Newt Gingrich’s symphony of resentment at the media last night for daring to bring up the question of his marital infidelity was utterly predictable. And yet, mostly because of CNN debate moderator John King’s inability to follow up in any way, it was wildly successful at neutralizing the issue, and will propel Gingrich to victory in South Carolina on Saturday.
I’ve already written about the redemption story in conservative politics, where politicians they like get a pass for their rhetoric completely contradicting reality. This has been a hallmark of Gingrich’s career. He has used the overmoralizing tone of societal decay, promoted social issues and condemned “secular society” and its libertines, while carrying on in any way he pleased personally. The Esquire article from 2010 with his second ex-wife Marianne – which actually makes the whole ABC interview old news – proves this point beyond a shadow of a doubt, when Gingrich says to her, “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”
Someone with an inflated ego and cognitive dissonance like that would obviously take offense at being asked about how he lives, and the relationship to what he says. So Gingrich pulled the trick he’s been pulling the entire primary campaign, using the debate as a platform to express the conservative critique of the media, playing the victim of a campaign of smears and innuendos. The media is a perfect foil for a conservative, and Gingrich knows how to speak that language. John King could only say that CNN didn’t originate the story, rather than the fact that during the Clinton impeachment saga, Gingrich promised to use every speech to bring up Monica Lewinsky, as a show of this hypocrisy.
And so this will work for Newt. Conservatism, as Corey Robin writes in his book The Reactionary Mind, is the politics of the loser, the politics for people who feel besieged (even if they’re not).
Regardless of whether the ideologue or camp follower of conservatism sees him or herself as a victim, the idea of victimhood plays a critical part in conservatism. Going back to Burke. Marie Antoinette is the first great victim of the conservative canon. The sovereign who Joseph de Maistre recommends be restored to power once the counterrevolution prevails – someone Maistre describes as being schooled in the ways of adversity, who’s been brought low by fortune and thus learned a thing or two – he’s a victim (and Maistre recommends him to power on the basis of that victimhood). William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man” is another victim. Nietzsche’s master class, in fact, is a victim. So is Nixon’s silent majority. And so on.
Initially, I thought this was all instrumental and cynical: understanding that the lingua franca of democratic thought is the democratic appeal to the masses, the conservative turns the possessor into the dispossessed. But over time I’ve come to think that the victim is a far more fundamental, and sincere, figure in the conservative canon. Because not only does he appeal to us as a figure of compassion or pity, but he’s also someone who has a very particular claim on us: he demands to be made whole. In other words, he’s a rallying figure, someone whose losses – a country house, a plantation, a factory, a white skin – ought to be recompensed.
Gingrich will get compensated with a victory in South Carolina, if not in the primary. He’ll get it as a payoff for the media and that ex-wife of his trying to steal his glory (“Everybody has had an angry ex-spouse!” said Rush Limbaugh yesterday). They bruised him so badly, but he is undaunted.
And it was a nice touch to release his tax returns during the debate, Mitt Romney cannot seem to get out of his own way on that point, and John King decided to act like a real reporter for a brief moment.