut: he was too predictable a figure, too much the “sound” choice, and too moderate for a party whose proudest epithet is “conservative.” Romney is seen as a man of the establishment, deep down; no sort of contrast to Obama, except in what he says today—but he talked differently yesterday.

A little over 122,000 participated in the caucus vote on January 3; together they made up 5.4 percent of voting-eligible persons in the state. Again, there is nothing wrong with the smallness of the sample if you take the reality TV model seriously. It might seem wrong for such a group to impose so large a tribulation for the public good. But in these winter and spring playoff rites of passage, an even tinier sample, say a town of 25,000, would do. In any case, how did people choose—what explained the binge of support for Rick Santorum over the last few days of the Iowa campaign? A young mother interviewed on MSNBC, asked why she supported him, said that she liked him because of, “oh, his concern with family values—and I have a family.”

Michele Bachmann, who had won the Ames Straw Poll in August, suffered more than anyone else from the sequential serenade that greeted the arrivals of Perry, Cain, and Gingrich. The first two were nibbled at by old memories of their opinions or their lives, and were seen to crumble as their endoskeletons were exposed. But Gingrich already had been exposed—hadn’t he fallen nearly as far as a public man can fall?—a stranded wreck that each new tide could only push a little farther up the beach. Yet as late as December 30, a Gallup Poll of Republicans nationwide found him even with Romney. As the outrage grew, at memories of his wealth, his recklessness, his wives and how he got them and left them, there could be no doubt anyway that Newt Gingrich was a source of wit in commentators.

They came, from all over the conservative world, to shower their insults on him: George Will, Michael Gerson, David Frum, and the smaller fry of pundits and bloggers at Commentary, and the National Review, and less-heard-of provenances. Among the recurrent themes: Gingrich has always been indifferent to truth; he is capable of saying absolutely anything; he is unstable and unreliable—the first of these words alluding to an inner and personal condition, the second to a manifest outward defect.

Many politicians of course suffer from an excess of energy and a convenient attitude toward truth, but the emerging consensus on Gingrich was: he can’t control his instability even for selfish purposes (let alone for the common good). “He is a human hand grenade,” wrote Peggy Noonan, “who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!’” But it was Joe Scarborough, the morning talk-show host familiar with Gingrich as a fellow member of Congress in the 1990s, who found the simplest formulation: “If Newt Gingrich is the smartest guy in the room, leave that room.”

Politically, Gingrich’s weakest point was doubtless his having taken $1.6 million from Freddie Mac—for work (he said) as a historical consultant. That association could do real harm to a cherished Republican fable: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are alleged to be the root of the evil behind the financial collapse of 2007–2008. Many of the party’s leaders, and most of the prominent right-wing talkers who are in effect the party’s coaches, have placed the FMs in a completely different category from Goldman Sachs, AIG, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and other unregulated banks and financial firms. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are routinely denounced as a mortgage scam for welfare queens—an invention of Jimmy Carter and affirmative action that finally brought down the American economy. The renewable memory of Gingrich snuffling at that trough would rob the party of a magnetic issue before the general campaign got off its first antigovernment squibs and pinwheels.

A larger question set the Washington press corps to work. What had Newt been doing for the last fifteen years? What prospects remain, after all, for an ambitious freelance Republican after he is publicly disgraced? The answer was: plenty. Saving Lives & Saving Money (2003), Gingrich’s proposal for health care reform, in fact, shared many features of the Obama legislation—but it gave more emphasis to “predatory trial-lawyer behavior,” and took a singular interest in diabetes management. Two series of novels by Gingrich, about the War of Independence and the Civil War respectively, have moved further along in their trajectory. His most recent political seller, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine (2011), turns out to be a religiose revision of To Renew America (1995), the bumptious manifesto that explained the rationale of the Contract with America of 1994. A more recent publication, Rediscovering God in America (2009), “Featuring the Photography of Callista Gingrich,” is a guide to D.C. heritage sites, from the Capitol and the White House to the National Archives to the war memorials and presidential monuments—an item meant to be sold in the gift shops on the Mall as a sort of earphone substitute and eventual souvenir.

Gingrich arrived in Congress in 1979 just as C-SPAN arrived; and in those days (the earliest memories of him, for many of us) he often stood alongside Trent Lott, in a chamber otherwise empty of every entity save the camera, and exchanged remarks on the public weal and scandals of mismanagement. Gingrich was always in command, and he was tireless. He could speak at sight on all subjects. It is a voice you can tune out, but tune back in with ease; it bobs along in bite-sized clauses of nine or ten words, the informality improved and not stiffened by a decent grammatical connective tissue. He has the air of a respected first-year college teacher, giving you some of his time, and he lets you stay on after office hours. Though Gingrich’s partisan animus was never in question, his penchant for covering all bets (knowledge-wise) with extreme statements on every side of a given question ensured against the tedium of moderation. He has the cocksureness, the insularity, and the continuous need of an audience of the born autodidact.

But Gingrich, as his supporters like to point out, is a licensed scholar. His MA thesis at Tulane on the effects of the Russian Revolution on French diplomacy (1968) ran 184 pages; his Ph.D. dissertation on postwar Belgian education policy in the Congo was nearly twice as long and relied on sources in French. The latter production comes to its first aimless but provocative paradox at the start of the third paragraph: “It would be just as misleading to speak in generalities of ‘white exploitation’ as it once was to talk about ‘native backwardness.’ We need to know what kind of exploitation, for what reasons, and at what price.” The pompous show of evenhandedness is nicely geared to approximate the thoughtless person’s idea of a thinking man.

If, as a party document, To Renew America left few bases uncovered, as a historical primer it left few origins unplumbed: “The Founding Fathers were all men of property who believed in honest money…. [They] assumed that the value of money was based on gold.” Gingrich acknowledged a profound debt to two inspirational sources: Arnold Toynbee’s ten-volume Study of History, which put him forever under the spell of civilizations, their rise and fall; and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, which, for Gingrich, reframed the study of civilization as science-fiction allegory. But what practical proposals were contained in this victory pamphlet? A flat tax. Term limits. English as the American language. An unimpeded right to carry guns (except for convicted felons).

It would be hard to exaggerate how far To Save America repeats the plot of the earlier election book—with Obama now, rather than Clinton, cast in the role of big-government intruder, and the bogey of the “secular-socialist machine” lifted from Fox News without much elaboration or embroidery. Gingrich himself plainly writes these books. It is like him to say that Obama “paid fealty to” his commitment to “non-ideological pragmatism.” (A ghostwriter would be less scientific and less chivalric.) The book, however, contains a new general innovation—“You should only get disability if you really deserve it”—and a new specific innovation: “Every teacher should report actual attendance electronically every hour.” But America also needs faster trains and better-functioning schools, and the secular-socialist machine won’t let us have them.

The main difference between the “renew” book and the “save” book is the overlay of piety. To Renew America was in fact a work of right-wing utilitarianism, its author a dispenser of nostrums who would have been at home in the world of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Carlyle, and Fitzjames Stephen. It disposed of God (cross-indexed “Creator”) in a single four-page section on “The Spiritual Dimension.” And the whole method and appeal of To Renew America lay in its trust in fast-track innovation on the corporate model. But now the big corporations have departed for cheaper labor and farther shores: “For the first time since the Civil War, we as Americans have to ask ourselves the most fundamental question possible: ‘Who are we?’”; and no longer can the answer be supplied by the felicific calculus or the laws of society understood as a biological organism.

To Save America is replete with the phraseology of “secular oppression”; its oppressors do not merely violate the spirit of the Founders, they are “holding the Constitution hostage.” The utilitarian dispensary seems truer to Gingrich’s nature than such simulated paranoia, and besides, this is a beast with laws of its own. “Who rides the tiger can never dismount”: but it must be added that the most perilous aspect of Gingrich’s temperament is doubtless the very thing that appeals most warmly to the people who are drawn to him. He loves the speed of the ride. It is a trait he shares with the revolutionists and imperialists who make his favorite study in the hours he can spare from public service.

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