By Luke Brinker
In his South Carolina victory speech last night, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich disparaged the “elite” no fewer than six times. He framed the 2012 election as a choice between “elites in Washington and New York [who] have no understanding, no care, no concern” about ordinary Americans “… and, in fact, do not represent them at all.”
The populist pitch was a curious one for Gingrich, a longtime Washington insider and current resident of suburban DC whose latest tax returns show an annual income of nearly $3.2 million, to make. But his screeds against private equity “looters”, Barack Obama-serving media elites, and liberal “dictatorial anti-religious bigots” can be easily understood once one accepts that Gingrich is a classic Orthogonian.
In Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Rick Perlstein documents how Richard Nixon ascended the political latter by pitting working stiffs against eggheads, striped-pants State Department diplomats who allegedly sold out American interests, Ivy League-educated sons of privilege, and liberal enablers of student radicals, black rioters, and sexed-up members of the counterculture. Perlstein traces Nixon’s antipathy toward such entitled elites to his days at Whittier College:
As a schoolboy he hadn’t a single close friend, preferring to cloister himself up in the former church’s bell tower, reading, hating to ride the school bus because he thought the other children smelled bad. At Whittier, a fine Quaker college of regional reputation unknown anywhere else, he embarked upon what might have been his most humiliating job of all: learning to be a backslapping hail-fellow-well-met. (“I had the impression he would even practice his inflection when he said ‘hello,’” a reporter later observed.) The seventeen-year-old blossomed when he realized himself no longer alone in his outsiderdom: the student body was run, socially, by a circle of swells who called themselves the Franklins, and the remainder of the student body, a historian noted, “seemed resigned to its exclusion.” So this most unfraternal of youth organized the remnant into a fraternity of his own. Franklins were well-rounded, graceful, moved smoothly, talked slickly. Nixon’s new club, the Orthogonians, was for the strivers, those not to the manner born, the commuter students like him. He persuaded his fellows that reveling in one’s unpolish was a nobility of its own. Franklins were never photographed save in black tie. Orthogonians wore shirtsleeves. “Beans, brains, and brawn” was their motto. He told them orthogonian - basically, “at right angles” – meant “upright,” “straight shooter.” Also, their enemies might have added, all elbows. [p. 22]
Gingrich made his career attacking Franklins and proclaiming himself the defender of the Orthogonians. He got his doctoral degree in history at Tulane, not one of the Ivies. Upon completing his studies, he went to teach at tiny West Georgia College, not an elite private college or flagship state university. (Even at West Georgia, his higher-ups denied him tenure.) Though he had worked for Nelson Rockefeller in 1968, Gingrich established himself in Congress as a foe of complacent, milquetoast moderates in the Republican Party. In the 1980s, he took on Bob Michel, the House Republican leader Gingrich felt had been too soft on liberals. In the 1990s, Gingrich led the charge against preppy blue-blood George H. W. Bush’s tax increase (part of a compromise with congressional Democrats), confirming his status as a conservative insurgent in a party that still had its fair share of centrists. Now, his chief primary opponent is a “Massachusetts moderate,” Mitt Romney, son of an auto executive, governor, and Cabinet official. A graduate of both Harvard Business and Harvard Law, Romney is a Franklin if ever one existed.
While Gingrich managed to rise to the highest legislative position in the country, his tenure was cut short in 1999 as a result of ethics investigations and discontent with his leadership from within the Republican caucus. Gingrich, however, has never stopped believing that the elite media – protecting Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton then as they protect Harvard Law Review editor Barack Obama now – was determined to bring him down.
He may be reflexively anti-establishment by instinct, but the unavoidable reality is that Gingrich’s economic policies disproportionately benefit the most affluent Americans. (In fact, his tax plan is the most regressive to have been floated by a GOP candidate this cycle, as Ezra Klein demonstrated in a recent blog post.) But as the example of Sarah Palin attests, there’s a specific kind of elitism that rankles right-wing Republicans. They may not share the socially tolerant worldview of Wall Street executives and Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, but conservatives generally have no problem with economic elites. It’s cultural elitism they can’t abide. Universities, with their left-wing faculty members who question the sacred doctrine of American Exceptionalism; metropolises like San Francisco and Boston, with their sexual libertinism; intellectuals who shop at Whole Foods, drive Priuses, listen to National Public Radio, attend the opera, use “holiday” and “weekend” as verbs, and eschew religion – these are the paragons of cultural elitism that conservatives rail against. The cosmopolitan cultural elites, in Gingrich’s words, want us to “quit being American and become some other kind of system.”
Newton Leroy Gingrich has learned a lot from Richard Milhous Nixon. His campaign against “fundamentally” un-American elites would have made Tricky Dick proud, and Gingrich’s Southern Strategy of making shameless appeals to racists is straight from the Nixon playbook.