How Newt Gingrich Shamelessly Feeds the Fears and Egos of White Conservatives -- and Why That May Win Him the GOP Nomination

Election '16

More American families went on food-stamps during George W. Bush's term in office than under any other president in history – almost a half-million more than under Barack Obama. Facts don't matter much in a GOP primary contest, however; and Newt Gingrich catapulted himself to victory in South Carolina in large part by calling Obama “the foodstamp president” and then picking a fight about it with Fox News pundit Juan Williams during a January 16 debate.

Gingrich had set a brilliant trap for a Republican primary contest. Most people understood the foodstamp president line to be a classic example of the racist “dog-whistle” – the kind of rhetoric that has long been at the heart of the GOP's “Southern Strategy” -- and Newt was confident that he'd be called on it.

Williams obliged. “My e-mail account, my Twitter account, has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities,” he said.

Gingrich's response was practiced, and perfectly tuned for the Republican base. “Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know, among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable... and if that makes liberals unhappy...I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn, some day, to own the job.”

Newt earned a standing ovation from the audience, and immediately after the debate Team Gingrich turned the exchange into an online ad titled, “The Moment.” Five polls taken in South Carolina in the days leading up to the debate had Mitt Romney up by an average of 11 points. Six polls in the following three days found Gingrich up by an average of just under three points, and a week later – after another testy exchange with CNN's John King – Gingrich beat the former Massachusetts governor by 12 percentage points in the Palmetto State's primary.

Newt Gingrich is a deeply flawed candidate. But fresh off his South Carolina trouncing of Romney, who has long been anointed the GOP front-runner, the political establishment is beginning to wonder – with horror or enthusiasm, as the case may be – if the veteran pol actually has a shot at becoming the Republicans' standard-bearer in 2012.

He does, although Romney still has formidable advantages in fundraising and organization on the ground. If Gingrich does manage to pull off an unlikely victory in the nominating contest, it will be the result of running a picture-perfect, almost archetypical right-populist campaign that is perfectly suited to this moment, with the ascendancy of the hard-right Tea Party among Republican primary voters.

The right-populist storyline is simple, and compelling for many at a time when Americans have seen an unprecedented loss of economic security. According to the right-populist narrative, the working class – especially the white working class -- is caught in a vice between two pernicious forces: an elite festering with corruption at the top and a legion of undeserving freeloaders at the bottom.

Sandwiched between these two forces is the “real America,” as Sarah Palin put it during the last election cycle. Gingrich defines the “middle-class” broadly enough to include white-collar professionals and all but the most affluent “entrepreneurs.”

Whereas traditional populism pits working people against corrupt bankers and the titans of big business, Gingrich's brand of right-populism is directed at cultural elites – intellectuals, the media and “latté liberals.”

During his exchange with CNN's John King, Gingrich was again happy to have the media serve as his foil. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country,” he said to King, who'd had the temerity to ask about Gingrich's past marital infidelities, before adding: “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.” Again, the crowd went wild.

Later, during his victory speech, Gingrich drove the point home: “The American people,” he said, “feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some other kind of system.” At the same time, Gingrich said that the “African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."

It's an updated version of Ronald Reagan's mythical “welfare queens” – suggesting that those receiving nutritional assistance are “undeserving” blacks content to live off the public teat. Never mind the fact that almost 60 percent of food-stamp recipients are children and the elderly – people who can't be expected to “demand paychecks” – or that only 8 percent of beneficiaries receive welfare. Never mind that whites make up the largest share of food-stamp households. In the right-populist view, lazy people of color are living high on the hog on an average benefit of $287 per month.

While he heaps scorn on those families that require some nutritional assistance during the worst economy America has seen for 70 years, warning that we are fast becoming an “entitlement society,” Newt's other big selling-point is his promise to bring Obama down to size in a series of unmoderated “Lincoln-Douglas-style” debates. It's a pitch that taps directly into the Right's sense of being talked down to by liberals – specifically, by a smartypants president with a degree from Harvard Law School. The GOP base wants nothing more than to see the elitist food-stamp president humbled intellectually – it lies at the heart of their bizarre obsession with the fact that he uses a teleprompter like every other pol -- and Gingrich is offering them an opportunity to do it vicariously through his bulldog campaign.

Conservatives have come to believe that their grievances are universally held by the American people. One of the most interesting tidbits from the South Carolina exit polls is that among those voters who said that the ability to defeat Obama in November was the most important characteristic in a candidate, Gingrich won by 14 points. That, despite the fact that Obama is leading Romney by less than two points in head-to-head polling but crushing Gingrich by 11 percentage points.

Ultimately, if Newt Gingrich does manage to claw his way to the nomination on the back of grievance politics, it could swing the election decisively to Obama. A poll released January 17 (PDF) found that Gingrich had a net positive favorability rating of 5 points among Republicans, but Americans as a whole view him unfavorably by a whopping 60-26 point margin.

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