Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Newt Gingrich, God of Anger

Newt Gingrich, God of Anger

South Carolina has spoken, and selected a Newt to slay the dragon.  Florida’s alligators await.

The toothy, carnivorous beasts aren’t the cute Disney types, not are they kissing cousins to the loveable Lyle The Crocodile, who did circus tricks and ate only Turkish Caviar and lemon ices.

These are serious man-eaters, effete, dissolute, elitist media types, sybarites all.  

But Newt is here.  Newt will carry the banner before him, and with limitless strength and implacable purpose, with a voice like Joshua’s trumpet; he will bring righteousness among men and nations. 

Newt is like Ares, the son of Zeus and Hera, the God of Anger and the God of War, the patron of warriors, of city defenders, of courage and of rage.  His symbols are the spear and magic helmet.  He rides a chariot led by four fire-breathing horses.

There is a powerful undertow to watching Newt work a crowd.  It’s the same sort of pulse Garry Wills described at a George Wallace rally in “Nixon Agonistes.” Newt is more polished than Wallace, more educated, uses more complex sentence structure.  But the effect is the same.  Newt is tapping into the inchoate anger of the discontented. 

The Republican Party is changing.  More and more, it is drawing older voters and blue collar, lower income and less educated ones.  It’s too simplistic to draw blanket conclusions, but these are people more rooted in time and place, more needful of stability and a social order and more resistant to the demographic and cultural changes that are happening around them. And they are angry-angry they’ve been left behind or displaced, angry that their institutions seem to be under attack.  When the attack on that order appears to be coming from the government, they turn that anger there.  In many ways, Mr. Obama is the physical embodiment of a change they cannot abide.  Exit polling in South Carolina indicated that Republican voters didn’t just want to win; they wanted a candidate who would bloody up Obama and knock him out.  They need a vessel for their discontent. 

Mitt isn’t that type of person.  In many respects, he is as much a stranger to them as Obama is.  He’s cool, while Newt is hot.  He’s groomed, while Newt is rumpled.  Mitt is a consultant and a manager at heart, a re-arranger of people and assets.  He adapts to a changing business climate-when the local market asks for health care, or conservation, or personal privacy rights, he provides them, when it demands a different product, he locks the old merchandise in the basement and trots out new wares.  Mitt’s store is always well-lit, bright, and clean, stocked with well dressed, polite employees.

Newt’s place doesn’t waste time with blonde wood and polished glass.  It’s the cracker-barrel store down the block, behind a gate, with a sign that says “Member’s Only.”  It sells interesting tools and magazines, canned goods, guns and ammo.  There’s candy for the kids, and if you know the proprietor, he will let you downstairs to have a sip of some of the good stuff. 

The primary campaign and nearly twenty debates so far have been an extension of this-they reflect the tension between the desire to merely win, and an outgrowth of an anger that goes beyond ritual policy criticism.  In this environment, Pawlenty and Huntsman never had a chance-they were too tempered to break through.  Bachman and Perry channeled the heat, but they brought nothing else to the table and so they failed.  Santorum seems to have enough bile in him, but there’s a sense he’s a bantamweight rooster, more cackle than kick, more scold than avenger.

Mitt can’t summon up the demons; his passion seems synthetic, a strategy rather than a personal quality.  Mitt wants to win, not to offend, and his demeanor and his background is a quiet whisper to socially and temperamentally moderate “elites” and independents that change will be gentle and whatever social engineering he supports to get the nomination won’t apply to them. Mitt’s not sending the “orthodoxy police” to their doors.  Mitt is “soft power” personified.

But Newt has it all-the anger and the lack of discipline, the willingness to cross any and every line because he sees no lines.  His weaknesses are his strengths, his excesses taken as signs of virtue.   He is an Old Testament figure, a conqueror who vanquishes his enemies.  He cleanses the sin with fire and blood and restores the world to a simpler and more virtuous place, where only believers are left.  It is his elemental appeal, that of a warrior in a millennial battle.

Newt or Mitt?  Insurgent, Biblical avenger, or incoming Chairman of the Board?  It some respects, it depends on what America you want to live in. Democracies are messy, and have a habit of rebounding from excesses.  Change needs leadership, but it needs some consensus, or it won’t be accepted and lasting. In effect, that is Mitt’s approach. Newt’s promise, however, is to reject compromise and be transformative-his change will be an irrevocable purging.

The story goes that when Noah stepped from the Ark after the flood, he opened his eyes and saw the devastation, and he cried out to God.  God reproaches him; when He told Noah of the coming destruction, He lingered and delayed, so that Noah would speak on behalf of the world. But when Noah knew he would be safe, the evil of the world did not touch him, and he thought of no one but his family. The passage ends, in effect, by God saying, “and now you complain?”

Newt’s a historian.  I wonder if he read that part?  I wonder if he cares?