Home > Current Affairs, Politics > Newt Gingrich and “Conservative Intellectualism”

Newt Gingrich and “Conservative Intellectualism”

One major aspect of the current Republican Presidential Nomination race that I did not comment on in my recent post on the subject was the sudden polling surge of Newt Gingrich. I held off because the indications of the increase in his support from GOP base support were then rather fresh, and this has been a primary characterized by wild and insensible swings in polling preference from the evidently fickle and easily-persuaded sample population (remember when Donald Trump was leading the polls? Yeah, exactly). But Newt’s numbers have not only sustained themselves but even grown, so a word or two on his unlikely rise seems to be demanded.

I knew I shouldn't have had those prunes before this appeareance...

Gingrich still faces a lot of obstacles (most of them of his own making) on the road to the nomination and would seem to have few realistic prospects in the general election against a seasoned political campaigner (if also a widely-doubted governing figure) like Barack Obama. But his return from relative political obscurity to front-runner status should not, perhaps, be so surprising.

Despite his ample personal liabilities, Gingrich has achieved a neat trick that I believe explains his current resurgence: he has become a pure conduit for the uncompromising rhetoric of incoherent conservative ideology. He has succeeded in subsuming his identity to the expression of a cause that conceives of itself as revolutionary in scope. The American Right boasts no shortage of enthusiasts for hyperbolic comparisons of Obama to communist leaders, but at the same time its ideological denizens have demonstrated a particular susceptibility to the stark propagandistic strokes favoured by the sort of populist demagogues they claim to fear. After all, what is Fox News but the state propaganda network of a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship simply waiting to be implemented?

Gingrich speaks the language of the (counter-)revolutionary conservative movement, and he does so with Southern verve and bloviating quasi-intellectualism (Andrew Sullivan recently and memorable described him as “a dumb person’s idea of a smart person”). The right has a curious relationship to intellectualism. Outwardly, they deride it loudly, setting their purportedly “common sense” popular-touch ideas in opposition to the eggheaded ivory-tower wisdom of their liberal antagonists. But there is also an obvious hunger for the appearance of scholarly rigour that supports the conservative worldview. Glenn Beck once typified this, with his professorial blackboards, book recommendations, and suggestions of vast hidden webs of interrelations. That his musings descended into cartoonish paranoia and anti-Semitism and eroded his audience share does not diminish the evident hold that his general approach had on the right-wing masses.

Gingrich, always willing and able to adjust to changing circumstances, has modulated his pronouncements to vibrate on this preferred frequency. His statements in debates and speeches are full of not only the usual conservative dog-whistles about Obama’s “otherness”, but also the kind of direct analogies to communist dictatorships and fear-mongering about Islam that masquerades as big-picture thinking on the right. He seems to understand that the bigger and more audacious the inaccurate statement is, the more difficult it is to even begin to refute. As illogical as Gingrich’s now-trademarked statement that he fears the United States becoming a secular atheist nation dominated by radical Islamists may have been, it was also a perfect distillation of conventional Christian-conservative opinion.

Hail, Comrade Newt!

Maybe right-wing politics is more about identity than about the expression of ideas (though not policy; none of the GOP candidates seem too interested in that). Gingrich is, after all, a Republican par excellence: a cranky white Southerner who wants the godless hippie freeloader bastards off his lawn. Republicans with a long enough memory (selectively so, since the Bush years have been conveniently Eternal Sunshined) can likely even recall that he was a constant thorn in the side of the last Democrat antichrist, Bill Clinton. And unlike the done-like-dinner Herman Cain, Gingrich is unlikely to have lurking sex scandals yet to burst out, because all of his questionable relationship choices have been out in public for a good decade now.

But ideology always matters on the right, generally more so than on the left, even. It may not be cognitively consistent or make a lot of logical sense, but conservative intellectualism has carved out a place for itself in the movement and will always need its champions. As of right now, that champion is Gingrich until it’s someone else. Judging from the poll fluctuations of this nomination race, we may not have to wait long for that someone else (when is Rick Santorum’s turn on top coming, I wonder?), but Newt has endured through much and may be able to keep his current lead in spite of the odds.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics
  1. Lorraine Langager
    December 4, 2011 at 11:01 am

    George Will, Washington Post columnist dubbed him ” The classic rental politician”, for accepting large consulting fees from mortgage giant Freddie Mac. These wild poll fluctuation for fornt runner choices perhaps indicate the desperation of the GOP to find a credible candidate to challenge Obama.

    • Nick Quinn
      December 4, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      Cue Sarah Palin to ride in on her white 4×4.

  1. January 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm
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