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Deconstructing a Demagogue

Deconstructing a Demagogue > 2012 Campaign > DLU Articles > Democratic Liberal Umbrella
Timothy Egan >by Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West| January 26, 2012, 11:04 pm |

When not holding forth from his favorite table at L’Auberge Chez François, nestled among the manor houses of lobbyist-thick Great Falls, Va., Dr. Newton L. Gingrich likes to lecture people about food stamps and how out-of-touch the elites are with real America.

Gingrich, as he showed in a gasping effort in Thursday night’s debate in Florida, is a demagogue distilled, like a French sauce, to the purest essence of the word’s meaning. He has no shame. He thinks the rules do not apply to him. And he turns questions about his odious personal behavior into mock outrage over the audacity of the questioner.

After inventing, and then perfecting, the modern politics of personal destruction, Gingrich has decided now to bank on the dark fears of the worst element of the Republican base to seize the nomination — using skills refined over four decades.

Newt Gingrich 1998

Monica Almeida/The New York TimesNewt Gingrich spoke at the 1998 Republican National Convention winter meeting in Indian Well, Calif.

Deconstructed, Gingrich is a thing to behold. Let’s go have a look, as my friend the travel guide Rick Steves likes to say:

    • The Blueprint. Back in 1994, while plotting his takeover of the House, Gingrich circulated a memo on how to use words as a weapon. It was called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Republicans were advised to use certain words in describing opponents — sick, pathetic, lie, decay, failure, destroy. That was the year, of course, when Gingrich showed there was no floor to his descent into a dignity-free zone, equating Democratic Party values with the drowning of two young children by their mother, Susan Smith, in South Carolina.

      Today, if you listen carefully to any Gingrich takedown, you’ll usually hear words from the control memo.

      He even used them, as former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams wrote in National Review Online this week, in going after President Reagan, calling him “pathetically incompetent,” as Abrams reported. And he compared Reagan’s meeting with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”

    • The Method. Even a third-grader arguing with another kid over the merits of Mike and Ikes versus Skittles knows better than to play the Hitler card. But Gingrich, the historian who never learns, does it time and again. Thus Democrats, he said last year, are trying to impose “a secular, socialist machine as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany.”

      He has compared the moderate Muslims trying to erect a mosque and social center near Manhattan’s ground zero to Nazis, and made the same swipe at gays. People who love members of the same sex, he said, were trying to force “a gay and secular fascism” on everyone else.

    • Deny the Obvious. Gingrich is the rare politician who can dissemble without a hint of physical change, defying Mark Twain’s maxim that man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to. He’s also skilled at attacking the very things he practices. In the South Carolina debate last week, when Gingrich went ballistic over a question on an ex-wife’s claim that he wanted an open marriage, he said he had offered ABC numerous witnesses to rebut the charge. In fact, his campaign admitted this week, there were no such witnesses — only character rebuttals by children from a previous marriage.

      His claim that he was paid at least $1.6 million by the mortgage backer Freddie Mac for work as a “historian” was a laughable fiction. This week, those contracts were released, and show no mention of historian duties; it was old-fashioned influence peddling.

      He got caught by Mitt Romney Thursday in a classic political move. After Gingrich blasted Romney for investments that contributed to the housing crisis, Romney turned around and asked him if he had some of those same kinds of investments. Um, yes, Gingrich admitted, he did.

  • Go for the Hatred. It was Gingrich, even before Donald Trump, who tried to define the president as someone who is not American — “Kenyan, anti-colonial.” And there he was earlier this week, pumped by a big audience in Sarasota, Fla., reflecting back at him these projected fears. When he said he wanted to send President Obama back to Chicago, the crowd took up a chant of “Kenya! Kenya!”

    Calling Obama “the best food stamp president ever” is a clear play on racial fears. In the crash of the last year of George W. Bush’s administration, food stamp use surged, but Gingrich would never associate a white Texan president with dependency.

A favorite target is the press. He’s snapped at debate moderators from Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, Chris Wallace of Fox and the preternaturally fair John King of CNN for asking relevant questions. It was a tired and predictable ploy when he tried it on Wolf Blitzer Thursday — he tried to deflect a question on his attacks by calling it a “nonsense question” — and Blitzer didn’t back down. But the outrage is selective and always calculated.

So, Gingrich was the picture of passive redemption when the Christian Broadcasting Network asked him, twice over the last year, about his many wives. In one case, Gingrich said he cheated because he loved his country so much. This week, he said his infidelities made him “more normal than somebody who walks around seeming perfect.” But he never flipped out at the Christian questioner, as he did at King, calling the CNN reporter’s query “close to despicable.” (Another favorite word.)

The general public can read this particular character X-ray, given that Gingrich’s unfavorable rating is off the charts, higher than any other major politician’s. And so could his former Republican colleagues in the House; witness the paucity of endorsements from those who served with him.

But he has a vocal constituency, weaned on the half-truths of conservative media. It makes perfect sense, then, that Gingrich this week demanded that crowds at future debates be allowed to cackle, whoop and whistle at his talk-radio-tested punch lines.

Let’s grant him his wish, and allow audiences to vent at will, as they did Thursday night in Florida. This kind of noise — from Republican debate crowds who have booed an American soldier serving overseas, cheered for the death of the uninsured and hissed at the Golden Rule — is a demagogue’s soundtrack.

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