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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.