So Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina primary.
In the course of a week he turned around his campaign, transforming a serious deficit into a 13 point win. South Carolina voters rejected Romney’s time at Bain Capital, his Mormon faith, and his insincerity. They turned, instead, to the disgraced former Speaker of the House, a man whose personal life is quite frankly enough to disqualify him from any possible general election run; whose statements over the past few years in regards to Obama, religious freedom, and other controversial issues place him not only on the far-right of the political spectrum, but among its worst elements.
Gingrich can pander like no other, but his personal and political past should be enough to rouse Republicans from whatever drunken stupor has led them to this precarious destination.
Admittedly, one state does not a nomination make, but Romney has never been so vulnerable.
“This is the Republican crack-up people have been predicting for years,” writes Andrew Sullivan. “Gingrich is on a roll. I think he can win this – and then lose this in a way that could change America history. That is a brief impression in one moment of time. But I cannot see Romney winning this at this point. They are just not into him, and he’s an awful candidate.”
The Republican Party “deserves its spokesman,” Andrew argues. “But do not under-estimate the appeal to some of the idea of humiliating and removing the first black president. That’s what Gingrich is really about. He is giving them what they want. And it’s meat that has barely seen a skillet.”
It’s remarkable, really. There’s a sort of debauchery to it, this willingness to follow whoever says the most extreme thing, whoever is willing to play the raging fool.
What is conservatism in this country? What has it become?
Corey Robin argues that it’s the politics of the perpetual reactionary. Conservatism here and in Europe has been the manifestation of the status quo reacting to the forces of change and progress. Sullivan argues that true conservatism is more a matter of disposition and temperament; that the true conservative seeks balance. In some ways, these are very much the same thing though Robin’s conservative is a revolutionary in reverse, and Sullivan’s is a force for stability. (I am suddenly reminded of Ra’s al Ghul and his reactionary League of Shadows…)
These days I see conservatism more as a bastion for fear of the Other than anything else. The Other is the crux of every conservative argument: fear of the immigrant other (Mexicans!); fear of the cultural other (Liberals and Elitists!); fear of the religious other (Muslims!); fear of the racial other (black people!); and so forth. Conservatism is a sort of protectionism that inhabits the minds of the fearful (and make no mistake, this tendency creeps up on the left at times as well.)
Conservatives believe that we must protect our borders, stop the flow of communism or radical Islam, etc., fight big government but not the entitlements that big government so graciously hands out to us. No wonder most conservatives want to keep the military strong and well funded when so much fear is at play. A conservative in the American sense is not interested so much in turning back the clock as he is in stopping it altogether.
This - this harnessing of fear and resentment – is what Newt has tapped into on the right and he’s done so better than anyone else – better than the bumbling Perry or the more mild-mannered Santorum. It doesn’t matter if he has a plan or if he’s lying through his teeth or if his past is littered with failures both moral and political. It doesn’t matter if he’s just another big government rightwinger in disguise, pandering to whatever shreds remain of the once mighty Tea Party. What matters is what he represent - he’s become, quite suddenly, an avatar for all this terror at the browning of America, at the financial crash, the poor labor market. He’s become Obama’s doppelganger.
Obama is all that is Other and Newt is that comforting swell of rage that accompanies it. In this sense, Newt’s very familiarity is a blessing when it ought to be a curse.
Why Newt and not Romney? Certainly Romney has taken a hard-line stance on everything. I’m not sure it’s his Mormonism so much as it is his insincerity. When Romney talks about Obama or the various issues conservatives have with Obama, he just isn’t convincing, even to a liberal like me. He sounds like a phony. (Like I’ve said before, he has no soul.) Gingrich, on the other hand, has plenty of soul, dried up thing though it may be, and he can access deeper emotional resonance in the GOP base. Romney’s anger is flat and papery. Gingrich may indeed only be a better actor, but he’s a method actor, and he pulls off the role he knows he needs to play.
Whether he can sustain it is another question. Gingrich comes with his own cartload of baggage and plenty of moderates in the GOP outside of South Carolina are just as nervous about the former speaker as they are about the former governor of Massachusetts. This game is far from finished.
What a glorious sport we’ve made of our political system.