Steve Lopez is one of two LA Times columnists who I regularly read (the other is George Skelton), and on 11 December he published a touching piece about the struggle that families face when it comes to respecting the wishes of elderly parents and grandparents in failing health. Lopez illustrated the dilemma by writing movingly about his own family’s experiences with his ageing and ill father. He mentioned, in passing, that the healthcare system provides incentives for medicating and operating on people beyond what might actually be in the quality-of-life interests of patients.
I can only assume that it was this three-sentence digression that sparked one of the very first comments on the article (since removed), to the effect that if we just got around to shipping “illegals” “back to where they belong”, we wouldn’t have any problems. I wrote a letter a while back in Berkeley’s campus paper, and it was met with some uninformed comments by people who clearly hadn’t read what I wrote, so I held my nose and responded, genuinely trying to address the issues the commentator was raising, and doing my best to remain civil. The commenter continued commenting, and I continued responding until, realising that he/she would get nowhere on the facts, the individual in question started ranting about “illegal aliens” and demanded, “When will you finally admit that the time for a gentler, kinder California is over?”
I sometimes try to convince myself that all of the people who write offensive, illogical, off-topic, ill-informed and hurtful comments on newspaper articles must be the same person. But then I remember that the candidacy of someone like Newt Gingrich (or The Newt Who Would Be King, as I like to call him) is predicated on turning people against each other and on distorting the debate (although in fairness, The Newt is less ridiculous on the question of immigration, given his efforts at outreach to Hispanics).
The Newt has launched vicious attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators in the United States, suggesting that they “get a job right after you take a bath”, and has claimed that only middle-class kids have any experience with work...that poor kids have no work ethic.
The Newt has been ridiculed for supposedly comparing himself to Winston Churchill and for describing himself as a “transformational figure”.
There is one thing I think that The Newt must have in common with someone like Churchill, and that is a tremendous sense of self-belief. Stories abound about Churchill telling school-friends that he would grow up to save Britain. The Newt seems to think of himself very much in this mould. Sycophantic commentators have even endorsed his self-image.
The trouble is that there isn’t a crisis The Newt is interested in addressing. His approach to our economic misfortunes isn’t unique...it’s the brainless panacea that virtually his entire party, from Ron Paul to Mitt Romney have adopted: lower taxes, cut regulation and watch the market do its magic (never mind that the Bush years, which followed this dogma, led directly to the crisis of 2008). No, Gingrich needs something bigger to tackle, something in keeping with how he sees himself: that is, as a person, a force, of world-historical proportions.
I suspect that if no such crisis were to materialise, he would invent one. There are already hints of this. Back when he wondered whether President Obama “[was] so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”, I went and took a look at his website. He had a lengthy section outlining what he chillingly referred to as the “Long War” in which the United States is supposedly already engaged. The Newt identified “the Irreconcilable wing of Islam” (it turns out that this encompasses all Muslims who have the temerity to question the U.S.) as the Enemy. This “Irreconcilable wing” was charged with being incapable of “peacefully coexist[ing] with the civilised world”. The solution? A “Long War”. In theory, he wrote, “the Long War might only last 50-70 years. Yet it will probably last much longer”, given that it is, in his view, “a war of survival”. Now all of this about the Long War has vanished from his website, and the links no longer lead anywhere, suggesting that The Newt realises that people might think he was slightly bonkers if this all got out.
Spouting this kind of rubbish is wrongheaded and dangerous, but it shows that Gingrich is not above fabricating and distorting threats to which he can then respond in Churchillian fashion. His films (does he see his visual homage to Ronald Reagan as the equivalent of Churchill’s biographies of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough during the wilderness years?) illustrate his apocalyptic thinking. He is constantly invoking threats to ‘civilisation’ (language I’ve heard no other politician use), whether those threats are liberal culture, “the irreconcilable wing of Islam”, or secularism. The latter is a favourite bogey. The Newt even manages to combine some of his fantastical fears, and has cited his fear that “if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren] are my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American”.
But The Newt’s fearmongering and paranoia resurfaces elsewhere, and I find myself suspecting that a President Gingrich (yikes!) would be one sad amphibian indeed if he didn’t find himself faced with a violent struggle for survival. One of his other great fears is that some Enemy will detonate a nuclear weapon above the United States and plunge us back into the 1860s. Which is funny, because given what I’d heard from The Newt about poverty and child labour laws, I was under the impression that taking us back to the nineteenth century was his primary policy goal.
The Newt is fond of invoking his history PhD, and has even claimed that Fannie Mae hired him as an historian rather than as a lobbyist. Technically, he wasn’t hired as a lobbyist, but everyone knows he wasn’t being paid to read historic documents. He claimed to be speaking as an historian when he described Palestinians as an “invented” people. Here again, he is technically correct...all nations and people are invented, Israel as a nation and Americans as a people as much as anyplace or anyone else. The Newt has also developed a line of thought that suggests that only members of a Judeo-Christian faith should have the right to participate in public life. He has called publicly for the assassination of foreign scientists and officials, as long as it’s “deniable”.
You’d have to dig pretty deep (or at least go to Harvard’s history department lounge) to find an historian who approaches the past in such simplistic terms. The Newt’s approach to criticism is akin to that of Tea Partiers who have a frightening tendency to deal with inconvenient facts by chanting “USA! USA! USA!”: he invokes “American Exceptionalism”.
And when he says all of these things, The Newt smirks like the little boy who knows that he’s technically right if morally wrong, and is entirely okay with that.
But it’s not going to go all his own way. From a strategic standpoint, the Republicans would be nuts to nominate anyone other than Mitt Romney, and I’m assuming that enough people in the GOP realise this that they are going to do what they can to take The Newt down. And other candidates are going to give him a rough ride. In the last debate, Ron Paul lambasted him to his face, while The Newt fixed Paul with an amphibian gaze, as though trying to use his mind powers to shut Paul up.
One thing I do not understand is how The Newt won his reputation as an intellectual, or as a big thinker. My pet theory is that he put around an anonymous press release detailing his genius in the ‘90s, and that the press, with its characteristic witlessness, lapped this up. He survives on his brashness, and maintains his ill-gotten reputation as an ‘intellectual’ through the absence of any check that prevents him from saying patently absurd things, often contradictory (and sometimes so in the same sentence), and generally entirely out of keeping with his character and history.
In the coming months, The Newt will be scaremongering with a vengeance, doing his best to convince us that the United States is facing a deadly threat from “irreconcilable Islamists”, from disorderly and anti-American demonstrators, from the “secular socialism” that the Obama administration is supposedly selling, and possibly from aliens. His wife (I’m not even going to get into The Newt’s domestic life) will go around flogging her books that try to act as a corrective to “revisionist and politically correct history” (you know, the kind that mentions slavery and Native Americans and organised labour and civil rights). The Newt will strut and boast and refer to himself in the third person. He will remind us in every other sentence that he has a PhD and is an historian. He will do his best to convince us that he is a Churchillian figure, here to rescue us from some existential threat. And I suspect that he will wind up looking like a rather pitiful joke. The alternative is too scary to contemplate.