Nasty Newt Gingrich

"I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around a campfire but are lousy in politics." 

-Newt Gingrich


I despise Newt Gingrich.

Why do I despise him so much when his tactics are used throughout politics? Gingrich's testy, bellicose rhetoric, filled with frustrating half-truths and misleading, out-of-context facts, is practically the cornerstone of modern political communication. The tactic is as common as the air we breathe, but what makes Gingrich particularly effortless at it is that he had a hand in inventing many of his the tactics himself, decades ago.

It's accurate to say that our political views are shaped by our upbringing. In Gingrich's case, that is especially so, almost definitely so. His tendency to self-mythologize came at an early age, and since then, he's been climbing one intellectual mountaintop after another, only stopping to make grand statements derailing his opponents with the sole purpose of keeping his ideas in the front and center.

Newt avoids a striking narrative - or personal journey - to connect with the American electorate. He sees himself, rather, as a font of good ideas and a champion of intellectualism. His constant, grand self-mythologizing does not stem from a compelling personal story but rather, a referendum on his own great intellect. The Gingrich myth, therefore, is not about Gingrich the man, but more a fable about the stunning clarity, ambition, arrogance, single mindedness of his political ambition.

Gingrich's personal and ethical transgressions are arguably his one constant private characteristic, but his professional transgressions are much more relevant and interesting. Among his more common political habits:

* Gingrich uses hyperbole to make misleading and grandiose statements on complex social problems

* Gingrich displays remarkable ignorance (either willful or unintentional) about his role in crafting policy during his time as not only Speaker of the House, but every other period in his career, however slight.

* Gingrich often sounds as if he's talking down to people. Some feel this way about Obama, but Gingrich's brand of rhetorical condescension, aside from containing the seeds of concluding a discussion rather than raising one. This is an important distinction, especially for anyone who rightly accuses all politicians if being condescending. 

* His generalizations about class and race, and his sweeping, generalized history lessons about the causes of poverty and other social ills are distinctly unhelpful.

His breezy but sour presence is the epitome of the modern political animal. His techniques are not new to him and not new to politics. His grandstanding is not new either, and if anything, stands out in a crowd of current Presidential candidates and pundits all striving for the appearance of docility in an election season grappling with heightened voter sensitivity under a bad economy. Newt tramples on all that in a scorched earth policy of self aggrandizement, understanding that its the nature of modern media to cover the candidate engaged in the most outrageous rhetoric. Gingrich himself feels that (in his words) "you have to give the press confrontations. When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate."

Newt, once he has gotten that media attention, piles on the bullshit with a cunning ease that even Machiavelli would find winsome. He engages in political and rhetorical tactics that all politicians across the spectrum have used for centuries. These time tested tactics allow him to gain the upper hand in a debate, but the tactics he uses are ones he pioneered. This means that he is constantly in the act of making statements and fine tuning spin that other politicians are only able to push out the door every other day. Newt, unlike his clunkier colleagues, is a walking, talking freak-of-nature political science experiment in endless, interminable spin, all the time.

Gingrich was a pioneer and primary architect of divisiveness in our modern political system, culminating in his contentious, infamous stint as Speaker of the House during the Clinton years. He is the poster child for political corruption and hypocrisy, for numerous ethics violations, dodgy PAC conflicts, white-privilege and plantation era racism wrapped up in a belittling, and condescending package. His take on the issues, full of an equal number of misconceptions and falsehoods as there are hard facts, are difficult for the media to dispute but get a great deal of attention  and adulation from the solid conservative base.

As with all of the infuriating hyperbole like 'Liberals resent wealth creation' and 'Obama is a food stamp President, Newt is the standard bearer for divisive technique. The most recent example is the flap over Gingrich's claim about food stamps, poverty, welfare, child labor and the African-American community. He gets away with saying what he said because some of his facts and figures are right, but his conclusions, perceptions, and decoding of those facts is dead wrong. He gets credit for correctness, but the legitimate social scientists in the world are too busy hammering at social problems Gingrich claims to have already solved, to even bother correcting him. 

His claim that "more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any other President in American history" is a claim that leaves the historical context out in the cold, and ignores a few inconvenient truths about food stamp participation under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. Gingrich's claim implies that Obama's solution to institutional poverty is to throw food stamps at it, but side from being untrue, it utterly ignores the severe economic downturn that was already well underway in 2008 and wholly responsible for the statistic upturn in assistance. Finally, it's a rhetorical device that puts complex issues in a vacuum, disputing very nature of the times we live in and the realities of food assistance in this country. Newt knows this, because his IQ is rumored to be higher than average, but if exaggerating helps him push a broader ideological revolution on the country, then the truth is collateral damage.
In addition, Gingrich balks at any outrage at his suggestion that very young students in inner-city schools perform janitorial work there in order to bring home a paycheck. Your agreeing or disagreeing with his modest proposal is entirely contingent on your overarching views on what a school should be, what a society should be, what a childhood should be, and philosophically, how you feel values and work ethic are best imparted to young children. Gingrich's position on all these things is clear, and it's a view I find not only misguided and reprehensible, but bordering on evil.

Gingrich's social views reek of a deep frustration at groups of people whom he feels are lazy, undisciplined, and need to be whipped into shape. His firebrand comments associations between non-white communities and poverty have had the unfortunate side-effect of isolating racial groups for the sake of making a point about poverty, about family values, and about the way institutional poverty takes a toll on work ethic. Those are all conversations worth having, but Newt isn't staging a National discussion. He's staging a divisive indictment, that in his mind is a decisive victory. Divisive rhetoric, even when intended to solve social problems, diminishes the discussion when it takes turns advising and generalizing, boosting and belittling.

One up-side to Gingrich's straight talk on these subjects is that it may still ignite an uncomfortable but necessary discussion about race, about meritocracy versus plutocracy, about discrimination, and even about the war on drugs. I applaud more tough, on-point discussion on complex, taboo issues. Newt has said there is a problem in black communities (true but not remotely the whole story), and that there are racial components to economic malaise (also true, but also just the tip of the iceberg). These are things we need to be discussing more openly. The problem is, that's not happening, and the culprit is his off-putting style, and his decisive lack of skill in reaching out to others on a personal level. In modern politics, not having this skill is a real curse. That Newt Gingrich has survived this long despite that curse is testament to his absolute mastery of gaming the media and the political system.

Newt sees himself as a bold truth-teller in a swirling world of political correctness, when in fact, he is a politician struggling to fit through his window of opportunity before it closes for good. He is smart enough to know what to say,and smart enough to understand exactly what the reaction will be in the media. He uses this foresight about the spin cycle to anticipate media reaction before it comes, and decapitate it. His process is incalculably deft.

When it comes to his ideas, however, cracks begin to show. What Gingrich sees as nuance and subtlety and intellectual heft in his theories and ideas, others may perceive as nothing but a crafty game of connect the dots, assembled from facts, figures, anecdotes and cliches to fit a fixed worldview that hasn't changed in thirty years. The dots themselves may contain seeds of truth, but the relationship he draws between them is not always accurate, and the big picture he draws is one wholly lacking in economic common sense, cultural compassion and social justice. 


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