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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.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs: David Cameron finds his way past Jeremy Corbyn's 4-5-1

The Prime Minister has finally got to grips with Jeremy Corbyn's new approach. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s best performances come when he speaks with the voices of others. Going for the traditional attacking and braying of PMQs leaves him badly exposed, allowing David Cameron to attack him on 30+ years of articles for the Morning Star, appearances on Russia Today, and any number of unsupportive remarks from Labour politicians, both retired and currently in Parliament.

“If JC attempts any kind of cut and thrust *at all* he will get shredded by DC for his own various positions,” reflected one of the team tasked with briefing the Labour leader before PMQs. Corbyn’s new approach to PMQs – of bringing public questions – have a double bonus: they are a living embodiment of the “new politics” that the Islington North MP promises and they make it much harder for Cameron to reply by attacking Corbyn’s record.

It’s a defensive tactic, but the occasional win in the old style is more than wiped out by the damage to Labour and Corbyn by allowing Cameron to play “Red Scare” in the House.

It’s no coincidence that Corbyn’s better PMQs have come when he uses the new-style and his worst when he attempts the old. Until today, the Prime Minister has seemed flummoxed by how to respond to the Labour leader’s use of real people at the despatch box.

But today he finally managed one, skilfully re-appropriating “Rosie”, a young Londoner who is being hit by the capital’s skyrocketing property and rents, in order to praise the government’s record – such as it is – on housebuilding. If you look at the small print, Cameron’s answers left much to be desired: he talked about people like Rosie working to pay the housing benefit of others, a benefit that largely goes to people in work. He praised a fairly indifferent record of housebuilding – that falls far short of where Britain’s housing stock needs to be even to stand still.

However, the Labour leader was incapable of pinning him down. With the old approach to PMQs a non-starter against Cameron, and the Prime Minister finally finding a way to live with the new style, a third way may have be found. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.