The toxic message that drove Newt Gingrich to victory in South Carolina will drive our nation apart rather than bring it together. And it will spell defeat for him — and for Republicans if they choose to go that way.
Gingrich's campaign limped into South Carolina on life support. His revival came from his cunning peddling of a poisonous potion of race-bait politics to a virtually all-white electorate.
Voters swung to Gingrich because, as Harold Wade, 85, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "We need someone who's mean" to take on Obama. Newt filled that description by employing a hoary campaign tactic: blistering the "elite media" while posturing on race.
Gingrich's rise was launched when Fox News pundit Juan Williams, an African American, questioned him about calling Obama the "food stamp president." Gingrich grabbed the opportunity to scorn Williams and slur Obama, while painting Republicans as the party of work. Standing ovation. In the second debate, Gingrich dismissed his second wife's charge that he had asked her for an open marriage by snarling at CNN's John King, saying it was "despicable" merely to raise the issue.
In the new South Carolina, blacks and whites play ball together, shop together and serve in the military together. But none of that was visible in the virtually all-white, conservative Republican primary. So Gingrich could use food stamps the way that Reagan burlesqued welfare. But the measure of any civilization is how we treat the needy in times of trouble. Some 45 million Americans receive food stamps. The program benefits farmers, truckers and grocers, as well as the malnourished. It is morally sound and merits praise.
But Gingrich wanted to give Republican primary voters a full dose of Old South politics. He paraded it all out in his acceptance speech on the night of his victory.
The major issue of the election, he said, was a choice between "American exceptionalism" and the "radicalism of Saul Alinsky." (Few knew who Saul Alinsky was, but with that name, they knew he wasn't one of them.) Gingrich painted himself as standing with Americans revolting against "elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and to become some kind of other system."
This paranoid nonsense had special meaning to the voters of the Old South. A half century ago was the civil rights movement, and Dr. King's victory over segregation — and Southerners were embittered at the media for reporting on the demonstrations.
Gingrich then decried a mythic "anti-religious bigotry of our elites." Denouncing an obscure judge for a ruling on prayer at graduation ceremonies, Gingrich stood tall against "speech dictatorship by anti-religious bigots."
Gingrich endorsed Texas Gov. Perry's focus on the 10th Amendment, promising to return power to the states and local governments. States' rights is the doctrine of the Confederacy, of the Fort Sumter party, not the Boston Tea Party. This doctrine was invoked in defense of slavery, of secession and of segregation.
Gingrich concluded by promising to defend historic America from being transformed into a "secular European-style bureaucratic socialistic system," and to "rally Americans to reassert their belief in America."
This mix of resentment and victimization sold well in South Carolina. But the old poisons drive us apart, not together, and will alienate far more voters than it attracts in most of America. If the Gingrich campaign continues, Republicans are likely to learn the hard way that a party of white sanctuary is a minority party in an America of proud diversity.