Eye of Newt

Eye of Newt

Maybe we shouldn’t be shocked at Gingrich’s rise. After all, today’s tantrum-throwing, hostage-taking GOP was created by people like Newt.


You may have seen this already—it’s been the wallpaper at MSNBC for days—but le mot juste is juste that:

Ron Paul is right, of course: Newt Gingrich is a serial hypocrite and a vicious one at that. (What I like best about the ad is how each phrase flashed on screen fades at the end, suggesting that Newt, like Cain, Perry et al. will, too.) But he’s here now, his numbers are busting out just as the holidays eclipse politics until the January 3 Iowa caucuses, and that leaves a lot of us—Dems and moderates, naturally, but also most of Newt’s former colleagues in movement conservatism—absolutely dumbstruck.

Gingrich, if you remember,was not only fired as Speaker of the House by his own party, but became the face of an intransigent and bullying faction so full of its own sense of self-importance that he was depicted on the cover of the New York Daily News as a wailing, red-faced baby. And among Republican leaders, if not the base, that’s still how Newt registers. Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Romney surrogate, said this morning, “I don’t think Newt Gingrich cares about conservative principles. He cares about Newt Gingrich.”

And while Gingrich now says, “I’m much more mature than I was as Speaker” (being third in line under the Constitution for the presidency being a mere break-in cruise for Newt’s personal development), there’s really very little to show of a “New Newt.” For every moment of restraint he’s displayed during a debate, like saying the party of family values shouldn’t break up immigrant families who’ve been here for a quarter-century, there’s been an equally outlandish comment on the trail, like suggesting that poor children work as school janitors or that poor kids have never known anyone who works for a living (!?!).

But maybe we shouldn’t be completely shocked at Gingrich’s rise. After all, today’s tantrum-throwing, hostage-taking Republican Party was fostered by behavior like Newt’s—acting like a scheming pro wrestler, screaming as he puts weight on one leg or dripping ketchup from a nonexistent wound, is now second nature to the GOP. They’re like people raised on a diet of green bell peppers who, over the course of the last two decades, have slowly been adding jalapeños to the sauce until nothing short of pepper spray even merits a red-hot warning. By now, they’re so used to Newt’s exaggerated howling they can’t hear anything else—especially not poor Mitt’s marble-mouthed me-tooism.

As Speaker of the House, Newt was his party’s stepping-off point into irrationality, into demanding far more than was ever good for them and then complaining even when they got it. That is the Tea Party to a T—from causing America’s credit-rating downgrade to throwing the tantrum of the constant filibuster. The one promise Gingrich has kept to the base is to never compromise with reality—at least not rhetorically. No matter what he’s doing, whether it’s dealing away the key demands of the Contract with America or going on a Greek cruise soon after kicking off his candidacy, Newt’s always saying that it’s done for a higher, grander cause, like, say, countering the forces of Kenyan anti-colonial socialism. Newt’s the kind of guy who doesn’t just take out the garbage, he visits the dustbin of history.

Paul Krugman said it best, when he explained in a recent column why Gingrich hasn’t (yet) been burned by his own fire-breathing hypocrisies.

If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, conservatives often seem inclined to accept that tribute, voting for candidates who publicly espouse conservative moral principles whatever their personal behavior. Did I mention that David Vitter is still in the Senate?

And Mr. Gingrich has some advantages none of the previous challengers had. He is by no means the deep thinker he imagines himself to be, but he’s a glib speaker, even when he has no idea what he’s talking about. And my sense is that he’s also very good at doublethink—that even when he knows what he’s saying isn’t true, he manages to believe it while he’s saying it. So he may not implode like his predecessors. 

Self-deception is a fundamental requirement of today’s extreme Republicanism, as is dumbing oneself down. In order to promote obviously ludicrous notions (like that Obama “represents a hard-left radicalism. He is opposed to free enterprise. He is opposed to capitalism,” as Gingrich said this week), Republican leaders must necessarily “be totally cynical or…be totally clueless,” Krugman writes. “The fact that the party is committed to demonstrably false beliefs means that only fakers or the befuddled can get through the selection process.”

Helped by the calendar and an appalling ignorance fed by Fox News, Newt may just walk through the fires of his own hypocrisy unscathed.

And some of us thought only salamanders could do that.

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