Newt's tea party

Ever since he resigned his speakership and House seat in disgrace nearly 12 years ago, Newt Gingrich has prowled the margins of electoral politics like a wolf, hungry and opportunistic.

He's tried on a variety of ideas and ideological colorations in those intervening years, but this week, with the publication of his new book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine," he explicitly linked his fate to the "tea party" movement. Given the fact that Gingrich has said he is weighing a presidential bid, it's a safe bet that others, similarly ambitious, will carefully watch how he fares.

Gingrich, a onetime history professor, always has had a fondness for big ideas and checklist politics, as evinced in his famous Contract with America. The overarching idea in his new book is that, "for the first time since the Civil War, we as Americans have to ask the most fundamental question possible: Who are we?" That existential dilemma, the former Georgia congressman contends, has been forced by a relentless and intricate conspiracy of "secular socialists" that includes Democrats, big business, most of the academy and nearly all of the media. "And that's why saving America is the fundamental challenge of our time," Gingrich writes. "The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did."

He argues: "In the 20th century, hundreds of millions of people were killed by the totalitarian ideologies of Marxism, Nazism and fascism" for whom "religion was enemy No. 1 and the first to go.... There are many parallels between the anti-religious governments of the 20th century and the anti-religious elite of the United States in the 21st."

That is absurd, of course, as is the notion that the Obama administration has embraced a socialist economic program, but what's significant in this kind of talk-show discourse is the evocation of every theme sounded by the tea party movement.

Gingrich clearly thinks the political winds have shifted. Just last fall, he recalled that Ronald Reagan worked with many people with whom he disagreed, and he argued that anyone leading the effort to recapture Congress and the White House "had better be prepared to run a coalition that is pretty big, because this is a country of 305 million people." Now, he's gambling that there's a base to be had in the tea party movement; that pragmatism has been discarded for the view that anyone who supports the Democrats is part of the ungodly socialist conspiracy — or its dupe.

But as supporters of tea party avatar Rand Paul — including Sarah Palin, James Dobson and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint — discovered this week, this is a movement that comes with baggage as well as votes. Paul's now notorious ambivalence toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is actually more like carry-on luggage in this crowd. (I'm perfectly willing to believe that Paul isn't a racist, but libertarians are philosophical Peter Pans, and it somehow never seems to have occurred to him that not applying the Civil Rights Act to private businesses or public accommodations actually could hurt people.) Though the tea party may appear to Gingrich like an inchoate upwelling of rage ripe for leadership, the movement already is riven with ideological eccentricities that long have lurked on the shadowy margins of our politics.

Some of the state tea party organizations Gingrich praises in this book, for example, advocate repeal of the 17th Amendment, which established the direct election of senators by popular vote. Is the former speaker really willing to return that prerogative to state legislators as a way of restoring federalism? Others he's singled out in his book insist on an idiosyncratic reading of the 10th Amendment, which would absolve states from having to enforce any federal law that has not been approved by two-thirds of their state lawmakers. (Talk about the Civil War — that's John C. Calhoun's nullification argument all over again.) Other, far more sinister conspiracy theories — "birthers," "truthers" and worse — are common currency among the tea party's local leaders.

At 67, Gingrich may think that riding the tea party express is his last shot at the White House. Perhaps that's true. But I can't help thinking of "The Lady and the Tiger."

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