Newt Gingrich's Fantasy Campaign—and the Fictions That Gave Rise to It


His ideas may seem merely grandiose, but they reveal the deep affinity between American conservatism and one branch of science fiction.


Stagnating in distant third place in the national polls, is there any way Newt Gingrich could still win the Republican presidential nomination? Hell no, would be the response of most pundits and pollsters.

But here's the kind of scenario that could keep the Gingrich bandwagon chugging along: in tonight's debate, Gingrich applies one of his patented sucker punches to Mitt Romney, who then goes down to defeat in Michigan. The party establishment deserts the fatally wounded Romney and the race for delegates narrows to a contest between Gingrich and Rick Santorum as party leaders frantically and futilely cast about for a fresh leader to enter the fray. Meanwhile, Gingrich has the upper hand because his super PAC coffers will be filled to the brink by Sheldon Adelson. Moreover, because Santorum is too focused on social issues, a slew of remaining primaries go to Gingrich, leaving him well positioned heading into the contested convention in Tampa. No party savior is forthcoming and Gingrich wins with the delegates he's acquired, once again validating South Carolina's importance as the bellwether for the GOP nominating calendar.

Is this scenario at all likely? No, but being implausible makes it all the more appealing to Gingrich, a man who is happiest when living in the hypothetical mode, conjecturing and speculating about possible futures. Newt Gingrich's identity as a science fiction fan (and indeed occasional science fiction writer) is as crucial a part of his worldview as being a conservative Republican. To understand Gingrich's quixotic quest for the presidency you have to understand that more than any previous American politician he's been shaped by one particular form of genre fiction -- the reactionary science fictions of the second half of the 20th century.

To be sure, various types of genre fiction have long had presidential sanction. Franklin Delano Roosevelt loved to relax with mystery novels, which perhaps taught him some of his famous guile. More conservative presidents have an affinity with the westerns, which offered a homespun and mythic of American history. Dwight Eisenhower admired the shoot-em-up epics of Zane Gray and Max Brand while Ronald Reagan enjoyed the cowboy novels of Louis L'Amour. It's not a surprise that John F. Kennedy, with his glamorous sex life and penchant for covert action, was an aficionado of the James Bond series.

Although Gingrich has been widely mocked for his advocacy of a permanent colony on the moon which could eventually be incorporated as an American state, many of his earlier proposals sound like pitches for Hollywood summer blockbusters rather than sober Washington policy ideas. In his 1994 book To Renew America he asked, "Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park? (It may not be at all impossible, you know.) Wouldn't that be one of the most spectacular accomplishments of human history?" In his 1984 book Window of Opportunity, co-written with second wife Marianne Gingrich and science fiction writer David Drake, Gingrich called for "A mirror system in space [which] could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways." According to Gingrich and company, one benefit of these giant space mirrors would be that the "ambient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in darkness."

As tempting as it is to dismiss these far-fetched schemes as evidence of Gingrich's personal grandiosity, they are actually evidence of something much more important, the deep affinity between American conservatism and one branch of science fiction.

Historically, science fiction has been a literature of the left, with writers as diverse as Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, George Orwell and Ursula K. Le Guin using the genre to explore ideas about socialism, technological transcendence, radical democracy and feminism. As critics like Fredric Jameson have argued, the affinity between science fiction and the left has been a natural one, with both the literary form and the political tradition built on attempts to imagine radically alternative futures and, in the case of writers like Orwell, trying to figure out some of the problems with changing the world.

Yet in the last 60 years, there has emerged a powerful right-wing counter-tradition in science fiction which offers a vision of a future dominated by the capitalism and American military might. This influential strand of flag-waving futuristic fiction has shaped the worldview of countless readers, not least of whom is Newt Gingrich.

The great father of reactionary sci-fi is Robert A. Heinlein, who began his career in the late 1930s as a Utopian socialist who favored a planned society over the chaos of Depression era capitalism. After World War Two, Heinlein moved rapidly to the right, in large part because of his fear of Soviet communism. In a series of classic science fiction books, Heinlein created vividly realistic futures that embodied different aspects of right-wing thought. In Starship Troopers (1959), Heinlein extolled a military utopia where the government is controlled by an elite caste of soldiers who wage permanent war on bug-eyed-monsters. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), Heinlein foresaw a libertarian lunar colony that would revitalize the ideals of the American Revolution. Interestingly, even in his right-wing period, Heinlein remained true to the free love ideals of his youth. He was an advocate of open marriages and other nontraditional sexual arrangements, which perhaps suggests another line of influence on Gingrich.

Late period Heinlein was an odd mix of futurism and nostalgia. Heinlein had H.G. Wells's gift for extrapolating technologically plausible futures combined with the political attitudes of Rudyard Kipling. Heinlein was a great reader of the imperialist bard and constantly reworked Kipling-esque themes into science fiction settings. The military ethos of Starship Trooper is pure Kipling, and many of Heinlein's books from the 1950s follow the core pattern of Kim: a young man from the provinces, cocky but unsure of his identity, is initiated into adulthood through the mentorship of avuncular older men and a grueling rite of passage. Stylistically and thematically, everything in Heinlein can be traced back in to Kipling: the dialogue rich in banter and slang; the sprightly narrative pace; the evocation of an exotic environment through unexplained foreign (or alien) words and inexplicable background details; the Victorian faith that the world is fully knowable and conquerable, the didactic insistence on the importance of willpower (as against intelligence) in overcoming adversity; the clipped manly tone that hides a sentimental self-pity; the plebian distrust of intellectuals and other soft guardians of cultural authority; the celebration of engineers, soldiers and other competent men who get the job done without dawdle or time-consuming introspection "In Starship Troopers, his seminal work, Heinlein uses the gosh-wow conventions of pulp-era space opera to advance a political agenda that celebrates America's future as the Rome of the space age," novelist and critic Tom Disch noted in a 1995 essay. "After Heinlein, Buck Rogers and other guys with blasters would never look the same. Space opera = NASA = a blank check for high-tech research."

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Toronto-based critic Jeet Heer writes frequently on popular culture and politics. He’s the co-editor of "Too Asian?" Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary Education.

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