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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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.