Newt Gingrich: A Hater, Not a Quitter

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Is the former speaker about to go postal?

What next for Newt Gingrich, now that his latest 15 minutes of fame has failed to last even 15 minutes? David Corn of Mother Jones has a theory: Gingrich is thinking about becoming "a suicide bomber." Having accepted that he'll never be president, Newt will stage a kamikaze mission against the man he holds responsible for this indignity: Mitt Romney.

Corn thinks the payback for all those Iowa attack ads--the ones paid for not by the Romney campaign but by rich people who happen to know Mitt--could come this weekend in two New Hampshire debates. Corn sees this prospect as a fitting culmination for Gingrich--"the peak of his three-decades long career as a Republican demolition man," during which he tried to "institutionalize his hate politics."

But I think viewing an anti-Romney holy war as the capstone of Gingrich's career gives short shrift to Newt's skills as a hatemonger. After all, Mitt Romney is only one person, and Gingrich has reason to be mad at him. The hallmark of truly vintage Gingrichian toxicity is the fomenting of hatred toward whole groups of people whom Gingrich has no personal reason to dislike. It isn't that he wishes these people ill; it's just that he would profit politically if they were hated more deeply by more people.

Take gay people. When Gingrich said that "there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us," I doubt he actually feared the coming tyranny of fascist homosexual atheists. But he knew there were voters so creeped out by homosexuality that they could be made to fear such a regime--at which point they would be indebted to the political leader who first alerted them to this peril.

Or take Muslims. Gingrich said they shouldn't be able to build a mosque within a few blocks of the World Trade Center site just as "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington." Surely Gingrich is smart enough to see the problem with this analogy. (Hint: The 9/11 attacks were organized by a terrorist group called al Qaeda, not by a religion called Islam.) But he knows that people who hate Muslims won't fuss over details--and if the Nazi comparison amps up their hatred, so much the better for the politician who champions their cause.

And back in the nineties, when Gingrich used to warn of "socialist bureaucrats," I doubt he actually envisioned many civil servants spending their evenings with a copy of Das Kapital. But bureaucrats and socialists are sufficiently disliked groups that when you put the two labels together you can harvest a great synergy of malice. (Gingrich did, as I recall, tone it down a bit after Timothy McVeigh did exactly what you would expect some nut to do if you talk about socialist bureaucrats for long enough.)

More than once I've thought Gingrich's political career was finally over, and I've always been wrong. So I'm a little superstitious about assigning him an epitaph now. Still, I do think he deserves to be remembered as one of America's most gifted harnessers of hatred.

I hope I'm not reaching Gingrichian levels of melodrama in noting that the worst atrocities of the past century have tended to involve politicians who manipulated and amplified existing hatreds. Gingrich once said, "People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz." That's not exactly the way I would have put it.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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