Gingrich (and Race-Baiting) Wins in South Carolina
Marking a triumph for the return of unvarnished racism on the American political stage, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich handily won the South Carolina Republican presidential primary on Saturday, leaving in tatters the presumed inevitability of a Mitt Romney romp to the Republican presidential nomination. Finishing with 40 percent of the vote, Gingrich vanquished Romney, who garnered only 28 percent. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul managed 17 and 13 percent, respectively, while Herman Cain brought up the rear with 1 percent.
Until early this week, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was expected to win by a comfortable margin -- that is, until Gingrich topped the damage inflicted on Romney via a Newt-supporting superPAC by establishing his supremacy in the race-baiting contest among all the GOP candidates in a Monday-night debate sponsored by Fox News. Subsequent polls showed Gingrich surging.
Gingrich then turbo-charged that surge by turning a negative into a positive: his second wife's charge that Gingrich had asked her for an "open marriage" while he was carrying on an affair with the woman who would become his third wife. Marianne Gingrich's accusation broke on Thursday, and CNN's John King opened that night's debate by asking Gingrich to respond. Gingrich responded with gusto, with a direct attack on King, whose question he called "close to despicable." The former speaker's attack on "media elites" won him a standing ovation from the Republican audience in the debate hall (and likely more than a few in the living-room audience).
Newt the Destroyer
Gingrich came to South Carolina determined, at the very least, to destroy the candidacy of Romney, aided by "King of Bain," a video hit-piece by Winning Our Future, a superPAC, about Mitt Romney's tenure as CEO of Bain Capital, a player in the leveraged-buy-out frenzy that reshaped the landscape of U.S. business in the 1980s and '90s. The video depicts Romney as a heartless destroyer of the lives of working-class white people, all salt-of-the earth types who worked in the manufacturing companies bought up by Bain and sold for the sum of their parts.
In his concession speech on Saturday night, Romney took several swipes at Gingrich, suggesting the former speaker was in league with Obama, without ever calling Gingrich by name.
"Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against us tomorrow," Romney said. "Let me be clear," he continued. "If Republican leaders want to join this president in demonizing success and disparaging conservative values then they're not going to be fit to be our nominee."
For his attacks on Romney's business practices, Gingrich was dubbed a kamikaze by the chattering classes, who chalked up his anti-Romney offensive to a desire to maim his opponent before his own presumably impending exit from the race -- mere retribution, it was believed, for the destruction of Gingrich's momentary surge in Iowa by hard-hitting ads run by the pro-Romney superPAC, Restore Our Future. But Gingrich, characteristically, had in mind something far more grand: winning the nomination.
Even as Gingrich and the Gingrich-friendly superPAC hammered at Romney -- with the help of $5 million pumped in by casino kingpin Sheldon Adelson -- he was honing his winning strategy for propelling his candidacy on the toxic fuel of racial resentment, a particularly potent brew with a black man occupying the White House.
And the Newt Shall Rise Again
After his loss to Romney and Santorum in Iowa, Gingrich apparently devised a plan that set his sights on South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the state capitol. He knew New Hampshire was Romney's game, since, as the former governor of the state next door, Romney was nearly impossible to beat in the first-in-the-nation primary. But the national media were there, and Newt made the most of their presence, knowing his antics would be duly noted in the Palmetto state. So he deftly repackaged an off-hand, race-baiting remark made by Rick Santorum in Iowa, and dubbed Barack Obama the "food stamp president."
He set about putting a black face on all of America's poor, and then insinuating that these presumably dark-skinned dependents on public assistance arrived at their lowly station through laziness and the radical, redistributionist policies of America's first African-American president. Whenever he could pair his racist theories with attacks on other targets of the right -- say, labor unions and public employees -- he did. Child labor laws should be adjusted so that public school custodians could be replaced with poor kids -- who did, after all, need the money, he said, and an infusion of work ethic.
Then Gingrich said he would go into a place that would look, to those in South Carolina's Republican base with a fear of black people, like the lion's den.
"I said I was willing to go to the NAACP national convention, which most Republicans are unwilling to do, and talk about the importance of food stamps versus paychecks...," Gingrich said, as AlterNet reported, in response to a challenging question at a New Hampshire campaign stop. "Here's a Republican who is standing up, [willing to talk to] one of the most left-wing groups in America about how to help the people they represent."
Because, obviously, they are incapable of figuring that out on their own.
Doubling Down on the Race War
Then Gingrich got another of his big ideas. Why wait for the NAACP convention to roll around to collect television footage, for the edification of the racially prejudiced segment of the electorate he's targeting, of himself yelling directly at black people? Why not get that ball rolling in time for the South Carolina primary?
On January 14, exactly a week ahead of the South Carolina primary, Gingrich paid a visit to the Jones Memorial A.M.E. Church in Columbia, South Carolina, to face a largely African-American audience described by Politico as "hostile." There, he belligerently stuck to his guns in describing the nation's first black commander-in-chief as the "food stamp president" by repeating his false claim that, under Barack Obama, "more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history." (Actually, George W. Bush wins that honor, thanks to the economic crash his administration incited.) Gingrich's foray into enemy territory yielded local reporting that the white, right-wing base of the South Carolina G.O.P. could really soak up.
Monday night's debate offered Gingrich an opportunity to belittle a black person to his face on national television, when Fox News analyst Juan Williams challenged Gingrich on his comments about the poor, about African-Americans, and his description of Obama.
"Can't you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?" Williams asked.
"No. I don't see that," Gingrich replied.
As Williams continued, taking Gingrich to task for his fusing of food stamps, race and Obama in his stump speech, it became clear that Gingrich was winning the round when the audience in the debate hall loudly booed Williams. Gingrich repeated his false claim about Obama's responsibility for the numbers of people on the nutrition assistance program.
"Now," he continued, "I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable."
(Later in the week, Gingrich would claim the "idea of work" to be a "strange, distant concept" to Juan Williams.)
Later, in response to a question about the wisdom of pursing a confrontation with Iran, Gingrich gave an answer full of coded racism and Confederate hagiography, but one easily missed by those not steeped in American history or the legends of the South.
"South Carolina in the Revolutionary War had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabred by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life," Gingrich said. "Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them."
As president, Andrew Jackson presided over the Trail of Tears, the genocidal removal of American Indians,who were deemed America's enemies, from their native lands. He also embraced a racial philosophy that reserved democracy only for white men, who were regarded as superior in every way to non-whites.
Clearing the Racist Path
While Gingrich was hardly the originator of the racial subtext to the GOP presidential contest, his unapologetic, bellicose articulation of racist tropes served to smoke out his competitors, who had, until that time, tried to blow the race whistle more subtly, or at least out of view of the mainstream media. (Santorum famously walked back from his Iowa remarks about black people and welfare by saying that he never used the phrase "black people," but rather the term "blah people.")
But Gingrich's astonishing performance in Monday night's debate demanded more from the rest of the field, two of whom did their best to serve it up. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who later left the race and endorsed Gingrich, invoked the Civil War when responding to a question about the Justice Department's challenge to South Carolina's draconian new voter ID law. "South Carolina is at war with this federal government and with this administration," Perry said.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum took the opportunity to link young African-American women to promiscuity, while deriding the Obama administration for not permitting the funding of abstinence-only programs as the solution.
Mitt Romney stuck to his more subtle attack on Obama as a "nice guy" who was "in over his head," playing, in the land of Andrew Jackson, to the notion that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to whites. Ron Paul used his opposition to the drug war as proof of his concern about African-Americans. But the next day, according to the Associated Press:
Paul chose the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, surrounded by Civil War icons and the Confederate battle flag, to talk Tuesday about states' rights to possibly ignore federal laws they don't like, which in the past would have included civil rights and voting laws.
Shades of the Battle to Come
In victory, Gingrich was hardly kinder or gentler. And why should he be? He had found his winning formula. His combative speech largely targeted, in frontrunner fashion, his presumed general-election opponent instead of his Republican rivals. Taking aim at "elites" in Washington and New York, Gingrich condemned their purported "anti-religious bigotry," and painted Obama, using nearly the tropes of the right, as a "Saul Alinsky radical" who seeks to foster a culture of dependency through the tyranny of food stamps to create a "European-style welfare state." And he repeated his linking of Obama to food stamps.
The speech hit all of the scapegoating fear-notes that characterize the rhetoric of the Tea Party: To the base Gingrich seeks to win, Alinsky's name is Jewish and foreign-sounding to many Americans; Europeans = secular foreigners; dependency = welfare; welfare = lazy; welfare = black people; food stamps = black people.
Gingrich chalked up his win not, as the pundits did, to his superior debating skills, but because, he said, "I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people."
That depends, one imagines, on how one defines "American." Whether Gingrich prevails in his quest for the presidential nomination, he has drawn the battle lines for the general election. People will say it's all about the economy. But it's more likely to be a rhetorical re-fighting of the Civil War, with a black Democrat and a white Republican doing battle on a American landscape deemed, just four years ago, to be post-racial.
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. She also writes for the AFL-CIO Now blog. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan