The existence of the Republican Party has been marked by five incarnations in its century and a half, peaking early with its first president and the country’s greatest, Abraham Lincoln. The second Republican age culminated at the outset of the last century with Theodore Roosevelt; the third age with Dwight Eisenhower; the fourth with Ronald Reagan—whose harbingers were Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon—and whose coda was George H. W. Bush. The fifth that ultimately would coalesce around the presidency of Bush’s son was inaugurated by Newton Leroy Gingrich of Georgia, and not even W. has better represented the party’s style and substance these past 20 years. It might be natural, then, even to someone less possessed of Gingrich’s megalomania, to believe that it was natural for him to retake command of the Republican forces after the party’s worst presidential loss—not merely in numbers but morale and reason-to-be—since 1964. So enraged was the party at everything and everyone but itself that, as we now know from Robert Draper’s new book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do, it plotted the sabotage of a new presidency (at the expense of everything and everyone but itself) before the Obama administration was 24 hours old, and nothing could have been more in the spirit of Gingrich. He was justified in peering out at the party and finding it in his image, if also further to the right.
Gingrich was the political embodiment of a new conservative intellectualism that fashioned itself as visionary, the wave of the future. In the wake of liberalism’s apparent collapse during the last decades of the last century this seemed reasonable, the only fallacy of such a view lying in the inevitable doom that awaits all ideology, corrupted from the beginning by the preconceptions to which the ambiguities of reality never conform. In the case of the new conservatism that aspired to bring to Reaganism the only thing it lacked—a rigor compromised by what Gingrichites secretly perceived as the Old Man’s congenital amiability, not to mention sentimentality—a further contradiction persisted. While Reagan’s view of America was shaped by an almost naïve idealism, Gingrich is a nihilist. As noted before in this space, crack open the Gingrich soul and locusts emerge, a cruel pestilence merciless and biblical in scope. Gingrich is the black hole into which rush all our better angels, with only the squeals of extermination close behind; and it’s worth noting that Gingrich’s candidacy died of concern over the political viability of the man’s nihilism, not the nihilism itself. This is clear from the bloodlust that Gingrich effectively elicited so routinely from audiences at Republican debates. Notwithstanding the anarchic elements of the Tea Party, the current Republican model remains Gingrich’s creation to the dismay of the more old-school right like David Brooks and George W. Will with their fonder remembrances of William Buckley. In Gingrich’s model, we see not simply a politically harsher conservatism but, conspicuously, more unforgiving guerrilla tactics and a psychological profile that gives no quarter. This is expressed by a language that co-opts from the ‘60s left Marcusian accusation and from the salon elites the sarcastic tension of adjectives and adverbs at odds with each other (“I am mildly astonished…”), attaching bitter erudition to cerebral sounding absurdities about secularism and European socialism and Kenyan colonialism that, in a rhetorical tradition begun by Lenin and refined by Goebbels, not only are flatly but willfully and defiantly wrong, as consciously wrong as they are aggressively wrong.
It’s fitting that Gingrich’s political career should be ended by a more pallid version of his own naked opportunism, a brazen deceit as unscrupulousness as Gingrich’s while unhindered by a biography of abandoned wives, personal shame and gaudy Churchillian pretensions. The irony lies in the party’s perception that Willard Romney is any less authentic than Gingrich. What Romney hasn’t yet appropriated from Gingrichism, not because he’s unwilling but because it’s in neither his intellect nor genes to understand it, is the right’s exquisite sense of martyrdom that Gingrich raised to the level of performance art—the way that Gingrich could lay waste to not only his opponents but the most vulnerable swathes of the public and then make himself the victim. This doesn’t even take into account his political hypocrisies and personal sordidness. Once upon a time we would have called this a matter of “character” before the right successfully defined character wholly in terms of sexual behavior. It may be that Romney’s inbred notion of entitlement doesn’t allow for the luxury of such exalted self-persecution. As Gingrich’s presidential campaign comes to an end, for now let those of us who would write about this moment in American electoral history not be so pathetic in our desperation to be fair or evenhanded, not be so dazzled by the Gingrich brain or hungry for the sheer entertainment value of the man’s presence on the political stage as to not note that from the first minutes of the late ‘70s when it began, the career of Newt Gingrich has been a manifest disgrace and an unrelieved insult to the various and numerous nobilities of the country we love. We are in the debt of the Gingrich-lite Romney for sparing us any more of Gingrich-dark, as high a price to pay for this as a Romney presidency would be.