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Newt Gingrich and the Politics of Resentment

Howard Schweber – Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison; 2011 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies,  Flinders University,  Adelaide, Australia Posted: 01/23/2012 9:48 pm

George W. Bush shared their values. Newt Gingrich shares their resentments.

Polling data from South Carolina and Florida suggests that Tea Party and evangelical voters may finally be coalescing around a candidate, and that candidate is Newt Gingrich. Which is interesting, because as many people have noted he does not seem to make obvious sense for either group.

Evangelicals in the heyday of the Moral Majority would never have gone for someone with Gingrich’s tangled (to put it politely) personal past. Perhaps if there were a profound public act of contrition and the declaration that the experience of being born again had saved him from his faults, but not with Gingrich’s arrogant dismissal of any discussion of the issue. Nor would the conversion to Catholicism have played well back in the day.

More generally, Gingrich does not make any real effort to sell himself as a man with Jesus in his heart the way Bush did, which is what conventional wisdom says that evangelical voters want. Evangelicals are emphatically “values” voters, yet Gingrich does not seem to embody their values or even to be particularly inclined to pretend that he shares them.

As for the Tea Party voters, they are supposed to be looking for an outsider á la Ron Paul, not a man who has spent decades in Washington, first as a politician and then profiting from politics.

So what is going on? Simple. Gingrich does not share the evangelical or the Tea Party voters’ values — he shares their resentments. He resents the media (“elites”), the rich (the leadership of his own party), the Democrats (educated people), people who live in big cities (liberals), and of course, Obama, just as they do.

Gingrich and his supporters do not oppose Obama, they resent the fact of his existence. He will speak for his constituents by articulating their resentments in more strident, more combative, more articulate terms than they can themselves, which is why they find him brilliant. Ron Paul’s supporters find him brilliant because he reduces the complexities of the world into easy soundbites. Gingrich does that too, but he does much more — he tells them that their nastiest, darkest, angriest, most irrational self-indulgent justifications are 100%, absolutely right. It’s a negative version of a politics of self-esteem: not that you are right to feel good about yourself, but that you are right to be resentful of everyone else.

The worldview is Manichean: Obama’s economic policies are not mistaken, he is deliberately trying to make Americans poorer. Obama’s foreign policy is not misguided, he is deliberately trying to surrender America to foreign powers. And Obama is not merely not one of the people, he wants to destroy American culture. It is a perfect expression of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” in American politics. But it’s a weirdly infantilized version of that style.

When Gingrich talks I hear Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live: “I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I am all out of bubble gum.” Gingrich is the WWF version of a national politician, playing out an over-the-top script where the championship belt would belong to us except we were cheated and the refs are crooked and this time we’re bringing the folding chair into the ring and that’ll show ’em! It’s infantilizing in just the way that professional wrestling is pitched to a 12-year-old boy’s sensibilities (have you seen those costumes?). Gingrich frequently give the impression of a child about to have a tantrum, and that’s just fine — tantrums are all about resentment. It’s not quite the same thing as anger, not even righteous anger — this is more personal, more envious, more spiteful. The difference between anger and resentment is the difference between “this injustice shall not stand” and “it’s not faaaaairrr.” Romney wants to be the grownup in the room — Newt wants to be the bad boy in the corner.

And that’s why these voters don’t care that Gingrich was a Washington insider, or has a record on family values that would give pause to one of the Borgia popes. It’s why they don’t really care that he contradicts himself, or says crazy things. They want crazy. They want to hear their anger and resentment made into a national platform. They are the victims of an evil conspiracy — no one plays the victim better than Gingrich when cornered — and they resent it.

They don’t really care what Gingrich says he will do, or whether it makes sense, or even whether they would approve of his policies or benefit from them. The are filled with resentment, and Gingrich has captured that voice. Romney can’t project it, nor can Santorum or Paul. Plenty of the other candidates share the good-versus-evil absolutism, the paranoid style, the willingness to say anything no matter how crazy. But only Newt, Bad Boy Newt, Nasty Newt, the Grandiose One, the Historian (the guy has too many monikers to keep track of, we’ll have to hold a contest) — only Newt has captured the key emotive element that drives the Republican core this year: resentment. The hard right core of the Republican Party is filled with resentment, and they have found just the man to let us all know about it.

The question now is: how far can a pure politics of resentment take a candidate in today’s environment? The answer, I suspect, is pretty far.

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