Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Newt Gingrich as Intellectual

Tim Hanafin
Johns Hopkins University

Newt Gingrich has recovered sufficiently from a few missteps early in his campaign to return as a real voice in the Republican machine. Apparently, we have to take Newt seriously again, if not as a bona fide candidate then at least as the Republicans’ touted resident intellectual. It provides a degree of solace of sorts to realize that even that machine needs a character like Newt to give it legitimacy.

The ego of this intellectual is cartoonishly large. His self-regard defies parody: he once said in earnest, “people like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz.” He’s a bully, and he takes himself seriously enough to relieve the burden on others to do so. If he’d stayed out of this year’s race, he’d merely be the national know-it-all, hectoring his many detractors and enemies from the sidelines. As it is, he’s chosen to run, and he clearly thinks the presidency is his by right. On December 4, Newt pronounced, “I will be the nominee” (video). On December 22, he told the entire GLBTQ and allied population that if they’re going to be like that they should go ahead and vote for the other guy because he doesn’t need them.

The way he’s running his campaign, you get the sense Newt feels he’s doing us a favour; he seems to wonder why he can’t just do something nice for us all without getting the third degree. For example, last spring Newt was observed reversing his position on Medicare reform inside the space of three days, which piqued some interest. However, he lost patience with answering questions about it almost immediately, pronouncing on the following Thursday, “any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood.” In their insolence, the media generally refused Newt’s command to throw his words down the memory hole, and Newt was lambasted widely for that phrase. In response, Newt’s press secretary, Rick Tyler, issued a florid press release, presented here in the form of a dramatic reading by John Lithgow on The Colbert Report:

Newt styles himself as a philosopher and a mandarin of policy and political vision. It’s clear he cultivated this cred, such as it is, to use it as a cudgel against his opponents. To attack his intellectual pretentions on their own terms would be to miss the point. Take, for example, his contribution to the ‘debate’ about the so-called ground zero mosque in New York. Newt scores points by erroneously presenting Islam and Christianity as natural, perennial enemies and by implying the centre’s name, ‘Cordoba house’ was not a reference to a shining example of a uniquely cooperative culture and society, but a deliberate symbolic insult, a reference to a conquest that Muslims in general, Newt implies, would like to repeat sometime soon. He concludes that American ‘elites’ are too ignorant of history to realize ‘Islamists’ are jeering at them behind their backs. Since Spain actually stands, until 1492, as a place where a rough territorial pluralism of sorts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam survived for a long time, it’s a whiggish revision of the history of Islam in Spain. It could have been written by a Grand Inquisitor who forgot to rail against the Jews and the Protestants as well as the Muslims. It’s silly, but it’s not meant to be taken seriously by anyone who cares about the matter. He cut this history from whole cloth to paint a historical veneer over the manufactured outrage against the creation of a Cordoba House in Manhattan today.  
Newt's intellectual vanity is only the base of an even-grander self-image as the historical hero of the uniqueness of American civilization. In a 1997 report on Gingrich, the Congressional Select Committee on Ethics found handwritten notes he had distributed to his political advisors concerning a course he once taught called “Renewing American Civilization.” In these notes, Gingrich described himself as an “advocate [and] definer of civilization,” a “teacher of the rules of civilization,” an “arouser of those who form civilization,” the “organizer of the pro-civilization activists,” and the “leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces.” All of which Newt calls ‘Newt Action.’ He even drew a picture of himself undertaking ‘Newt Action’:

Credit to www.bessettepitney.net/2011/11/gingrichs-self-image.html
This hand-drawn diagram was submitted as supplementary evidence in a congressional report on Newt’s professional ethics, and was attributed to him personally. Of course, if you look closely you’ll see that after drawing himself as a tiny little stick-figure Sun King, and after realising, perhaps, that others might not share or appreciate his views vis-à-vis his own indispensability, Newt wrote, humbly, “a pattern rather than a single point.” This means, I guess, that he was willing to acknowledge he might not be the sole cause of world-historical change. Nevertheless, whether pattern or point, it’s all pure Newt action.

Maybe this is not that unusual for the type of person who fancies him- or herself presidential material. I don’t think you could do that job without a huge ego. But Newt transfigures it into a gargantuan ego. It seems winning the presidency would be, to Newt, the ultimate (or perhaps the only possible) vindication of his intellect. It’s the destiny of a man with a brain like his. Or, to say the same thing, it’s America’s destiny be ruled by Newt in a Newt way.

And maybe Newt believes it’s his intellectual destiny to ascend to the presidential throne. But it is doubtful whether many others believe that, not even the 30% of those polled recently who consistently favour him. Newt’s appeal extends only as far as being aggressively obnoxious has become a virtue in U.S. political culture, which is to say, not quite far enough yet. Nonetheless, his claim to be an intellectual may still carry subliminal clout in the political culture. There is a large portion of the U.S. population that feels intellectually condescended-to by ‘elites,’ the media, the media-elites, liberals, liberal-elites, the academy, the liberal media, so on and so on. This is a feeling that the Republican party fosters and exploits as their bread-and-butter. If people like Newt, it’s because Newt puts ‘elites’ in their place. He may be a snob, but he’s their snob. Indeed, he may take advantage of a tendency within the liberal intelligentsia to correct false histories as if everybody should already have known this.
So Paul Krugman was wrong to say Newt was a stupid man’s idea of a smart man. If the stereotypical ‘smart man’ ridicules trumped-up know-it-alls for not being half as smart as they think they are, then to a large portion of Americans, Newt and Krugman sound exactly alike. In the end, Newt doesn’t need to have real intellectual credibility any more than George W. Bush needed to really be from Texas. Newt, like Bush, fulfills a resentful political-cultural wishes for revenge. Perhaps, in his case, the hidden attraction is to take revenge on a culture which does not care enough to educate its populace.


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