The conventional explanation for Newt Gingrich’s rise to leading in the national polls for the Republican presidential nomination is simple, a little too simple. It’s taken as a given that erstwhile front- runner Mitt Romney is just too unappealing to too much of the conservative base and they are constantly seeking an acceptable alternative. Having cycled through Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, they are running out of options.
This is true, but it’s incomplete. While lack of enthusiasm about other candidates provided the opportunity for someone, it does not tell us why Gingrich was the beneficiary. Why was Gingrich next in line for conservative affections when his past betrayals of current party principles—endorsing an individual mandate to buy health insurance and a cap-and-trade plan to limit carbon emissions, among others—make “moderate” Jon Huntsman look like Jim DeMint? Why would a movement nominally dedicated to preserving traditional marriage prefer Gingrich, a serial adulterer, to a devout family man such as Rick Santorum? What is it that makes Gingrich at all appealing on his own terms?
The answer lies in what many in the mainstream media tend to perceive as a weakness, rather than strength, of Gingrich’s: his over-the-top rhetorical condemnations of Democrats and liberals. Gingrich’s various pronouncements that strike moderates and liberals as odd are actually effective dog whistles. Here are some examples:
§ In September, 2010 Gingrich told National Review that Dinesh D’Souza’s widely mocked Forbes article on President Obama provided him with the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama…. What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”
§ In an October, 2011 presidential debate Gingrich, responding to why no one on Wall Street executives was arrested after the financial crisis, said, “If you want to put people in jail, you ought to start with Barney Frank, Chris Dodd.”
§ Gingrich has repeatedly denigrated the Occupy Wall Street movement with language that oscillates from dismissive to paranoid. On November 20, he instructed them to “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.” Just a few days earlier Gingrich had decried “the destructive, hostile, anti-civilization of the so-called ‘Occupy Wall Street’ crowd…. They want to tear down our country.”
To most people these sorts of comments seem divisive, foolish and unpresidential. To a movement conservative, though, they hit the sweet spot. When Gingrich declares that his two big problems with the Dodd-Frank financial reform law are “Dodd and Frank,” it offers no actual argument or substantive explanation. But Republican audiences roar with laughter and delight. Gingrich is the most aggressive and effective of the Republican contenders at ridiculing Democrats and liberals.
The modern conservative movement and Republican Party, which Gingrich played a major role in creating, is a reactionary movement. It is built on the feelings of alienation from a changing society by older whites. Since his time as a bomb-throwing backbencher in the House of Representatives in the 1980s Gingrich’s greatest political talent has been tapping into this anger. Gingrich may talk of Ronald Reagan as his inspiration, but the Republican president he truly takes after is his former mentor Richard Nixon.