“I do not think that this President even begins to understand the threat of radical Islam.” In the hangar of Tampa Jet Systems, out near the airport, Newt Gingrich was getting into the final quarter of his stump speech. He doesn’t always go with the radical Islam bit, often skipping the whole bit completely. He must have taken one look at the audience and decided it was worth a go. But they were only half-responsive. “Obama’s made it against the rules to talk about the common threat but, well, they don’t belong to Rotary.” Slightly more enthusiastic response. A pause, and then: “I don’t want sharia law in any courtroom in this country.” That rang the bell. The cheers went up. They rattled the sheet metal roof. They roared approval. “Newt newt newt.” There were around eighty people in this cavernous space, and they were doing their best to fill it up.
Behind, a big gap of concrete, and then three tables of journalists, and a catafalque crowded with twenty camera crews watched with … not disbelief, not horror, but with boredom etched on their faces. Tired ageing men, scruffy, flabby, younger ones, women in pants and nineteen dollar hairdos, the cream of the travelling press corps. Two hours earlier they had been herded off the Newt bus, to sit through a series of warm ups by county-level party chairs – ‘I’m from X county, we’re the redheaded stepchild of the Tampa area’ – while waiting for his Newtness to drop from the sky, and wrap up three network interviews in the hangar next door. They had swarmed the small crowd, scarfing up vox pops, and getting, for their pains, the party line about the ‘liberal media’.
Three people with notepads crowded around a retired jet parts broker, telling them that Newt would be winning ‘if it werent for the liberal media’, ‘we know we won’t get a fair hearing’, and on and on. They were unfailingly polite, soft-spoken, without anger, and batshit crazy, revelling in a rich sense of victimhood. They see reporters as a necessary evil, the enemy horning in on their private spectacle, and in their revelling, it was difficult not to see the fundamental divide.
Watching eighty people celebrate a brave resistance to sharia law in the US is less reportage than anthropology – there’s no way to really enter that viewpoint, or to not see it as a magical relationship to the world. There was nothing compensatory or defiant about this – even with Newt ten to fifteen percent down in the polls, these people fervently believe he will win. The bad numbers? Well there’s that liberal media again.
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Today’s appearance wasn’t Newt at his most energetic. The big old dog has been, as have all candidates, on the road for ten weeks solid now, and they’re all showing the strain. Ron Paul wisely takes two days in every seven off. Rick Santorum is showing the strain of, well, failure, and the illness of his three-year-old daughter. Mitt Romney has the greatest physical stamina of the four, but the least in existential terms – since he doesn’t believe much of what he’s saying anyway, his stump speech has now become a discontinuous series of lines, punched home with effectiveness but no life. Newt still has the belief, but the sheer physical oomph ain’t there.
He is, after all, carrying a lot of weight – he looks like a man who got up one morning and decided to wear a barrel, and then put his pants on over it anyway. That massing, topped with white hair in the style of an eight-year old boy from 1961, completes the weird look. Today his blonde 3.0 wifebot Callista stayed by his side throughout the speech, laughing and smiling on queue, like there was electric cabling running into her brain stem, a slight whirring sound each time her head turned, her hair a helmet made of super-metal mined from passing asteroids.
They look like what they are: aging cashed-out strip mall developer, and the widow of his business partner, having moved to Boca Raton, and now putting too much energy into the condo management committee. When he’s on form, he can dispel that demeanour, with a burst of energy and righteous anger. Then he becomes a raging bull, and you wouldn’t want to be in front of him. You’d have to be churlishly one-sided not to admire Gingrich at his height – his response in South Carolina, on the accusation that his claim that Obama was ‘the food stamp President’ was racist: “I don’t care if it makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job!” to cheers, was magnificent, and should be a little chastening for anyone who thinks that a Gingrich candidacy would be a slam dunk for Obama.
But that’s at full throttle. At lower speeds, Gingrich tends to stall a little, for all but the true believers. The delivery is pat and professorial – he was, believe it or not, a global pioneer of environmental studies – and the pose of taking on the establishment collapses into victimhood and borderline paranoia. For anyone who knows this man, the claim to outsider status is absurd beyond belief, and only wilful blindness or deep-fried stupidity on the part of his followers can ignore this champion of earmarks (unrelated local spending grants attached to major bills), this K street lobbyist, and influence peddlar to the highest bidder.
No-one should be able to ignore a personal morality that is not merely hypocritical, but disgusting by all moral standards – divorcing two wives, when not one, but both of them suffered from cancer at the time. His first wife, mother of his children – and also his high-school geography teacher, whom he wed age nineteen – was dumped while in hospital, by phone.
While serving as speaker he was loathed by colleagues, wholly disorganised, and then forced out, after which he was fined three hundred thousand dollars for ethics violations. Through all that time he was prosecuting the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal with great force, even as he attempted to persuade his second wife to accept his relationship with Callista. Son of a man who didn’t stick around, and stepson of a military man who beat him throughout his childhood, he is that distinctive American political product, a self-styled conservative incapable of governing his own appetites, a one-man incontinental congress.
When in the 90s, he inadvertently revealed that he had shut-down the government in a stand-off with Bill Clinton – a stand-off the Republicans lost – because he had been given a seat down the back in an Airforce One trip, he was universally depicted as a huge baby, and there wasn’t much that artists had to alter to achieve the likeness.
That drive, going off in all directions at once, extends to his politics, and it was well on display in a hangar on the edge of town. Gingrich’s pitch is always towards action – “when I am elected President I will ask Congress to stay sitting through January, and to repeal Obamacare, repeal Dodd-Frank [the bank regulation bil], repeal Sarbanes-Oxley [a 2002, enhanced orporate regulation bill, passed by a Republican congress], so that I will have those bills on my desk to sign on the 20th January.”
That always gets a big cheer, and there’s a lot more like it. The appeal is not to the idea of the President as CEO of a country – that’s Romney’s schtick – nor to Ron Paul’s implicit appeal to the idea of an 18th century President, abolishing a whole lot of stuff, and then running the office part-time, as a free people pursue their divers happinesses. Instead, it’s a revival of the Reaganite notion that a President makes war within and without the borders – political war inside, abolishing, shaking up, reorganising, synthesising – and actual war without, annihilating enemies.
Though it cloaks itself in the language of the Constitution and the Revolution, it is nothing like the state that the eighteenth century revolutionaries imagined — a settled, pious inward looking free people (and, erm, their slaves). Gingrich’s vision is Promethean, expansionary, transformative. Though he talks of reducing the size of government, and would certainly take an axe to social programmes if he could, he is no proponent of the nightwatchman state. He wants bigger, better, more, now sooner. He wants the qualitative transformation of human existence by the application of the scientific technological revolution in every sphere of existence.
His Americanism is not that of Jefferson or Hamilton still less of Calhoun or Rothbard, and not even of Ayn Rand – it is the America of Buckminster Fuller, of Norbert Weiner, of a more aggressive Bill Gates, and a smarter Jack Welch. Gingrich sees the US as the manifest destiny of humanity, but he sees that destiny as unrealised. He doesn’t want to balance the budget and get on the gold standard. He wants the private sector to go to Mars.
Gingrich is a true revolutionary, the last Bolshevik, of the Rightist tendancy, the Bukharin de nos jours. When you hear him talking about not merely colonising the Moon, but having the 13,000 residents of it apply for US statehood, what do we hear but this: “Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonious, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above these heights, new peaks will rise.” Which is Trotsky.
Indeed, the case of Newt Gingrich, his intellectual and political history is so extraordinarily interesting, that there is no space to do anything but scratch the surface here. But the gist is this: Gingrich taps into a utopian stream of the twentieth century that came to be identified with post-war America, but began on the radical left – the idea that finding the right state form to unleash humanity’s productive forces was the true path to human liberation, and that technology would do the rest. The Bolsheviks differed within themselves on the immediate state form – would it be wholly socialist or harness the forces of capitalism – but it is they who introduced this idea to global politics.
Over the ensuing decades, when people departed from the movement, they took that promethean urge with them. One who did was James Burnham, a writer of the 30s and 40s, who wrote the Managerial Revolution, a book which argued that scientists, engineers, and managers were now running the joint, creating their own path to class victory in both the US and the USSR. One of Burnham’s followers was a bloke named Alvin Toffler, who wrote seminal 70s book Future Shock, to be found wedged between The Dice Man and The Joy of S-x in many a 70s bookshelf.
Future Shock and Toffler’s other books, such as The Third Wave, pointed out that we were heading to an information and post-industrial society at a time when Detroit was still the heart of the US, and the economy was organised around the making of stuff. Toffler, like Burnham, had passed through the Communist movement, and retained a scepticism towards bourgeois notions of politics.
And Gingrich? Gingrich was a follower of Toffler’s, has written introductions to his books, and been inspired by him, and often spruiked him in public. Toffler believes that US political institutions are obsolete; Gingrich believes – or says he does – that they are the form of the future. That prometheanism, that futurism, is what fuels Gingrich’s disdain for Obama, a social democrat whose programme most neatly corresponds to Karl Popper’s notion that piecemal social reform should try and make people’s lives somewhat less worse.
In Gingrich you see something triangulate between Marx, Mussolini, Toffler and sundry others, an investment in nation and species, an utter disinterest in the fate of the individual. None of his supporters really understand that, or how utterly unconservative he is. He flatters and coos to them with the stories the want to hear. They do not want to go to Mars. They want to go to 1960, when America roared with industry, ran the world, and was not talked back to, when material production, not fiddling with screens, was at the centre of life, and when all this goddam multifarious. “It breaks his heart seeing foreign cars/filled with fuel that isn’t ours” goes a line from Made in America one of the country rock songs they pump out at these events.
They want to hear about strength, and enemies, and enemies within, and the vanquishing of them. Newt wants to talk about how poor high school kids could pay for their astrophysics degrees by being cyber janitors at cloud schools run by Apple and Oprah, or something. The journos in the back suck their pencils, and wonder at adults like teenagers who won’t face their nation’s problems, and worship a Golden Baby, telling them what they want to hear, to the music of jets, already warming up for the next gig down the road.