Newt Gingrich and the politics of frustration

Jay Cost makes an astute observation:

Conservatives are very frustrated, and rightfully so. Their feeling is that they play by the rules – they work hard, pay their taxes, raise their kids right – but what do they get for it? Their values are mocked on television and the movies, the media castigates them as a bunch of extremists, they pay taxes while half of the country does not, and the Obama administration took to demagoguing them virtually from day one of his tenure. I know of what I speak – a few months back I was driving down the road and saw a sign in front of a business lamenting, “Where is the America I grew up in?” I nodded my head in approval.

Enter Newt Gingrich, the person on the debate stage who finally speaks truth to power. ‘Not so fast, John King!’ ‘Hold it just a damned minute, Diane Sawyer!’ ‘How dare you talk to me like that, Brian Williams!’ These are the sorts of thoughts that millions of conservatives have every week. And now here is Newt Gingrich actually saying it right to them. Never mind the fact that he is expressing indignation at liberals while sometimes offering not-so-conservative policies, or using it as a form of misdirection to turn attention away from his own questionable deeds. Conservatives everywhere love to hear somebody finally stick it to the elites.

This explains why they are excited about the prospect of an Obama-Gingrich debate. They love the thought of someone finally standing in front of Obama and saying, “How dare you, sir!”

The problem with Gingrich, of course, is that he comes with a cargo ship full of baggage – ideological, financial, and personal. Gingrich has made a career since leaving the House as a well-connected insider; he has bona fide ethical scandals on his resume. His personal life is a total mess, and he has turned off the broad middle of the country for the last 15 years. And on top of that, it’s doubtful that all of this outrage is genuine. Consider, for instance, Gingrich warmly complimenting John King after the CNN debate this week. How do we square that with King having done something so “close to despicable” just 120 minutes earlier?

You can’t because you can’t square Newt with Newt. He’s an imprint of the things conservatives want in a candidate, but he’s not in any way a good standard-bearer for the values and ideals which conservatives say they hold. He is merely a capsule for their anger and frustration. This is problematic for GOP voters. The question is whether they’ll realize this in time for the Florida primary.

I would quibble, naturally, with Jay’s argument that conservatives are “rightfully” frustrated. Is there really a reason for this? Huge strides have been made by conservative state governments across the country to turn back the clock on public labor unions, reproductive rights, and education spending. Meanwhile, taxes are lower than ever and the military is just about as big as ever. This secular-socialist-machine that Newt keeps warning about seems as much a figment of our imagination as anything else.

If anything, it’s civil libertarians and progressives who ought to be frustrated.

In terms of the broader culture, Jay does have a stronger footing. It’s true that conservatives are largely presented as caricatures in modern popular media, though this is far from universally so. Actually, I think the problem is that conservatives are trying too hard when it comes to pop culture. They want pop culture that explicitly advocates a conservative world view. Too often this leads to “conservative” films that are just awful, or bad Republican rap videos.

This is an unfortunate turn for conservatives in the arts. After all, many great works of conservative literature and music have been produced. The Lord of the Rings is in many ways a great tome of conservative fantasy (though perhaps a very different sort of “conservative” than what we have today.)

In any case, the politics of frustration certainly helps explain Newt’s appeal. Whether it will be enough to fuel him all the way to the convention is much harder to say. The conservatism of wanting-to-win might take over. In that case, Republicans will need to rally around Romney. Newt doesn’t stand a chance in the general, where the politics of frustration won’t play nearly as large a role.

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