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Joe Conason: The GOP’s Toxic Tea Party

In a twist of irony, Newt Gingrich becomes a target of fringe rhetoric he once championed

When Newt Gingrich warned Republicans that they were making a grave “mistake” by driving out moderates and enforcing the angry orthodoxy of the far right, the sober tone of his remarks was stunning.

Joe Conason
Joe Conason

This is a politician who is no stranger to the wilder shores of extremism, a populist and a purist who rose to great power against the GOP establishment, and a demagogue whose lexicon lacerated the “Democrat Party” as decadent, elitist, unpatriotic and immoral.

In his day, Gingrich channeled the same phobias and fury as the Tea Party activists whose growing influence in Republican ranks seems to have shaken him so badly. Why is Gingrich scared now?

Despite his habitual ranting against the Eastern elites, the former House speaker is a professional historian and an intellectual with wide-ranging interests — making him a figure of potential suspicion to radio talkers without much formal education and the raving mobs that follow them.

Much as he exploited the prejudices of the religious right and fantasies of the conspiracy crowd, Gingrich has always affected a more sophisticated and urbane attitude. He may be troubled to realize that he suddenly ranks far lower than Sarah Palin, who can barely muster a coherent political thought, or Glenn Beck, who enthralls his audience with weird, weepy rants.

Leaving aside any lingering presidential ambitions, Gingrich understandably feels that brand of leadership will have a very limited appeal for most Americans — and that the more voters see of it, the less they will like it.

Is it fair to stigmatize the tea-baggers and their leaders as a movement of the fringe? In New York’s 23rd congressional district, Douglas Hoffman, the right-wing carpetbagger who drove out moderate local Republican Dede Scozzafava, apprenticed himself to Beck, obsequiously flattering the Fox News host as his “mentor.”

Hoffman signed a pledge to uphold the “912 principles and values” endorsed by Beck — a juvenile tract that demands honesty, thrift, humility and charity even as it complains that government forces citizens to “share” when they don’t want to. (As far as Beck is concerned, all Democrats are “Marxist” and almost all Republicans are “Marxist lite.”)

No doubt Hoffman is eagerly studying the collected writings of the late Cleon Skousen, the Beck-endorsed prophet whose speeches used to stir up meetings of the John Birch Society, mostly against Republicans of the Rockefeller and Kissinger variety. He has plenty of time for reading now, after losing the special election to Democrat Bill Owens.

If the revival of Birchite mania troubles Gingrich, then the Palin phenomenon, now breaking loose with the publication of her memoir, must be equally disturbing. The former Alaska governor has a long, Beck-like history of affiliation with bizarre causes and characters, including an Alaskan secessionist party and a Kenyan witch-hunting evangelist who conducted an exorcism rite in her Wasilla church. She will ignore or minimize those episodes in Going Rogue, but putting extra lipstick on this pit bull may not help.

Most Americans don’t know much yet about the idiosyncratic ideology of the Tea Party crowd, beyond their conviction that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya (and that his birth announcement in the Hawaii newspapers is therefore part of a plot that dates back to the Kennedy era). But what they have seen so far, they don’t seem to like: The more that Beck, Palin and kindred spirits appear to represent the Republican brand, the less appeal that brand possesses.

From the perspective of Gingrich and other veteran Republicans, there is deep irony in these untoward developments. Many of the Tea Party types actually hate Republican politicians, unless, like Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, they are already dead. They hate Democrats, too, of course — and lots of other people — but their invective against Republicans is suffused with special outrage.

If they have their way, every Republican who doesn’t adhere to the Beck canon will be driven out at the end of a pitchfork, just like poor Scozzafava.

Fifteen years ago, when Gingrich rode to power on the resentments of the religious right, the gun lobby and the economic royalists, he celebrated their extremism as the political style of “normal Americans.” Today when he hears the violent rhetoric, the hateful threats and the fanatical intolerance, he knows they are talking about him, too.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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