Laurie Penny: the Gingrich trick wears thin

Laurie Penny meets the Staten Island Tea Party.

"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've come to a meeting of the Staten Island Tea Party, where Newt Gingrich, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, is about to give a campaign speech. My new friend, Kevin Coach, is a retired police officer in his early sixties. He supported Herman Cain, but as that bid collapsed in a welter of sexual harassment allegations, Kevin has switched allegiance. "Anyone but Mitt Romney," he says.

There is a call to stand, the guests chant the Pledge of Allegiance, and it takes Gingrich - a man with the aspect of a toad that's had expensive dental work done - roughly three minutes to lose the interest of half the audience. The people gathered here are less enraptured by his clunky pro-market propaganda than by his praise for the idea of America as an "exceptional nation", which gets the biggest cheer of the afternoon.

Like Kevin, Gingrich speaks an emotional language of fear - fear of loss of privilege, loss of work, loss of the feeling these white, middle-aged Americans still nurture that they are special and powerful, as if they ever were. This 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, 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 veers just far away enough from overt racism to avoid the headlines.

This is how the trick is done. This is how - with the eurozone in crisis, with protests in the streets of cities across the world and with the Durban climate talks likely to signal the end of the Kyoto Protocol - a man like Gingrich can persuade white-collar workers to vote to protect the banks and big corporations from regulation.

Talk isn't cheap

The trick, however, is wearing thin. During the question-and-answer session, a man in a fleece jacket takes the microphone and tells the crowd that he is at risk of the bank foreclosing on his home. Should Gingrich become president, he wants to know, "What would you do regarding the financial crisis and making the banks pay?"

To my astonishment, the guests applaud. Gingrich is in a spot. He declares his support for 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."

The dialogue initiated by Occupy addresses concerns shared by many of the ordinary Americans gathered here, without resorting to xenophobia or cheap prejudice. It's a dialogue that gets to the heart of injustice in the developed world. And it's a dialogue in 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.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war