Newt Gingrich’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

Behind the smokescreen, Gingrich’s true accomplishment is being a master of propaganda.

Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire
 Gingrich uses language in a particularly ‘sweeping, corrosive and demonising way’, the author says [GALLO/ GETTY]

San Pedro, California – I last wrote about Newt Gingrich in May – “Newt Gingrich, Eternal Victim”– as his presidential campaign exploded onto the scene and imploded on arrival. 

Now, amazingly, Newt is back – not just back, but back on top. Whether or not Newt ends up as the GOP nominee, his resurgence makes him once again a key figure for understanding today’s GOP, American conservatism, and American politics in general.

The picture that emerges is not a pretty one – even for those nominally on the same side as him. He was a disastrous leader as Speaker of the House – deposed by his own allies just shy of serving two terms – and the GOP establishment can’t put their faith in him. In fact, GOP pundits are “freaking out” as Gawker put it in their quote roundup, which featured David Brooks saying, “As nearly everyone who has ever worked with him knows, he would severely damage conservatism and the Republican Party if nominated”. Peggy Noonan also chimed in: “He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!'”

 Gingrich targeted by Republican rivals

Of course, these are voices of the GOP establishment, whom Tea Partiers tend to hate. But Newt’s lucrative Washington insider career doesn’t jive at all with the Tea Party’s official anti-Washington narrative. By all rights, they ought to despise him as well. If he winds up being their man, nothing they claim to stand for can be taken seriously. 

But deep as those failings may be, Newt has been far, far worse for the United States as a whole. He has played a key role in making American politics much more nasty, polarised and dysfunctional. If you want to know why the American political system can’t solve even most routine problems anymore, the reasons are larger than any one person. But the Washington Post‘s straw man argument that Newt didn’t do it alone hides much more than it reveals. Newt understood, as well as any other figure on the right, that conservatives had to make America dysfunctional in order to take it over, and Newt lead the way in doing so in the House, as I’ll explain in a moment.

This is the same broad principle that Naomi Klein describes on a worldwide scale in The Shock Doctrine, but with less of a lightening-strike approach. Because Democrats had held the House almost without interruption since 1932, Newt’s role in making the House dysfunctional has done as much as any one person to bring the whole country to its knees. Since Obama first came into office, the Senate has been at the centre of the GOP’s scorched earth opposition. But they are only following in the footsteps of Gingrich’s House in the 1990s, acting with greater discipline – and success – than Newt was capable of.

To understand Newt’s historical role, we must first cut through his smokescreen. Touting his conservative credentials recently, Newt said, “I helped Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp develop supply-side economics, I helped lead the effort to defeat Communism in Congress, I helped – as Speaker of the House – balance the budget for four straight years”. Three claims. Three whoppers. All puffery.

As a second-term GOP House member in 1981-82, Newt had nothing to do with supply-side economics, other than voting for the Kemp-Roth tax cuts. By the time he held a House minority leadership post in 1989, Gorbachev’s reforms had been in place for three years, and the Soviet Union was holding their first free elections. The threat of communism was already gone. As for “balancing the budget for four straight years”, Newt was only Speaker for one full fiscal year when the budget was balanced, before his own party booted him. 

More importantly, though, balancing the budget was never Newt’s intention: That is just a cover story, as it has been for all savvy conservatives since Reagan embraced supply-side. Balanced budgets are merely a means to an end: the destruction of the welfare state. Clinton’s budget-balancing did trim the welfare state, but not as much as it raised taxes and cut military spending. Clinton’s balanced budget was actually a defeat for conservatives. And the proof of this is quite simple: Within a year of Clinton leaving office, with the GOP controlling Congress and the White House, the surplus was gone as well.

Newt’s true conservative credentials

Despite Newt’s triple-whopper, it’s undeniable that Newt really did play a massive role in conservative politics prior to 2000. It’s just not one that sounds good in public. But it was spelled out clearly by New York Democratic Congress member Jerrold Nadler on MSNBC’s Up With Chris the weekend that Newt moved into the lead.

Nadler explained that Gingrich had “one tremendous accomplishment you cannot take away from him”: putting an end to a 40-year period of Democrats dominance of the House of Representatives. (The GOP held the House briefly when Eisenhower was President.) Nadler went on to describe two key aspects of this: “A lot of the problems in American politics today, the incivility, he deliberately engineered. Because he determined – and he said so, at the time – he determined that if the Republican leadership co-operated to achieve things with Democrats, they’d never get power. What they had to do to take over the institution was to blow it up. And he proceeded to do just that.”

Gingrich did this by changing campaign strategy and tactics to a standardised practice of demonisation, which he spread throughout the Republican Party to anyone who would listen, Nadler explained. “He sent out tape cassettes for a period of years in the ’80s, to Young Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom, anybody, advice on how to run a campaign… He said things like ‘how to refer to yourself, what phrases to use: “entreprenurial”, “creative”, “forward-looking”‘, whatever. ‘How to refer to your Democratic opponent: “statist”, “collectivist”, “communist” “corrupt”‘. Now how did he know that the Democratic candidate for dog-catcher in Oshkosh was corrupt?”

Indeed, Gingrich generated a much longer list of contrasting terms, which can be found in his memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”, which was discussed in context here back in 1995. The list of words to describe Democrats should be familiar to anyone who listens to Newt. He may lack discipline when he’s running an organisation, but not when he’s running his mouth. Just look at this list:

decay… failure (fail)… collapse(ing)… deeper… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… destroy… sick… pathetic… lie… liberal… they/them… unionized bureaucracy… “compassion” is not enough… betray… consequences… limit(s)… shallow… traitors… sensationalists…

endanger… coercion… hypocrisy… radical… threaten… devour… waste… corruption… incompetent… permissive attitudes… destructive… impose… self-serving… greed… ideological… insecure… anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs… pessimistic… excuses… intolerant…

stagnation… welfare… corrupt… selfish… insensitive… status quo… mandate(s)… taxes… spend(ing)… shame… disgrace… punish (poor…)… bizarre… cynicism… cheat… steal… abuse of power… machine… bosses… obsolete… criminal rights… red tape… patronage

And what about Republicans? They’re damn near perfect, according Newt, and that’s how they should describe themselves:

share… change… opportunity… legacy… challenge… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… crusade… movement… children… family… debate… compete… active(ly)… we/us/our… candid(ly)… humane… pristine… provide…

liberty… commitment… principle(d)… unique… duty… precious… premise… care(ing)… tough… listen… learn… help… lead… vision… success… empower(ment)… citizen… activist… mobilize… conflict… light… dream… freedom…

peace… rights… pioneer… proud/pride… building… preserve… pro-(issue): flag, children, environment… reform… workfare… eliminate good-time in prison… strength… choice/choose… fair… protect… confident… incentive… hard work… initiative… common sense… passionate

Of course, politicians have used language manipulatively since the dawn of time. But Newt wasn’t just using language manipulatively – he was doing it in a particularly sweeping, corrosive and demonising way, and teaching others how to do it themselves.

When Newt promoted the idea that every last Democratic officeholder down to the dog-catcher in Oshkosh was corrupt, he was not promoting lying, but bullshit, as explained by philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his best-selling book On Bullshit. Frankfurt defined bullshit as being unconcerned with the truth or falsehood, while aiming to impress and persuade. Again, this is nothing new to politicians. What Newt introduced and promoted was simply a profound intensification of the dark, divisive side of politics.

Historian or Mythstorian?

Newt was dramatically less successful when it came to his next stage of propagandising: his creation of a college course to spread the conservative gospel via closed-circuit connections to scores of sites across the country. He did manage to pull it off – at the same time that he became Speaker, no less. But the result was an intellectual hodge-podge, and the way it was pulled off and subsequently defended was so shady that it formed the foundation of the unprecedented $300,000 ethics violation, which Newt himself agreed to in a brokered settlement, and which 196 House Republicans voted for along with 198 Democrats. 

Unfortunately, neither investigators nor the news media managed to focus much public attention on the content of the course, as opposed to the ethics associated with its financing, tax status and Newt’s pattern of cover-up and obfuscation. But the final report contains some devastating material, and the course transcripts are a treasure trove just waiting to be rediscovered.  

Today’s right is full of historical revisionists who make similarly false claims about our nation’s founding on principles of virtue.

For example, in a footnote on page 53 of the report, it’s noted that Gingrich cited political scientist Larry Sabato and conservative scholar James Q Wilson as contributors to his course on more than one occasion. However it also notes how both men had actually been quite critical of it. Wilson is quoted from a letter (Exhibit 126 of the report) in which he says “[I]f it is to be a course rather [than] a series of sermons, this chapter won’t do. It is bland, vague, hortatory, and lacking in substance.” Sabato was co-author of a book, Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics, which says, “Nominally an educational enterprise, internal course planning documents revealed the true nature of the course as a partisan organising tool” on page 95.

Wilson’s letter is spectacularly damning to the careful reader. It’s not just his over-all criticism of the quality and purpose of the chapter he reviewed, but the specifics bolded below, which directly undermine Gingrich’s attempt to identify the US’ idealised past with virtue, in contrast to the modern decay of the liberal welfare state that he rails against:

Historically, it does not represent Adam Smith correctly…. Indeed, Smith at many places says that capitalism will produce moral decay (idle preening among the rich, stupid parochialism among the workers)….  In the Federalist papers, Madison defends the Constitution by saying that it does not require virtue for its operation: ambition will be made to counteract ambition.  [Emphasis added.]

It’s not that Smith or Madison were opposed to personal virtue, but rather that they were opposed to relying on it as the foundation for a social system composed of flawed individuals because such attempts had proven to be unworkable. And it is this hard-won practical knowledge of 18th Century Enlightenment that Newt is at war with.

Of course Newt’s not alone. Today’s right is full of historical revisionists who make similarly false claims about our nation’s founding on principles of virtue. But serious academics – even conservatives like Wilson – have repeatedly refuted them. Newt’s attempt to pass off his revision as academic history was different only in the audacity he displayed. But as Sabato noted, what was externally proclaimed and what was inwardly contemplated were two different things.  What’s more, Newt deftly escaped any serious academic oversight, as the ethics report noted: “Since the course was a ‘Special Topics’ course, it did not need to go through formal approval by a curriculum committee.”

There were countless other problems with the course as well – if one took it seriously. But I want to focus on a particularly central one. Arguably, Newt’s most central theme was that the US was a great country, until the liberals got into power and messed everything up starting in 1965. For a Reagan-era conservative, this was not a terribly original idea. So Gingrich sexed it up by calling what the liberals had done, the creation of great discontinuity in our history, and claimed this idea was derived from the famous 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity by Peter Drucker. 

But Newt’s use of the term to demonise liberals had nothing to do with the term Drucker defined and described. Newt was simply ripping off Drucker’s prestige. Drucker’s term referred to technologically-driven changes the go under the rubric of post-industrialism, as opposed to the earlier Fordist model of mass industrialism. Drucker was also clear that Fordism, too, had caused a similar pattern of inter-connected discontinuities with the largely agricultural nation that the US had previously been.

Here, in contrast, is what Gingrich said, in a key passage laying out the core of his grand argument:

I think this discontinuity ended in 1994. But it’s inconceivable to anybody in the discontinuity that you could have had that speech [FDR on the Normandy invasion, which took the form of a national prayer]. It would have been ridiculed and it would have been unthinkable, and you’ll see what I’m talking about when you hear the speech. And yet my assertion is that because of – see, America is a collection of solutions. American civilisation is the conscious effort of human beings to collect solutions to the question: how do human beings live together and function? And because I believe it is the highest value collection of solutions in human history, I believe that having now gone through the discontinuity, what we’re about to do is come out as America again. But that there was a very serious argument for a 30-year period over America was essentially a racist, sexist, repressive society of greedy people who rip off the rest of the nation and exploit the poor, and that if you engage in an act of violence, it was probably because you were psychologically dispossessed and a victim, and therefore you had an obligation to shoot up people because after all, this racist, sexist, exploitive capitalist culture had forced you to do that.

Among the numerous things wrong with this passage, like the gross distortion of Martin Luther King, Jr’s message, is the fact that it ignores the profound contradiction that, at the time, FDR spoke in religious terms. To put it bluntly, we were waging a war against the ultimate evil of Nazi Germany, who were obsessed with the notion of racial purity, while our own armed forces were racially segregated and black servicemen in the South were treated worse than German prisoners of war.

Much to our credit, that contradiction deeply troubled the soul of the US, leading to two decades of intensified struggle that culminated in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 – Newt’s fateful year – with the Voting Rights Act. For two long decades left out of Newt’s accounting, America struggled intensely with its own inner darkness, its “shadow” in Jungian terms, its own embrace of the same racist attitudes, assumptions and power relationships that it recognised as absolute evil in the other of Nazi Germany. 

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, we turned a very important corner in that struggle, vindicating in large measure a promise of equality that had previously been honored only in the breach. And that was the date that Newt claimed America had lost its way. 

Newt’s intellectual pretensions have never passed serious scrutiny – not even his dissertation, “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960”.

Getting back to Newt’s invocation of Drucker, there’s nothing wrong with one thinker borrowing from another, and even reworking the meaning of a key concept provided they produce a compelling argument for doing so. But Newt did nothing of the sort. He simply swiped an appealing-sounding phrase, gave it totally different meaning, and went off on his merry way, pretending that his cheap knock-off carried all the intellectual prestige of Drucker’s original argument. And he did this in order to make the struggle against racism sound bad and anti-American. 

Newt’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

It’s writings like this that make Gingrich so appealing to Tea Partiers. Even though he has deeply transgressed their beliefs about evil Washington insiders, he is clearly their “intellectual” godfather. Their “birther” faith and other fact-free accusations against Obama – that he is a Marxist, fascist, secret Muslim, et cetera – all testify to Gingrich’s handiwork. Which makes him the ideal candidate to go up against the monster that is Obama – and slay him.

Speaking just after Nadler on Up With Chris, author Michelle Goldberg explained the sanitised version of how these beliefs play in Newt’s favour: “There’s this insane view among parts of the right that Obama really is a deeply stupid man. They really believe that he’s an empty suit that needs a teleprompter and that the brilliant Newt Gingrich is going to wipe the floor with him in these debates and finally show the world what a fraud he is. I think that that delusion has a lot to do with his surge”.

Of course, this fever dream is bound to fail. Newt’s intellectual pretensions have never passed serious scrutiny – not even his dissertation, “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960”. Both philosopher Robert Paul Wolff and author  Adam Hochschild have reached similar conclusions: The thesis is adequate, but dull and limited. It’s missing detailed historical knowledge, the perspective of the Congolese themselves, and the larger historical context of brutal colonial rule that Hochschild wrote about in King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa– although Hochschild does not mention it.

Yet, we should. There are two great works that starkly illuminate what Gingrich managed to ignore. Hochschild’s book is one of them. The other is a century older: Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, the template that Francis Ford Coppola used for Apocalypse Now! It stands out as the very essence of what Gingrich has never explored: the dark side of history passed yet not past, the darkness projected onto the primitive other, and the darkness that lives within the self-deceiving civilised heart and mind that shies away from any sort of difficult self-reflection. And over the last years and decades, the darkness Newt left unexamined has grown within him like a cancer.  And through him, through his politics, it has grown within us all as well.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.