Newt Gingrich, Populist Technocrat

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George Will and Tom Coburn understand why Republicans should run from him screaming. Why don't GOP primary voters?

Newt Gingrich - AP Photo:Charlie Neibergall - banner.jpg

"I am not inclined to be a supporter of Newt Gingrich's having served under him for four years and experienced his leadership. Because I found it lacking often times. There's all kind of leaders, leaders that instill confidence and leaders that are somewhat abrupt, leaders that have one standard for the people that they are leading and a different standard for themselves. I will have difficulty supporting him for president of the United States." -- Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

Columnist George Will, who is no fan of Mitt Romney, dedicated much of his most recent column to attacking the man he calls "the least conservative candidate" for the GOP nomination, Newt Gingrich. Noting the former House Speaker's "unrepented role as a hired larynx for interests profiting from such government follies as ethanol and cheap mortgages," he pegs his temperament as "intellectual hubris distilled." He proceeds to diagnose Gingrich's "anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything," and builds to the pointed observation that "Gingrich, who would have made a marvelous Marxist, believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how."

Perhaps my favorite example of this idiocy is the Dinesh D'Souza authored, Newt Gingrich endorsed notion that President Obama's performance in office is explained by Kenyan anti-colonialism. For Will, the most alarming trait Gingrich possesses is his hubristic, technocrat's impulse -- it's the self-aggrandizing academic in him -- but in the attack on Obama as a Kenyan anti-colonialist, we see the mind that believes everything is related to everything else fused with Newt's tendency to channel populist resentments, whether he's inveighing against judges or mosques or a president with a foreign born father. To co-opt and tweak a line from Yuval Levin's recent cover story in National Review, it is tempting to see Gingrich's simultaneous embrace of populism and technocracy as a profound incoherence, because we are inclined to see the two as opposite ends of an argument about who should govern. In her latest, Maureen Down helps us understand why this wouldn't bother the candidate. "Newt swims easily in a sea of duality and byzantine ideas that don't add up," she writes. "His mind is a jumble, an amateurish mess lacking impulse control. He plays air guitar with ideas, producing air ideas. He ejaculates concepts, notions and theories that are as inconsistent as his behavior."

Thus the greater incoherence. How do so many voters who fancy themselves "constitutional conservatives" -- an orientation antithetical to populism and technocracy -- tell pollsters that Gingrich is the man they want to see in the White House? Are they ignorant of the true Gingrich, perhaps due to the propagandistic media universe they inhabit? Or are they in fact not all that committed to authentic conservatism? It's hard to say. The emergence of Newt as frontrunner is a mystery.

Though I cannot solve it, I find that thinking of Gingrich as a populist-technocrat makes the candidate himself a bit less mysterious. The latest example came in Saturday's candidate forum, hosted by Mike Huckabee. Gingrich was describing the immigration reform policy he prefers. It would include a guest worker program. "That would be implemented by American Express or Visa or Mastercard, in terms of the cards," he said, "so you wouldn't have fraud as you would in the federal government."

See the fusion?

The populist in Newt invokes the anti-government, pro-business attitude one often finds on the right, where prejudices are such that it makes sense to presume a government issued guest worker card would be plagued by fraud, whereas if the system were privatized, it would run smoothly. In the same suggestion, however, we see the technocrat's folly, for it doesn't take much reflection to recognize that a) there is in fact a fair amount of credit card fraud in America; b) there is no reason to think the particular sorts of fraud that plague guest worker programs are the sorts that credit card companies would be good at rooting out; c) does he really think the issuance and security of the cards is the hardest part of implementing a guest worker program?

I could go on.

The point is that the more you think about anything Gingrich says, the more you see the populist impulse, the technocrat's impulse, and the idiocy of both... until you're left right back where you started, wondering how conservatives could possibly find this guy an appealing presidential candidate. Did I mention his frequent shows of profound disrespect for Red America and his embrace of almost everything that conservatives say they hated about the Bush years?

Maybe Herman Cain, rumored to be considering an endorsement of Gingrich, can explain the attraction. A small part of me is terrified that his only explanation will be a mischievous smile and the words "9-9-9."

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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