Well it has been a helluva ride for the Republican Party, as its right-wing base searches for anyone but the passionless and, by American standards, centrist mainstream candidate Mitt Romney. Since the heartbreaking news that Sarah Palin would not be running, the Republican Right has, by a process of default, stumbled upon genuine diversity, with first Michele Bachmann and then Herman Cain breaking up the line of ageing white men who usually fill the candidature ranks.
The more surprising of these was Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, who has now withdrawn from the race, after being hit not merely with multiple accusations of sexual harassment, culminating in revelations that he had had a 13-year affair with a woman, the perfectly named Ginger White, whose bills he had paid for some time. Early revelations of the affair had caused Cain to “suspend” his campaign, a polite term for “panic behind closed doors”.
Revelations of the affair — and the Cain campaign’s defence that his accusers were talking of “a consensual relationship” which pretty much confirmed it — put paid to any residual support Cain could muster. He had long since lost the mainstream Right of the party, as represented by groups such as the National Review, but he retained strong support in the hinterland of Republican activists and their nutty blogosphere.
S-xual harassment accusations, even by three women, can be passed off as vindictive, and the Right doesn’t like the laws that make such accusations possible anyway. But a decade-plus affair is something else — not only does it indicate a corrosive attitude to the image of marriage that the Right holds dear, but it also indicates a capacity for magical thinking that sits ill with a winning candidate (no one cares what sort of President they would make).
But more than anything, it turns people away because they feel taken for fools. Herman Cain became, in an instant, the John Edwards of the Republicans — in each case the standard bearer of true belief turned out to be the very man whose entire life was a lie. Edwards has dropped down the memory hole of American life; it is extraordinary the degree to which he has just disappeared.
Cain’s fate is not to be forgotten. It may be worse. Right-of-centre Americans who wanted an intelligent candidate were still reeling from the impact of Palin. Cain made the Wasilla thriller look like Frederick the Great — from his contemptuous remarks about not knowing who the President of “Uzbeki beki beki beki stan” was, to his pizza-hotline style “9-9-9” tax plan, to a surreal performance on the question of Libya, which began with him checking with the interviewer as to which country they were talking about (“Gaddafi, right?”).
Cain brought exactly the wrong sort of insouciance at the wrong time — just as the John McCain/Sarah Palin double had foundered in 2008 when the collapse of the global economy convinced the US public that they should vote on ability, not identity, on what people could do, not what sort of idea of themselves the candidate reflected back to them.
With China rising, the US falling, the Arab Spring and the collapse of Europe, the Republican Right knew that the presence of Cain as a candidate, and, God help them, as a winner, would have promised not merely a loss to Obama, but a caving-in of the Republican brand, a simple absence of discourse, replaced by the noise “beki beki beki”.
So it will be very surprising if we do not eventually find the hand, not merely of the Romney campaign, but of the Republican Party centre, behind the Cain debacle — even if only to give a nudge to what was going to happen anyway. There is plenty of commentary around pointing to Cain’s vanity, poor organisation and selective relationship with reality — but the important point is surely that it exactly matched the predilections of the small but active Right push that sent him to the top of the polls.
Indeed, it was the only way that a black man could have risen to the top of the Republican Right’s wish list. They had tried everyone else on offer — everyone new and exciting that is, ignoring only one old dude named Gingrich. Cain was the last cab off the rank. His perfect match with Tea Party fantasy made him not white, but essentially transparent; they saw past the colour that would have otherwise limited their identification with him.
I don’t mean by that that Tea Parties are necessarily racist, though some are. It is simply that their celebration of America, though it claims to be about the abstract values of America, are in fact grounded in its white ethnos — hence all the malarkey with tricorn hats in Walmart carparks. The strength of this myth is that the concrete and the abstract in here — for the Tea Party, it’s our myth of nationhood, but it is also a story for all mankind. But nevertheless it only happened in one place once. Yet it is the only “correct” vision of how human beings should be.
That powerful and paradoxical American exceptionalism has become supercharged among the Right of late — a hysterical reaction to its disappearance. And so, with Cain gone, the Right has finally alighted on Newt Gingrich, a man whose polls were flatlining so badly some months ago that his staff quit en masse.
The last choice, on the face of it, should have been the first one. Gingrich is undoubtedly intelligent, across the issues, capable of talking clearly about policy. He is also an obsessive exceptionalist, and happy to be the type of conservative who sees an absolute distinction between the rights that should be extended to Americans, and those that should be extended to others, which is precisely none.
Thus he has spoken hitherto of the reality of global warming, but also of the Islamicisation of America as represented by the Ground Zero (non-) mosque. He has spoken with something approaching rationality about immigration, yet he continues to blather on about traditional values while divorcing one wife while she had cancer, and having a long affair behind the back of another, while pursuing Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
That mix of fantasy and reality is what has kept Newt at arm’s length from the core of the Right — not the whacko stuff, but the fact that he once authored a book called Contract with the Earth, and that in his career as an academic — he has never worked in the private sector — he founded one of the world’s first environmental studies programs, in 1974.
But with Michelle Bachman a distant memory, Rick Perry now a joke, Herman Cain a trivial pursuit question, Ron Paul a permanent 8%-er (though check out his fantastic ad, made all the better by the fact that this libertarian is using early Soviet constructivism as an aesthetic), Rick Santorum now permanently associated with ass-juice, it’s now all Newt.
He has a good chance in Iowa and Nevada, is coming up fast in New Hampshire — where until now, Romney was leading 45% to 15% against the nearest contender — will take South Carolina, and only needs the last of these to be competitive in Florida and Colorado. Two weeks ago, the Republicans thought they might have a black man as their candidate — they will instead get Newt, the ultimate black swan, the unexpected unexpected to lead “Ameri meri meri merica stan”.
*After captivating Crikey readers — and winning The Age non-fiction book of the year prize — for his 2008 US election road show, Guy Rundle is back stateside in the New Year to do it all again. His on-the-ground reports from the Republican primaries begin on January 9.