- The Millenarian Pathology of American Exceptionalism
Most of us are likely to look upon the United States and regard, to borrow T. S. Eliot’s words, an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Nearly every political believer will feel this way, not just those who despise or are dismayed by what they might charitably label the imbecilic infelicities of President Trump. But those who oppose Black Lives Matter or who are fatigued by #MeToo, or angered by the mandates of political correctness, what they think are the excesses of reformism that, to them, do not in fact confirm a better reality but deny the only one we have, are also convinced that a night of nihilism has fallen upon the nation.
One of the great services of conservative writer Craig Shirley’s Citizen Newt is that it reveals ’80s and ’90s America to be just as turbulent and contradictory as it is today. Its politics was surely no easier, and the costs of being on “the wrong side of history,” however that was defined by whatever faction, were just as severe.
Twenty-first century America, like 20th-century America, may have become an increasingly more comfortable place to live, even for the poor (excepting the homeless), if possessing air conditioning, color televisions, and cell phones are the measures of modern life, but our country is not, for all of that, an easy place to live and for many becoming a less desirable place to live. The opioid crisis, our huge credit card debt reflecting our borrowed, consumer-driven lifestyles, our mass incarceration, our expensive but increasingly beleaguered and ineffectual education system, our worship and disdain of science, our fantasies about healthful living which reflect how increasingly we are removed from death, all may indicate an extraordinary national bitterness, a deep and abiding unhappiness and paralyzing immaturity that strikes at the heart of our culture. The sense of unending conflict—reproach and rebuke, revision and redefinition—has made America seem, at times, like a blind, impotent Colossus, flailing madly and meaninglessly. But whatever we may feel about this moment ought not to mislead us into thinking of some golden age of political peace, misted over with nostalgic serenity and simplicity, that happened before we were born, as, perhaps, some of my undergraduates might think of the 1980s and the Age of Reagan.
One of the great services of conservative writer Craig Shirley’s Citizen Newt is that it reveals ’80s and ’90s America to be just as turbulent and contradictory as it is today. Its politics was surely no easier, and the costs of being on “the wrong side of history,” however that was defined by whatever faction, were just as severe. Another service of the book is that the story it tells of the cocky, self-promoting, fertile-minded, innovative, hypocritical, and blarney-spinning Congressional representative from Georgia’s 6th District explains a lot about why things are the way they are now. It does not overstate the matter to say that Newt Gingrich is one of the major architects of contemporary political America because he is one of the major architects of today’s Republican Party.
- The Agony of the GOP
Since 1932, the Great Depression, Roosevelt Revolution, and the unstoppable rise of welfare state, the GOP has suffered far more severely from the throes of an identity crisis than the Democrats. After all, the Democrats are for the welfare state and most people endorse it in some form or fashion. (Try, as a politician, to monkey with Social Security or reduce Medicare or end farm subsidies, and see how long you last. Everyone believes in the welfare state to this extent: Welfare for me but not for thee, and that selfishness, or interest group wrangling over government subsidies, not altruism, will keep the system going until the end of all money.) In politics, a “negative capability,” as it were, is not usually inviting: it is always better to be for something than against something, better to be formulator, protector, and preserver than a critic seeking destruction.
The Republicans, after Roosevelt, were left with three options: become welfare statists themselves only selling themselves as better able to manage it; become critics of the excesses of the welfare state and promise to reform it; or become an enemy of the welfare state and insist on its dismantling in the name of individual freedom and free markets.
The pressure liberal Democrats feel is not from conservatives or the right, which, to the liberals, is thoroughly discredited morally and socially as just reactionaries defending an ever-receding status quo of racism, sexism, classism, you name the social justice issue. The pressure on liberals is from the left, which has always intimidated liberals with their modernity, the moral and intellectual vigor of their analysis, and the heroic nature of their aims and their sacrifice (even if the left’s methods are, shall we say, not infrequently a little less than honest and a little more than mildly coercive). The left intimidates most liberals because, as F. A. Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom (1944), most liberals would rather be socialists than liberals, all things considered. The right, from the liberal’s perspective, is both backward and anti-intellectual. From a PR view, the Democrats and the liberals have the best of it.
The Republicans, after Roosevelt, were left with three options: become welfare statists themselves only selling themselves as better able to manage it (a form of me tooism known as the liberal or progressive Republican); become critics of the excesses of the welfare state and promise to reform it (mend it, not end it: a form of me tooism known as the moderate); or become an enemy of the welfare state and insist on its dismantling in the name of individual freedom and free markets (a form of classical liberalism which is known in the United States today as conservatism, a label neither Milton Freidman nor Hayek liked). Conservatism—a uneasy mixture, or fusion to use Frank S. Meyer’s term, of libertarianism, traditionalism, and antebellum Southern federalism—has fought for the soul of the GOP ever since 1932, offering itself as the party’s only viable option not to become a permanent minority party (which the options of liberal Republicanism and moderate Republicanism can, realistically, only offer: minority status and an occasional winning of the presidency when people are sick of Democrats or if the Republicans run an especially charismatic candidate). The Republican establishment, a reluctant partner trying, as it feels it must, to hold on to some vestige of its welfare state maidenhood, has played hot and cold with the conservatives, whose wooing has ranged from romantic blandishments to an outright kidnapping of and forced mating with the bride. But can conservatism really offer the GOP a kinder or more successful fate as a party? And is conservatism a realistic alternative to the welfare state or just the opportunist’s gambit for a faction of people unhappy about the kind of society we have become, witnessing, as they are, the downfall of an old order, the decay of an ideological empire built on whiteness, masculinity, and bourgeois morality? Have we reached the end of ideology in the United States and have 40 percent or more of the voting population that is Republican and more or less conservative simply refused to believe or accept it? Or is conservatism a viable option, indeed a necessary course correction for an out-of-control welfare state teetering on bankruptcy and deluded by the tyranny of its own self-righteousness and moral superiority, that the liberals and their allies among the elites have suppressed or distorted? Which ideology is the pathology? Which is the cure?
- The Republican from Georgia
Mel Steely’s The Gentleman from Georgia (2000) is still the best standard biography. Written by one of the professors who hired Gingrich to the faculty of West Georgia College and who subsequently worked with him on several of his campaigns, the book is rich in biographical detail (including photos which the Shirley book does not have) and personal perspectives. Shirley, whose has made a career writing books about Ronald Reagan, provides the standard biographical details but he has another project in mind and the subtitle of his book makes that plain: “The Making of a Reagan Conservative.” Gingrich is important as the most powerful and committed conveyor of Reagan conservatism. Reagan is the most successful American conservative politician of the 20th century, his presidency the apogee of the conservative movement’s revolution, and Shirley’s books have served as a testament to this. The biography of Gingrich becomes, in some measure, an extension of the Reagan story and its impact. If, for Shirley, Reagan is the conservative movement’s Jesus, Gingrich is its Paul. Not exact analogies, but the spirit of the comparison is valid. “One is hard-pressed to think of someone who was not elected chief executive having as much influence for as long as Newt Gingrich. From the 1970s right up until the second decade of the 21st century, Gingrich’s opinions and actions have interested many.” (422) And this is undeniably true. During the Reagan era, Reagan was the personality, the presence of American conservatism, but Gingrich was its mind, its operator, and its revolutionist. Reagan made conservatism mainstream but Gingrich made it an insurgency, a subversive undermining of liberal assumptions and leftist pretensions. In this way, there is also a certain kind of conservative militancy behind Shirley’s book: “Part of the reason I chose to write this political biography is because much of what has been written by leftists about Gingrich is false, exaggerated, or irrelevant and also because I’ve come to the conclusion that conservatives cannot allow most liberals to write our history. Most modern liberals cannot be trusted to record conservative history accurately anymore, they are too interested in rewriting history to fit their sequence of events, much like Big Brother in 1984.” (425)
During the Reagan era, Reagan was the personality, the presence of American conservatism, but Gingrich was its mind, its operator, and its revolutionist. Reagan made conservatism mainstream but Gingrich made it an insurgency, a subversive undermining of liberal assumptions and leftist pretensions.
In one way, the Jesus/Paul analogy must be reversed in regards to Reagan and Gingrich: Reagan became a registered Republican in 1962, only two years before he backed Goldwater in “the speech,” as movement conservatives refer to Reagan’s endorsement in 1964, and four years before he ran for governor of California. Before his conversion, that is before he married Nancy Davis in 1952 and before he began working for General Electric in the 1950s, Reagan was a New Deal Democrat and proud of it. Gingrich, on the other hand, an Army brat by virtue of his mother’s second marriage to a career Marine, was a Republican from his earliest memories as a political person. He supported Eisenhower in 1956 and Nixon in 1960 while still a secondary school student. What Gingrich learned from Goldwater’s 1964 run as an unabashed conservative was that the South, where he wound up through his adoptive father’s final posting, was changing. Goldwater carried every district but one in Georgia, so Gingrich had a future as a Republican politician in the South because become a politician was something he was tending toward since boyhood.
The Gingrich story: at 19 and a freshman at Emory, he marries his high school math teacher after dating her while still in high school. He earns the Ph.D. in history, writing a dissertation on the Belgium colonial system in the Congo, which required a year of research in Brussels, not the Congo. He became a professor of history at West Georgia College where he almost immediately made his presence felt as a popular teacher, a man with lots of ideas about the future of education, and a driving ambition to run things: he applied to be both the president of the school and the chair of his department after being at the school for only a few years. He wanted authority not so much to boss people as to implement his ideas, which many of his colleagues thought were worth considering. These were harbingers of things to come.
Once in Congress, Gingrich immediately becomes a thorn in the side of, first, Speaker Tip O’Neil and then-Speaker Jim Wright as he organizes conservatives as a force in the House. Against O’Neill, he has Republican representatives give speeches in an empty House Chamber on C-SPAN, which reach a wide national audience and also makes C-SPAN a household word.
In 1974, using his connections at West Georgia College as his base, he makes his first run for Congress against an established long-term Democrat and loses. He is endorsed by then-California governor Ronald Reagan. He runs again against the same opponent and loses again in 1976 in a close vote, mostly because Jimmy Carter as the Democratic presidential nominee takes Georgia. Gingrich finally wins on his third try (which would have been his last had he lost) in 1976. Gingrich represents a new wave of Republican politician for a new South. He is friendly with black voters, indeed, endorsed by the Atlanta Daily World, a black newspaper. He opines that the National Mall needs some celebrated black figures as, at the time, it had none. At the same time, he can support a platform produced by a Georgia GOP conference “that was tough on ‘armed robbers, murderers, and rapists,’ and welfare cheats; the platform warned that ‘America is in danger of decaying into a jungle of violent crimes.’” (14) All of this sounds like “southern strategy” rhetoric scapegoating that troublesome population still known in some quarters, at the time, as Negroes. Gingrich was always a peculiar mix of progressive Southerner and conservative race-baiter, deftly done. He was leading the trend of the Republicans become competitive for local offices in the South again, which, by itself, saved the Republican Party by making it a national party instead of simply a Northern one. (See Earl Black and Merle Black’s The Rise of the Southern Republicans, 2002.) But this reinvention of the Republican Party in the South through adopting and re-spinning Southern conservatism was part of a larger strategy of conservatism becoming or realizing itself as a radicalizing force among whites; something that Samuel Francis had argued had to happen if conservatism was to survive and if the Republican Party wanted actually to matter.
Once in Congress, Gingrich immediately becomes a thorn in the side of, first, Speaker Tip O’Neil and then-Speaker Jim Wright as he organizes conservatives as a force in the House. Against O’Neill, he has Republican representatives give speeches in an empty House Chamber on C-SPAN, which reach a wide national audience and also makes C-SPAN a household word. Against Wright, he succeeded in making ethics charges so effectively that Wright was forced to resign. Gingrich is, of course, attacked for his messy personal life (many affairs, divorces including divorcing his first wife while she was battling cancer), his “sketch” book deal, his “chicken hawk” interventionism (Gingrich, flat feet and bad eyesight, would not have been selected for the military, although he always loved the institution), his inability to follow through on his ideas, his scattergun, indiscriminate eruption of ideas, his overweening ambition. Under Reagan, he solidifies his standing and his influence. Under George H. W. Bush, he finds his first intra-Party adversary (Shirley is particularly harsh in dealing with Bush) as he finds that Bush does not want to continue Reaganism but in fact wants to undo it, repudiate it as a false populism and a false ideology.
The Bushes, in fact, were never conservatives, as far as conservatives were concerned, but rather mediocre-minded patricians who wanted to return to the GOP to “bipartisanism” or the obscurity of minority party status. But the Gingrich had the ideological bit between his teeth and felt that future of the party was at stake, the future of its identity, more precisely, which could no longer stand to be compromised by “bipartisanism.” And the party had to fight for its identity by fighting an ideological war with Democrats and with liberals. For Gingrich, this meant that the GOP had to have ideas and as far as he was concerned Bush was fresh out of them. Indeed, Gingrich deserves credit along with Jack Kemp and other “Reaganite” Republicans for making the GOP for a time a party that had the most exciting or at least the freshest ideas in the arena.
The origin of what we have today between Democrats and Republicans can be found in the fight between Gingrich’s House of Representatives and Bill Clinton when Clinton, failing fabulously in the first two years in office, saw the rise of Gingrich to Speaker of the House when the Republicans wiped out the Democrats in the 1994 off-year election, becoming the majority House party for the first time since 1952. Gingrich nationalized the election, unheard of at the time and something that has not been done again, with the Contract with America (the Democrats cleverly renamed it the Contract on America). Using something Bill Kristol at the time called “principled obstructionism” (398), the Republicans stymied Clinton at nearly every turn, particularly with Hillarycare, an attempt by the Democrats to carry out FDR’s dream of nationalizing healthcare. (“Principled obstructionism” would return with the presidency of Barack Obama.) At this point, Gingrich was on the cover of Time, on nearly every televised public affairs program, a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle, and probably, briefly, the most powerful political figure in the United States. But Gingrich overplayed his hand when he forced two government shutdowns in trying to force a balanced budget. Here was Gingrich’s effort to make Congress a co-equal to the president and to use its power of the purse to thwart a chief executive’s recalcitrance. The public blamed the GOP, not Clinton, for these shutdowns and Clinton saved his presidency.
Gingrich nationalized the election, unheard of at the time and something that has not been done again, with the Contract with America (the Democrats cleverly renamed it the Contract on America). Using something Bill Kristol at the time called “principled obstructionism,” the Republicans stymied Clinton at nearly every turn, particularly with Hillarycare, an attempt by the Democrats to carry out FDR’s dream of nationalizing healthcare.
Shirley makes a solid case for the importance of Gingrich in revamping both the Republican Party and American conservatism. The book is competently written, has some nice anecdotes, and is even funny, at times. It would have been nice had Shirley talked a bit more about some of the books that Gingrich has written including his latest effort, Understanding Trump (2017). Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile book and a nice complement to Steely’s earlier biography.