In the end, all those marriages didn’t matter. Conservatives have become remarkably kind, forgiving people. Just under fifty years ago, in 1964 a rabid right-wing crowd at the Republican Convention drowned out Nelson Rockefeller with shouts of “You dirty lover!”—because he had divorced his wife. But through their devoted love for Ronald Reagan (the first divorced US president), the Republican Party was clearly purged of all desire to pass judgment. Despite all the evidence of Newt Gingrich’s polyamory, on Saturday he won a landslide in South Carolina anyway.
You’ll remember Dr. Keith Ablow, the Fox News psychologist who warned last year that Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars would cause the world’s children to doubt their gender identities. This weekend, he reappeared to reassure us that Newt Gingrich’s infidelities would actually make him a stronger president. Although “the media can’t seem to help itself from trying to castrate candidates” (wait: wouldn’t that be an end to all the sellable, sexy stories? and what were they doing to Michelle Bachmann?), he says:
I will tell you what Mr. Gingrich’s personal history actually means for those of us who want to right the economy, see our neighbors and friends go back to work, promote freedom here and abroad and defeat the growing threat posed by Iran and other evil regimes. …
1) Three women have met Mr. Gingrich and been so moved by his emotional energy and intellect that they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with him.
2) Two of these women felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married.
3 ) One of them felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married for the second time, was not exactly her equal in the looks department and had a wife (Marianne) who wanted to make his life without her as painful as possible.
Conclusion: When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.
4) Two women—Mr. Gingrich’s first two wives—have sat down with him while he delivered to them incredibly painful truths …
Conclusion: I can only hope Mr. Gingrich will be as direct and unsparing with the Congress, the American people and our allies.
There are, to be sure, some flaws in this argument. For one thing, the brutal verities Newt spoke to his successive wives weren’t on the order of “You’re spending more than you’re investing! Medicare is doomed! You need to do something about the trade imbalance with China!” They were more like, “I’m leaving you for someone prettier.” By this analogy, Americans may not get the chance to beg him for a third term. Midway through the first, he’s likely to run off and become president of a younger, blonder country with bigger breasts: Ukraine? or Estonia?
I also wonder about Dr. A’s comparison of the sinewy, masculine American Republic to a series of easily bamboozleable women. Isn’t this even more likely to cause gender confusion in children than Chaz Bono? And what about our heroic men in the Fighting Forces, who by his argument will wake up after the Inauguration to find that not only can they ask and tell, but they are metaphorically married to Newt Gingrich? The one silver lining for the right wing is that this prospect makes even me want to ban same-sex marriage anywhere and everywhere, lest I rouse myself some morning after a drunken binge to discover I am on a Niagara honeymoon with my Big Newton.
The real reason Newt won in South Carolina, though, was clearly that he took up a weapon little deployed by his party: class struggle. It wasn’t simply that he accused Mitt Romney, accurately enough, of being a corporate equivalent of Sigourney Weaver’s sci-fi foe: moving from company to company, world to world, infecting — or investing — with his virus and then squeezing the place of jobs and life to turn a profit. It was that he made Mitt look for once like what he is. He is a stiff, ambitious, extremely rich man with no fixed beliefs, who for the last ten years has planned to buy the Presidency: the politician as shopper.
South Carolina’s a strange, strange universe. It’s the birthplace of today’s Republican Party. Old Strom Thurmond, its segregationist eternal Senator, switched from Democrat to Republican in the 60’s, and taught Richard Nixon his “Southern Strategy,” how to lure white racists into the GOP and change the political temper of the whole region. It has a long tradition of elite, autocratic politics. (It was the last state in the Union to permit its population to vote for US President, instead preserving for more than a century the tradition of letting the state legislature choose electors.) Its establishment, however, is always wary of populist earthquakes: that particularly Southern form of populism in which rich whites watch the poor whites roused to anger, and try desperately — and usually successfully — to channel their rage toward anybody but themselves. Newt, adept at the tradition, got the masses’ mouths foaming at the news media, at black people (the “food stamp president”) … and at Mitt Romney.
The Washington Post points out today that Newt makes a strange populist.
That’s weird: … the candidate who has been in Washington the longest, who has spent the most time on the Sunday shows, who has the deepest rolodex of New York media elites, who has been third-in-line for the presidency, is running as some kind of insurgent.
But that misses the point of his real disaffection, which is intellectual, and rooted in his past. Newt is part of a thoroughly lumpen class, the professorial proletariat.
Gingrich, of course, is sure that he’s one of the great minds of all time. He famously scribbled during a meeting:
Gingrich — primary mission
Advocate of civilization
Definer of civilization
Teacher of the Rules of Civilization
Arouser of those who Fan Civilization
Organizer of the pro-civilization activists
Leader (Possibly) of the civilizing forces
Who else could claim that? Prospero? Kurtz? And of course, almost everybody makes fun of this. Joan Didion, in a brilliant essay, detected in his maundering “not the future but the past, the drone of the small-town autodidact, the garrulous bore in the courthouse square.”
But you have to consider where that mind of his came from. He got his B.A. from Emory, his Ph.D. from Tulane, both respectable schools. He finished a dissertation on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960,” and spent some time in Brussels (but not Congo) researching it. (Belgian education policy in the Congo, of course, was not to educate any Congolese.) One regards the dissertation as a potential source of horror –the horror! — given his subsequent comments about our Mau-Mau in Chief:
“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”
Historian Adam Hochschild read the dissertation, and found it dull rather than appalling. But he does suggest that Gingrich never tried to comprehend resistance to colonialism: “He cites interviews with one American and seven Belgians — but not a single Congolese, though there were hundreds living in Europe and the United States he could have talked to.” There’s a basic lack of intellectual curiosity there.
Which was punished. On finishing the magnum opus, Newt found himself teaching history and geography at West Georgia College, in Carrollton, the former Fourth District Agricultural and Mechanical School. As a recovered academic, I am sure this is an estimable institution. But for the young Ph.D., it is exile. For the aspiring genius, it is Dickens toiling in the blacking factory. For an ambitious assistant prof, it’s Ovid in Tomis, Dreyfus on Devil’s Island; it’s running seminars in Kafka’s Penal Colony, and writing syllabi on one’s own lacerated flesh. Nor did Newt do well even there, in the Sahara of the geistlichen Wissenschaften. In 1978, they denied him tenure. If he hadn’t got himself elected to Congress the same year, God knows what would have become of him.
These days, Newt is an real live author, who’s published 23 books, many of them arguably in English. When he talks about rebellion against the “elites,” though, it’s not hard to hear which ones he means most vividly, which enemies are nearest his heart. They’re the PhDs who went on to the good schools, the Dukes and Vanderbilts, the Harvards and Yales: the ones who got the great jobs, the ones whose dissertations made their way into print and praise, the ones for whom tenure waited patiently like a blond, young, buxom-chested Estonian bride. The ones who succeeded!
Hochschild notes that if Newt were elected, he’s be the first President with a Ph.D. since Woodrow Wilson. Well, yes. But he’d also be one of a small company of modern Presidents who never supped up knowledge at an Ivy League school. Since Herbert Hoover, only Truman, Nixon, and Carter have failed to attend upon such a holy place; and Nixon went to Duke Law School, which is almost as tony. (He was accepted at Harvard, but had to decline because of family illness, adding another to the pyramid of chips on his shoulder.) In fact, all the rest except Eisenhower completed part of their education at either Harvard or Yale. (I include Eisenhower, though he was a simple barefoot general from Kansas, because he actually served as President of Columbia University before he took on the leadership of the whole enchilada.)
Before FDR, there was Wilson (President of Princeton), and Teddy Roosevelt (Harvard boy); but before then it’s mostly a long procession of the self- and ill-educated, knowing no history and unknown to it now. The US Presidency was simply not very important before the second Roosevelt. Back then, it was a ceremonial job concerned with overseeing Cabinet meetings, certifying ambassadors, and cutting ribbons.
All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly to bores and quacks. … Anon there comes a day of public ceremonial, and a chance to make a speech. Alas, it must be made at the annual banquet of some organization that is discovered, at the last minute, to be made up of gentlemen under indictment, or at the tomb of some statesman who escaped impeachment by a hair. Twenty million voters with IQ’s below 60 have their ears glued to the radio; it takes four days’ hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere. Four Senators get drunk and try to neck a lady politician built like an overloaded tramp steamer. The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.
The elites who ruled the country cared very little about vetting the office’s occupants. Only the vast extension of state power in the New Deal made the Presidency truly vital. When that happened, suddenly it became crucial that its holders bear an Ivy imprimatur, proof that they were loyal to the System, having passed through its intestinal tests and come out the kind of guys who brown-nosed, worshipped the Institution, and rallied for the Team.
And Newt isn’t. He doesn’t carry the certificate or wear the proof. That’s the measure of his outsiderness: the intellectual resentment of a toiling academic who never won the kudos, never made good.
But he’s enough of an intellectual to know what “culture” is. And that’s his devastating potential at this juncture in the life of the Republican party, and possibly the United States.
Conservative populism is a strange thing (like South Carolina). Its great secret, both strength and weakness,is this: Its exponents cannot talk about class for very long. They have to change the subject to something else.
Modern conservatism, after all — the post-1848, bourgeois kind — developed not in order to affirm the aristocracy (the task of the old variety) but to suppress and conquer labor. Its whole birth and formation was a vast change of the subject, away from the reality of class, production, exploitation, and toward ideals of social stability. For a long time in the United States, right-wing populists had a ready theme to switch to, when the switching time came: Race. White populists in the South performed the explicit service of keeping the white poor’s anger focused on the black poor, not on their rich white oppressors. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the longtime Senator from South Carolina at the last century’s sharp turn, got his start in politics by massacring black freedmen in an 1876 riot. He called this “having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them [guess who] as was justifiable.” The stress was not just on the killing, but the superiority. The whites with their miserable, dirt-poor lives needed to believe in something, and Tillman gave the racial myth to sustain them.
This doesn’t work as openly anymore, though Gingrich can certainly dabble in it when Juan Williams, or some other anti-colonial interlocutor, is at hand. But “culture” is the new distraction from class, the new change of subject.
“New” is perhaps not the right word: the right has invoked “culture” at least since the ’60s, not just in the US but in country after country worldwide, to replace a discourse of injustice and justice with one of invasion versus belonging. “Distraction” is perhaps not the right word, either. “Culture” is a translation of class division, into a different register where the enemies’ identities can be shifted, and the revolutionary options of reappropriation or redistribution blunted or annealed. Those of us who work in the field of sexuality know this register all too well. It’s the hue and cry that something alien is intruding, that you‘re not part of our culture, that whatever rights you claim to represent don’t belong. It’s been used to change the subject from Ghana to Singapore.
Gingrich is the perfect mouth for this language, the perfect voice for this version of ressentiment. Because, of course, he is an intellectual, in the American sense. He has drunk up the deep desire and tendency of American academia — equally the mark of the old humanism and the new postmodernism — to see history in terms of the cloudy abstractions of culture, and not the material realities of money, conflict, and class. He knows how to dig a ditch and channel this seething magma out there, all the stuff of lost jobs and foreclosed houses and folks living in mobile homes, into a fiery onslaught on the “cultural elites.”
He did it when he won South Carolina. “The American elite media Is trying to force us to quit being Americans.” “The elites in Washington and New York,” Obama’s “extremist left wing friends in San Francisco,” the “growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites” — it was all there. He’s as good at this as Mugabe going after Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson!
His ability to meld class attack with the language of culture makes him a particularly potent demagogue right now. The man and the hour have met, and both of them have set out to screw Mitt Romney. I am certainly not predicting that Romney — who has about ten million dollars in his pocket for every book Gingrich ever wrote — is going down to defeat. If the day comes when money doesn’t matter in the Republican party, it’ll be a strange day indeed. But since the 2008 crash, we’ve been waiting in apprehension, breaths bated, for the true right-wing demagogue inevitably to emerge, in the way one attends on American Idol to cough up the semester’s fated celebrity. It suddenly makes sense that Newt the Definer of Civilization, far more than Sarah Palin, would be the one to play the role.