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Newt encounters a different kind of Tea Party, writes Laurie Penny

"To my astonishment, the audience applauds. Gingrich is in a spot."

"To my astonishment, the audience applauds. Gingrich is in a spot."

"You're from Britain? You want to watch out," says the man with the Newt 2012 sticker plastered across his paunch. "If you don't do something soon, your country will be under Sharia law. And that won't be any good for you, miss. You know what I'm saying."

I have come to a meeting of the Staten Island Tea Party, where Newt Gingrich, currently the front-runner in the Republican presidential debate, is about to give a campaign speech.

My new friend, Kevin Coach, is a retired police officer in his early sixties. He was a supporter of Herman Cain, but as the former pizza-chain mogul's presidential bid recently collapsed in a welter of sexual assault allegations, Kevin has switched allegiance . "Anyone but Mitt Romney," he says.

We need to talk about Kevin, and the five hundred other overwhelmingly white, middle-aged Americans who have gathered to hear Gingrich speak today.

This man --  a former cop with fists like ham hocks that he thumps on his knees for emphasis, a libertarian blogger, a Tea Partier and, finally, a person wearing a baseball hat without a shred of irony -- is everything that people like me are supposed to loathe. But I don't.

When he informs me about the practical dangers of the burqa -- "no side vision. Those women are constantly getting run down by cars" -- he flashes a grandfatherly smile, and I suspect that the safety of young women on the roads of a notional Islamic Caliphate of Britain is, on some level, a genuine concern for him.

The basic emotional language Kevin Coach is speaking is one of fear, and I believe that this fear comes from a place that is chillingly familiar.

Suddenly, it's time for the Gingrich show.

The presidential hopeful takes the stage, surrounded by an entourage of security personnel, well-wishers from central casting and a terrifying fem-bot of a wife who is here to promote a children's book she has written about American exceptionalism, which stars Ellis the baby elephant on a journey of neoliberal indoctrination. The book is available in the lobby.

There is a call to stand, and the pledge of allegiance is chanted with hands on hearts and the veterans in the audience applauded with that peculiarly American cultish credence that is somehow less, rather than more, frightening when it's happening all around you rather than on the television.

We take our seats, and it takes Newt Gingrich -- a man with the aspect of a toad with expensive dental work and whose forced exit as Speaker in 1998, under a cloud of corruption, followed midterm election defeat-- roughly three minutes to lose the interest of half the audience.

The people gathered here are less rapt by Gingrich's clunky, high-school-debate-champ, pro-market propaganda than they are by praise for the idea of America as an "exceptional nation", which draws the largest cheer of the afternoon.

Stand-up fights nearly break out at two separate points in the speech, the first when a group of infiltrators from the Occupy movement stand up and attempt to disrupt the proceedings by shouting "Mic check!". As they are evicted, thick-necked men seated all around me stand and pump their fists in the air, chanting "Newt! Newt! Newt!"

This Tea Party gathering is a jumpy, anxious crowd, teetering between violence and implosion. It is a crowd that wants its prejudices pandered to, a crowd that is worried about jobs, a crowd that has allowed itself to be convinced of a wholescale, unfair confiscation of privilege from white, middle-aged, middle-class Americans; a crowd whose members want to believe that they are still special and powerful, as if they ever were.

It is not a crowd of monsters. If it were, it would be easy to dismiss. It is a crowd of frightened, angry human beings watching their lives get steadily worse, and that is a far scarier prospect.

These people could come from any state in America. They are parents and grandparents and teachers and small business owners, the core of the Republican vote, and they are swallowing hard lumps of rhetoric about dissolving the welfare state and cutting taxes for the rich washed down with bland Obama-bashing that always steers far enough away from overt racism to avoid headlines.

This is how the trick is done. This is how -- with the Eurozone is in crisis, with rioting and protest in the streets of major cities across the world and the Durban climate talks likely to signal the end of even the limited climate concessions offered by the Kyoto protocol -- a friend of big business like Gingrich persuades white-collar workers to vote in their millions to protect banks and corporations from regulation.

The trick, however, is wearing thin. During the question-and-answer session, a middle-aged man in a fleece jacket takes the microphone and tells the crowd, struggling to stop his soft voice from breaking, that he is at risk of having his home foreclosed, that he is fighting a bank that wants to take everything from him and his family. He wants to know, should Gingrich become president, "What would you do regarding the financial crisis and making the banks pay?"

To my astonishment, the audience applauds. Gingrich is in a spot. This man has obviously not been listening to the preceding hour of gentle tubthumping about giving banks even more freedom to do whatever the hell they like with public money. The candidate gives a mitigated statement in support of small, local banks, and the audience cheers.

"I'd just like to say," says the questioner, quietly repeating the mantra of the Occupy movement, "that I am one of the 99 per cent, and I appreciate this dialogue."

It's a dialogue of desperation and hope that answers the same concerns shared by many of the ordinary Americans gathered here, without resorting to co-optable xenophobia or cheap cultural prejudice. It's a dialogue that gets to the heart of injustice in the developed world.

And it's a dialogue with which, soon enough, even the Republican Party may find itself forced to engage.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war