Greater of Two Evils

What have we learned from the fact that it was Newt Gingrich, not Rick Santorum, who surged past Mitt Romney in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary? The voters who turned out, after all, sure fit the profile of Santorum supporters. Fully 65 percent described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, and Santorum was the candidate who most stressed the cultural and religious values in which these voters believe, even as Newt’s private life made a mockery of them. Fifty-three percent of the GOP voters had no college degree, and, again, it was Santorum who explicitly defended both the economic interests and cultural importance of blue-collar workers.

But Gingrich won the votes of 44 percent of the born-agains and evangelicals, while Santorum won just 21 percent. And Gingrich got 43 percent of the non-college grads, while Santorum ended up with just 18 percent.

The appeals that Gingrich made mattered far more to these voters than the religious and economic appeals that Santorum offered. What Newt appealed to was these voters’ racism, which he also deliberately wrapped in the belief that the nation’s media elites favor liberal racial policies and look down on people like them. The two incidents that propelled Newt to his victory (other than Romney’s inability to deal with the issue of his taxes) were his assaults on Juan Williams and John King in last week’s debates. When Williams dared to suggest that Gingrich’s labeling of Barack Obama as a “food-stamp president” had racist overtones, Gingrich slapped Williams down almost as though he were a surrogate for Obama—an uppity black in a privileged position complaining of injustices to his own minority group. The impact of this moment on many South Carolina Republicans was little less than cathartic; it was a triumphal outburst of pent-up resentments clearly screaming for release. A few nights later, Gingrich augmented his image as the man who whacks the liberal media with his assault on King.

It’s all straight out of the playbook of George Wallace, who not only slandered and threatened African Americans in his speeches but also took out after the national news media (“Huntley and Chinkley and Walter Contrite,” as he termed them in a burst of almost surreal folk poetry).

The Republican voters of South Carolina may think of themselves as religiously devout and economically embattled, but what they were really looking for in a candidate was a champion who’d slap down pretentious blacks and promise a restoration of white normality. Abnormal as Gingrich may actually be, this was what he offered up in South Carolina, and it went down mighty smooth.


Well, this native South Carolinian thinks this is a bit wide of the mark. It's hardly surprising that outsiders have seized on evidence of racism; it was there. But I think the real reason Gingrich did so well with putative born-agains is that evangelical identification in the South is less a matter of faith than of tribal identity; "Christian" doesn't mean membership in a faith community so much as it means "people like us." And the "tribe" is white southern ethnicity. Gingrich is as phony a white southerner as he is a phony everything else, but he has the confidence man's gift for convincing his marks that he's one of them, and shares their resentments--which means among other things sharing their resentments of people like you whose knee-jerk characterization of a white southerner is "racist." Many of them are perfectly aware that more whites than blacks are on food stamps; for your typical Republican voter, though, the hostility is as much class-based as race-based: the old populist resentment of "the two great classes--tramps and millionaires." People forget that the original Populists were hostile to both.

But David in Nashville, a soft racism is part of that "Christian" tribal identity. Not just, "I'm white" but "I'm white and better than any black." I, too, grew up in the deep south, and Gingrich hits every note on the dog-whistle. Most of the folks I know who support Gingrich believe that affirmative action always means "couldn't cut it against a white."

I think the ideology embraced by many white working class southerners is not one of the 20th century, but harkens back to a rather distorted version of the Lost Cause mythology. The Media, Romney, Obama -- all part of northern aggression. For many of them (some in my family) this mythology forgets the benefits of the TVA, the work projects of the 30's etc., because the new white southerners, born since WW II, have simply expunged that from memory.

I am a SC resident and voted for Rick Santorum after Perry pulled out. I had not heard much about Santorum but liked what he had to say during both debates in SC. I too can not understand why people went to Gingrich when Rick was clearly the moral choice. The excuse I hear most is 'He is the only one that can beat O'Bama'. I voted my conscious and am glad I did!

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)