Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

Reporter

Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy@motherjones.com.

Get my RSS |

Newt Gingrich and the Politics of Resentment

2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich

As I'm walking to Newt Gingrich's meet-and-greet at a hunting ranch in Walterboro, South Carolina, a middle-aged woman explains to me why she's going to vote for the former speaker of the House on Saturday. It's quite simple, really: "Newt's salt of the earth." Salt of the earth is actually something Newt Gingrich has never been accused of being. He likes to name-drop existential writers and Enlightenment philosophers and conservative economists from the 1980s; he doesn't hunt; he doesn't farm; he doesn't get his hands dirty, except to dig up dinosaur bones in Montana.

So how does Gingrich appeal to an interest group he shouldn't, at least culturally, have anything in common with? By picking fights with their shared enemy. Before launching into his brief stump speech, Gingrich uses the occasion of speaking to sportsmen (many of them dressed in their finest camo threads) to blast "intellectual left-wing environmentalists" for believing that "humans are not part of the world." As attendees munched on barbecue and coleslaw and sipped sweet tea, Gingrich told them who they should resent, and why:

I want to make one point that I think liberals don't ever get. And I always sort of reference it when we're talking about rivers and the low-country. People who hunt and fish are among our most passionate conservationists because they're actually out in the woods and on the trails and in the streams and in the swamps. And they understand that if we don't keep areas that are healthy, there is no hunting and fishing. And so the big difference is this: the intellectual, left-wing environmentalists have a theoretical model in which humans are not part of the world.

This is very different from what Theodore Roosevelt and others began at the turn of the last century, when they wanted a conservation that was multiple-use and they wanted natural areas, but they understood they wanted natural areas so that people could join them. We've had a tremendous decline for example in forestry. And the result is our trees are sicker today, we lose more trees to fire today, Because we have more beetle infestation, because environmentalists don't understand nature. They have this idealized model that doesn't reflect the world. It's a little bit like the Disney cartoon model of Africa where the elephants and the zebras and the lions all hang out together. Now any of you who know about the real world know that if the lions and zebras hang out together after a while, there are fewer zebras and happier lions.

This gets a lot of laughs, but one thing is missing from Gingrich's rant: science. In the real world, of course, the biggest threat facing American ecosystems and endangered species isn't Agenda 21 or a lack of qualified forestry experts; it's climate change. But for Gingrich, who once joined Nancy Pelosi to urge Americans to take action on climate change, that would be an impossible argument to make. Gingrich's characterization of environmentalists favoring a world without people may also have a darker meaning. Many conservatives fear that under a UN program called Agenda 21, vast swaths of land, such as eastern Montana, will be cleared of humans entirely. Gingrich has himself mentioned Agenda 21 on the campaign trail.

More so than Romney, Santorum, or Paul, Gingrich sells himself to voters by putting the "bully" in bully pulpit. His stump speech consists largely of giving his audience the illusion that the problem with the current president is that he has substandard intelligence (Gingrich's most reliable laugh line is the concession that he'd let President Obama use a teleprompter in their never-gonna-happen Lincoln-Douglas debates). In Easley on Wednesday, he explained that the administration's decision to block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was "stupid" (a line he repeats in Walterboro). "It's one thing to say that a White House doesn't understand chess," he says. "It's another to say they can't understand checkers. But if they can't play tic-tac-toe…" Well, you get the picture.

That anger, and his ability to channel the same in others, explains why Gingrich's performance at Monday's debate—when he dismissed Fox News' Juan Williams' suggestion that he was playing to racial stereotypes by denigrating food stamps—has resonated so deeply. "I am so tired, personally, of racial prejudice," says Tommie Derry of Walterboro, a Gingrich supporter. "The way blacks are handling it, if you weren't racially prejudiced, it'd make you racially prejudiced" Gingrich's retort to Williams went beyond a simple debating coup; it was cathartic. "When I hear the Juans of the world, I get upset." Her son, Mark, doesn't go quite so far, but when I ask him how long he's been on Team Newt, he doesn't even have to think about it: "Since Monday." 

When people talk about South Carolina Republican politics, they talk, with a good deal of proof, about "whisper campaigns." It's sort of a caricature at this point, and as some voters I've spoken with have put it, probably as much a product of the primary's timing as it is the state's character; by the time the third nominating contest has rolled around, there's a sense of urgency that leads to, well, desperate measures.

Right on cue, this is the flier that was left on my windshield at last night's Personhood USA pro-life forum in the Evangelical hub of Greenville. Its target? Rick Santorum's wife, Karen:

Photo: Tim MurphyPhoto: Tim Murphy

Here's the relevant part:

Did you know Rick Santorum's wife, Karen, had a six-year affair with an abortionist named Tom Allen?

This story is only now hitting the news. But you can see for yourself at:

www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/santorum-wife-dated-abortion-doctor-1980s-report-article-1.1007228?localLinksEnabled=false

This abortion doctor was 30 years her senior! In fact, he delivered her as a baby!

The only reason they broke up was that Karen wanted kids—while Tom was busy killing them.

In fact, he said, "Karen had no problem with what I did for a living," and said that Rick Santorum was "pro-choice and a humanist."

The rest of the letter focuses on the former Pennsylvania senator, concluding "He just wants to be President so badly, he'll say anything to be elected."

The susbstance of the Karen Santorum smear is, for the most part, true. It wasn't an affair, though—neither Karen nor Tom Allen were married at the time—so the hint of infidelity is false. More to the point, it's difficult to see any scenario in which this should be relevant. Does anyone seriously doubt the Santorums' anti-abortion credentials?

Romney Floats a Whopper About the Navy

Two of the 11 aircraft carriers in the supposedly weak US Navy.

Mitt Romney's grand entrance at his Wednesday morning pit stop at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina goes like this: He shows up 30 minutes late, bounds on stage without signing autographs, and, after a brief introduction, directs the audience's attention to the white-haired man to his left. This man, he says, is "NASCAR legend David Pearson!" "David, you wanna say hi?" David doesn't, really, but Romney insists—"Go say hi to everybody!" and Pearson grabs the mic—"I guess I'll say hi"—and then he hands it right back off to Romney. "Those are the kinds of speeches I like!," Romney says. "Gosh, it's great to be in South Carolina. What kind of tree is that?," he says. It's a laurel oak. A few people shout from the audience, and Mitt apparently finds the answer that makes the least amount of sense and rolls with it: "It's a Mitt Romney tree. Okay!"

And we're off. Since turning their attention to South Carolina a week ago, Newt Gingrich's campaign has undergone a dramatic shift in tone, pushing a furious attack on Romney's record at Bain Capital; Rick Santorum is now taking shots at Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts for covering abortions (a job previously left to his surrogates). But if Romney's changed his tack, it's tough to see how. At Wofford, he breezes through his litany of applause lines—he won't apologize for America, etc.—and attacks President Obama for appeasing our enemies and weakening America's defenses. Then he breaks out a statistic he's used before: "Do you know how small our Navy is today? It's smaller than it has ever been since 1917!" Likewise, he adds, the Air Force has shrunk to 1947 levels.

Your Daily Newt: Pitt the Youngest

Newt Gingrich (left) and Pitt the Younger.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich had been Speaker of the House for all of six days in 1995 when he made a triumphant appearance at DC's Mayflower Hotel to give a major address entitled "From Virtuality to Reality." It was Gingrich distilled to his concentrated essence, interspersing musings on Americans' conception of speed limits, the merits of creating a federal entitlement for laptops (it would be "dumb"), the Wealth of Nations, and the works of the futurist power-couple Alvin and Heidi Toeffler. It was conservatism at its most Newt Agey: "Virtuality at the mental level is something I think you'd find in most leadership over historical periods," Gingrich told his audience.

Perhaps no leader better embodied those characteristics, Gingrich explained, than 18th-century British prime minister William Pitt, better known as "Pitt the Younger." As Newt put it:

I think equally useful is to look at the role of Pitt the Younger in the 1780s and 1790s. Because Pitt the Younger—surrounded by the disciples of Smith—rationalizes British tax policies to create the commercial environment in which so much wealth is made, the people are able to fight the Napoloeonic wars and Britain is able to carry virtually the entire financial weight of the alliance against Napoleon in a way that would have been literally impossible without Adam Smith's intellectual ideas being transmitted into the tax policies of Pitt the Younger.

Whew, long sentence. Gingrich's point was fairly straightforward, though: Pitt the Younger had the ability to look at the big picture rather than simply the task at hand; think big thoughts; and then apply those big ideas "directly to the modern world." It was a quality Gingrich considered seriously lacking in most politicians not named Newt Gingrich.

But there was another side to Pitt's reforms that Gingrich chose to downplay. Pitt paid for the Napoleonic wars by raising taxes. Specifically, he implemented the first-ever income tax—and not just any income tax, but a progressive income tax. Also, as Adam Gopnik points out, he was "probably gay."

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, at an MLK Day event in South Carolina.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich stepped in it in 2007 when he told an audience of conservative activists that Spanish is a "ghetto" language. In an address to the National Federation of Women, the former speaker argued that, "We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto." He later took to YouTube to issue una apologia—as they say in the ghetto—in Spanish. Now that he's a candidate for president, Gingrich has changed his tone, insisting that his quote was taken out of context. In January, he told reporters in Miami, "We didn't want any children trapped in a ghetto, it was a reference to the Middle Ages—being a historian."

Wed Mar. 30, 2016 9:57 PM EDT
Thu Mar. 24, 2016 4:32 PM EDT
Fri Mar. 18, 2016 4:28 PM EDT
Wed Feb. 17, 2016 5:12 PM EST