Newt Gingrich Relies on Vague American Ideals for Popularity

It’s a fairly safe assertion to make that the Claremont Colleges are home to few if any Newt Gingrich supporters. Yet Gingrich deserves consideration by supporters and detractors alike, because there is a chance that he will become the Republican presidential nominee and therefore will take up a small space in our collective consciousnesses until at least November.

Probably the most striking fact to consider about Gingrich is that conservatives consider him a plausible president. Gingrich, after all, is a politician who, both personally and politically, exemplifies the anti-conservative, whether in his long list of wives, overstretched credit account at Tiffany’s, political flirtations in the early 2000s with enemies like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton or temperamental attraction to absolutely any idea (be it colonizing the moon or absurd claims about Barack Obama’s relationship to anti-colonial movements) that strikes his fancy. This is not an individual who emblematizes caution, prudence, decisiveness or solidity. Rather, this is Bill Clinton minus the perks: similarly southern and self-indulgent, but petty where Clinton was generous and small-minded where Clinton was intellectually acute. Members of Gingrich’s party who have worked with him either hate him or definitively dislike the prospect of him as president. His debate performances, once his strongest selling point, have fallen in recent weeks. His campaign even lacks serious organization; it’s largely powered by Gingrich’s ideas, but then again, it’s not like he’s actually selling a focused political philosophy. He’s talking, after all, about colonizing the moon.

One might think that a candidate like Gingrich, with his many extravagances and indulgences, would serve to highlight the current, unloved Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney’s better qualities. In Romney, after all, Republican voters have a faithful husband, father of five, businessman who is personally frugal to the point of stinginess and devoted Christian who (though his faith might seem weird to some) has served as a missionary abroad and whose religion seems genuinely a central part of his identity. Yes, Romney’s flip-flopped on some of his political positions, but so has Gingrich. And yes, Romney fired people (and apparently really liked doing it) while he was running a corporation, but Gingrich collected thousands of dollars as an advisor to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Nonetheless, the Republican grassroots, in this primary of many surprises, has surprised again: they’re giving Gingrich strong consideration.

At this point, it actually seems almost unreasonable not to ask, Has the Republican base lost its mind? Taking an ideological hard line is one thing, but Newt Gingrich is not a hard-line conservative! So it’s not political purity that’s motivating the base. Is it capriciousness, or mindlessness or intellectual incoherence? Gingrich voters tend to justify their choice in several related ways. Some samples: “Newt seems to stand steady on what he believes”; “Romney’s a little harder to connect with. You almost wonder why he’s running. With Newt, you don’t”; “Newt can get things done. He has the tenacity.” To which the obvious answers might be: What does Newt believe in? Why, in fact, is he running? What will he get done? Policy-wise, we don’t know!

But these responses probably miss the point, because, as these vague but heartfelt comments indicate, grassroots Republicans don’t favor Gingrich over Romney based on policy; they support Newt because they viscerally trust him. There are a lots of ways to explain that trust. One of them is that, over 20 years, there is an area in which Gingrich has been remarkably consistent: his aggressive promotion of that amalgamation of often incoherent ideals collectively labeled “Americanism.” In 1994, when he was House Speaker, Gingrich often jetted home to Georgia, where he taught a class on Saturdays entitled “Renewing American Civilization” at Reinhardt College. According to Gingrich, American identity rested on several pillars, among them “the historic lessons of American Civilization,” “personal strength,” “entrepreneurial free enterprise” and the “spirit of invention and discovery.” According to The New Republic, “Gingrich’s thesis was that, starting with the Great Society and the rise of the counterculture, these pillars had begun to crumble” and that Americans needed to “reaffirm” their faith in these pillars.

As such a description implies, Gingrich offered little in the way of concrete support for his thesis. (His example of the somewhat hazy-sounding pillar “the historic lessons of American Civilization” was an Amish barn-building scene in the movie Witness. Given that the Amish reject at least two of Gingrich’s other pillars of Americanism—”entrepreneurial free enterprise” and the “spirit of invention and discovery”—one has to wonder about the possibility of internal contradiction in his argument.) Accuracy, however, was not the point. Neither was partisanship. The point, as a former member of the class put it, was that in the eyes of his students Gingrich taught “American values.” 

This has been the spirit of Gingrich’s campaign. Watch one of his numerous campaign videos—replete with amber waves of grain, determined-looking businesspeople, proud skyscrapers and a smiling, comfortable-looking Gingrich discussing why America’s exceptional—and the themes ring through. There’s not much in the way of content, but there’s quite a bit of optimistic assertiveness about the American Way. Watch Newt debate, and he’s both the champion of these notions and the determined scourge of those people whom he claims would destroy them. If business and management are Romney’s magic words, then emotional Americanism is Gingrich’s preferred vocabulary. This is a vocabulary that many grassroots Republicans—who are, based on nearly all available polls, deeply concerned over their country’s seeming decline—crave. They don’t want analysis; they want resolution and reassurance that their complex of deeply-felt but hazy ideals isn’t crumbling around them. In the absence of a credible candidate who can convey this assurance (in the absence, in other words, of an even semi-coherent stand-in for Rick Perry), some of the base has turned to Gingrich. So we can all expect to see—plastered on magazines and streaming over the airwaves—stern-but-kind elder statesman Gingrich discussing moon colonies for at least a while longer. 

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