Newt Gingrich, eternal victim

Stereotypes are the lazy person’s way of dealing with other people. Newt Gingrich is seen to be full of them.

Republican presidential candidate Newton Gingrich manipulates a narrative using language which
borders on being racist to evoke a sense of shared victimhood [GALLO/GETTY]

Within days of announcing his presidential intentions, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave a speech in Georgia sprinkled with a number of racial hot-buttons, one of which was brought up on Meet The Press by host David Gregory on May 15: “You gave a speech in Georgia with language a lot of people think could be coded, racially tinged language, calling the president, the first black president, a ‘food stamp president’ … What did you mean? What was the point?”

In response, Gingrich went on the attack: “That’s, that’s bizarre … I have never said anything about President Obama which is racist.”

Of course, last year Gingrich did tell the National Review Online, “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behaviour” – even though Obama never knew his father and was raised primarily by his white grandparents from Kansas, not Kenya. There’s nothing racist about that, right? And when he continued, “This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president,” that, too, was just the sort of thing white politicians say about one another all the time.

In fact, Gingrich has decades of racially coded messaging under his belt. In 1994 and 1995, he repeatedly spouted off, blaming a series of horrific mostly minority-related crimes on liberal Democrats and the sort of welfare state society they had created – rather than holding the criminals themselves responsible. The most infamous of these involved Susan Smith, the step-daughter of a local Christian Coalition leader, who killed her two children, then blamed an imaginary black man. It further emerged that Smith had been molested by her right-wing Christian step-father, and attempted suicide several times as a teenager – nothing at all to do with liberals, Democrats, welfare or Blacks. In another case, it was the victims who were on welfare, rather than the criminals

Facts never mattered to Newt. All that mattered was the narrative: liberal Democrats give welfare to Blacks, and horrendous murders ensue. Nothing racist about that, right?

Salon’s Joan Walsh and author Michael Eric Dyson think otherwise. It’s not any one thing Newt has said in isolation, both have argued. It’s the relentless pattern of things he’s said over the years. On the Ed Show, May 15, Walsh said, “It’s a string of racial dog-whistles. It doesn’t even feel like coded racism anymore. It feels like racism.” And Dyson went deeper, into how Newt uses racial stereotypes in a way that sets up his “I’m the victim here” counter-attack in advance. 

“Stereotypes, after all, are the lazy person’s way of dealing with the other. There’s always a kernal of truth, there’s always some part of the truth that can be revealed,” Dyson pointed out. “The ingenuity of employing this kind of wolf-whistling is plausible deniability. ‘How dare you believe that I meant that’ Newt Gingrich says to brother Gregory on Meet the Press. And he has the constant drumbeat, here, of denying that he is the victimiser and instead plays the victim, and therefore when he evokes racial passion, and then we call him for it, he then makes himself out to be the victim and as a result of that he duplicates his effort. 

“On the one hand he’s sending signals in a Morse-code kind of way, as Joan has suggested, maybe not even Morse code, straight-up explicit expression of racial sentiment on the one hand, and then on the other hand he gets how to play the victim, ‘See how these black people are beating us up, the black president is doing us wrong.'”

To be sure, racial politics are only part of Newt’s “I’m the victim here” mix. All manner of “others” are fair game in turn, with “liberal elites” always helping them run amok. Gingrich has always been a master of the grand counter-factual fantasy, far more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill rightwing conspiracist, but ultimately similar in intent. Like the French aristocrats who created the modern conspiracist archetype – blaming the French Revolution on an imaginary, shadowy elite, the disbanded “Bavarian Illuminati”, in order to absolve themselves of any fault – Newt loves inventive ways of standing reality on its head, the better to paint himself as both victim and hero.

Gingrich loves weaving long, elaborate stories – as in the ten-part lecture series “Rebuilding American Civilisation” that he promulgated after becoming House Speaker in 1995. But he most enjoys the basic, all-American act of self-invention: re-creating himself as the eternal little-guy victim, the better to justify always being on the attack. Richard Nixon perfected this posture in college, and rode it all the way to the White House. But Gingrich had only contempt for Nixon.

“I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” Gingrich said in 1978, with the GOP still reeling from Watergate. “We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words.” He went on to blame Nixon specifically – “Tricky Dick”, he of “enemies list” fame, for making the party too “nice.”

Thirty-three years later, with GOP in disarray once again, the question occurs: Who’s going to be the next Newt Gingrich? Who’s going to accuse him of making the party too nice?

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

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and no not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.