Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina primary. Faced with waves of what would be considered obstacles to any normal candidate, including his serial adultery, his wildly oscillating political positions and an endorsement from Chuck Norris, he has outlasted the other non-Romnies to not just squeak past Mitt but trounce him by a margin of 14%. This is a man who was forced out of the highest position he ever held by his own party (whom he would later describe as ‘cannibals’), who divorced one of his wives while she was suffering from cancer, and who, most gravely of all for a Republican, once tried to raise awareness about climate change.
Pundits keep on describing the search for a ‘real’ conservative to replace Mitt Romney, who is probably quite accurately suspected of being more interested in low corporate tax rates than home-schooling and gay-bashing, but Gingrich’s win suggests different forces at work. For one thing, he would be one of the most radical candidates to stand for President in decades. He routinely predicts World War Three. He seriously advocates colonising the moon. He would ignore the judiciary if it disagreed with him. He writes alternative histories and children’s books about American exceptionalism. Slightly demented policies have long been a byproduct of the Republican obsession with ideological purity, but this is something different.
Gingrich’s appeal is, I think, not the actual content of his policies or even the values they represent, but their sheer wide-eyed radicalism itself and the maniacal confidence with which he expounds them. His ascent is perhaps the climax of the Republicans’ protracted, messy divorce from reality, and their retreat into a fantastical world in which shadowy ‘elites’ wage proxy wars against middle America in hospitals, schools and gay bars.
You have to place yourself within this imagined dystopia to really understand Gingrich’s appeal. His apocalyptic warnings that American civilisation itself is nearing collapse start to make sense if you believe that everything you hold dear is under constant siege. His snappy, aggressive debating is suited to a political war zone, while Romney, with his constant smile and tiresome practicality just doesn’t seem angry enough. Romney promises to get Obama out of office. Gingrich promises to ‘knock him out’.
That aggression, and that macho contempt for anyone who does not believe in him is what gave Gingrich the edge in South Carolina. Sure, Ron Paul has radical plans to dismantle the modern financial system, but he views supporters of the status quo only as idiots; Gingrich one-ups him, claiming that they are actually evil, or agents of the ‘secular-socialist machine’, to be precise. Rick Santorum has plenty of hatred in him if his policies are anything to go by, but it never quite shows through; it is, after all, hard to look outraged wearing a sweater-vest.
Gingrich’s skill is to take the kind of gutsy anger that once powered Sarah Palin’s brief flight in the polls and marry it with enough intelligence to carry his points beyond mere rants into something with at least the feel of a political vision. His style is radicalism for its own sake; that is, there are no real plans, only a constant sense of righteous anger about to be unleashed upon the establishment. He has replaced political principles with abstract nouns, like ‘greatness’ and ‘civilisation’. Even the Tea Partiers, crazed though they may be, at least have a concrete goal of cutting spending.
Yet with a meticulously compromising President in power, who brought Republicans into his cabinet, adopted Republican plans for his modest healthcare reforms and even maintained Republican tax cuts, why do so many Americans buy in to claims that he is the socialist anti-Christ? I suspect, in part, that among the patriotic middle-aged, a kind of nostalgia has been growing for the days of the Cold War and the single, simple enemy that the ‘Evil Empire’ provided as a foil to America’s heroism.
By the patriotic middle-aged, I mean in particular the generation old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, but too young to fully remember the Vietnam War, the generation raised on the purest narratives of American greatness. No satisfactory replacement has ever been found; even the once-trumpeted War on Terror has produced only a spluttering, ceaseless trickle of deaths, and whatever victories have been won remain half a globe away, intangible for most Americans. It’s that deep longing for simple divisions between good and evil that has pushed Gingrich to the front.
Of course, he will never likely be President; his mental state and approach to decision-making have been tactfully described as ‘erratic’ by members of his own party. Yet he is not just another ‘traditional values’ candidate buoyed by rural voters, but the first to directly represent the Republicans who grew up with the mythology of the Reagan era, and live now within the terrifying news-world created by Fox.
That’s what makes Gingrich worth paying attention to – he represents not a set of policies or values, but a mindset, a schizophrenic worldview in which every problem is a conspiracy and every solution a chance to ‘rebuild civilisation’. Newt is not the first politician to be crazy, but he may be the first man in history to make craziness into a passable political brand. And he is worth following for it.