How Newt Gingrich Gets Away with 'Class Warfare' and 'Race Baiting'

Those are the labels conservatives would affix to his rhetoric if it was uttered by anyone other than the former House speaker.



When Rick Perry was still in the presidential race, he angered some conservatives by asserting that if you oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants brought here as kids then "you don't have a heart." For normal politicians, it is folly to tell the base a position they hold is heartless.

But Newt Gingrich isn't a normal politician. He is so expert at signaling tribal identification with conservatives that he can seemingly say or do anything without losing the ability to be competitive. In a past entry, I explained how the conservative movement made such a rise possible. Here I want to cite just one example of the ruinous (for them) dynamic that is beginning to result. 

Above is a clip from Newt Gingrich's appearance on Univision on Wednesday. Here's the transcript:    

INTERVIEWER: What do you think of Romney's idea of self-deportation?

NEWT GINGRICH: I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts -- and automatic, you know, $20 million per year income with no work -- to have some fantasy this far from reality.

Remember that I talk, very specifically, about people who have been here for a long time. Who are grandmothers and grandfathers who have been paying their bills, they've been working, they're part of the community. Now for Romney to believe that somebody's grandmother is going to be so cut off that she's going to self-deport? This is an Obama-level fantasy.

INTERVIEWER: You call him anti-immigrant.

NEWT GINGRICH: Well he certainly shows no concern for the humanity of people who are already here. I mean, I just think the idea that we're going to deport grandmothers and grandfathers is a sufficient level of inhumanity -- first of all it's never going to happen.

Observations:

  1. Isn't it amazing to see Newt Gingrich soar in a Republican primary even as he asserts that (a) rich guys are so clueless it's like they live in a fantasy world and (b) investing money and earning a return on it is tantamount to "no work"? Isn't it stranger still that while saying all this he accuses President Obama of class warfare?
  2. Isn't it amazing that Gingrich can surge in a GOP primary even as he suggests that wanting to deport illegal immigrants is inhumane, even anti-immigrant? His base has a hair-trigger sensitivity to being accused of xenophobia, and supports deporting all illegal immigrants; yet somehow Gingrich gets away with saying this on Univision. Had Jon Huntsman done the same he'd have been excoriated. 
  3. The idea of self-deportation spurred by better workplace enforcement -- the Mitt Romney position -- is in fact the mainstream position of illegal-immigration restrictionists, who mostly insist that the specter of mass deportations are a straw man conjured up by the left to scare people. And it is in fact the case that if you make it more difficult for folks without documents to get jobs, many of them will leave, having come here with the express hope of earning American wages. 
  4. Under Romney's plan, which is clearly targeted at working-age adults, illegal immigrant grandparents who've been here for many years are in fact the least likely people to be bothered, yet Gingrich talks as if they're the focus of Romney's plan.  
  5. Even Gingrich's demagoguery is inconsistent, for he isn't willing to affirm that illegal-immigrant grandparents who've been here for some time should be given amnesty. He'd instead create a series of citizen panels modeled after the draft boards of the World War II era that would sit in judgment of whether these longtime residents got to stay or go, presumably sending some of them home. I wonder how Gingrich would respond if a debate moderator pointed out that his plan would deport some longtime residents and called him anti-immigrant and inhumane?

This is but one example of what the right can expect so long as Newt Gingrich is around. Because his appeal is grounded in tribal solidarity -- because what people like about him is his ability to lash out at the mainstream media, the cultural elite, and President Obama -- he can stray from conservative orthodoxy and policy far more than any other candidate and still retain his support. It's a more extreme version of what happened during the Bush era. Republicans elected the guy with whom they wanted to have a beer, and since they felt in their gut he was one of them, he spent years advancing an agenda that would've drawn cries of tyranny had a Democrat tried it.

Gingrich backed that Bush-era agenda. And if he's elected president expect him to do all sorts of things that conservatives complain about after the fact, when they realize that they've been had again.

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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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