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."

Heinlein's novel are perennially popular and have inspired countless clones and replicants in the genre, including Jerry Pournelle, David Drake, and William R. Forstchen. Many of these right-wing science fiction novelists have close ties to Gingrich either as advisers or co-writers. Gingrich has co-written a string of alternative history novels with Forstchen. Pournelle and Gingrich have collaborated on a yet-unpublished science fiction novel about a near-future sneak attack on the United States by an Asian enemy.

Interestingly, Pournelle's political trajectory has followed the same arc as Heinlein's. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean war, Pournelle joined the Communist Party in the 1950s. Later breaking with the left, he not only rejected socialism but also liberalism, writing books where environmentalists and feminists serve as villains. In a recent essay, Pournelle celebrated the under-appreciated merits of Benito Mussolini.

Given their political histories, it's fair to say that both Heinlein and Pournelle have appropriated the utopian energies of science fiction and re-directed it to invigorate right-wing ideology.

Gingrich has described himself as a "conservative futurist," a paradoxical phrase which offers some insight into his affinity with science fiction. Conservatism is usually thought of as a political position that owes allegiance to the past, to tradition and time-honored customs. Certainly, the great tradition of European conservatism that runs from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott has very little regard for technology or innovation.

Yet the United States, a land without a hereditary aristocracy which prides itself on its mobility and modernity, has never been hospitable to conservative ideas that are orientated towards preserving the past. Instead, American conservatism has tried to merge the past with the future, to imagine tomorrows where the professed ideals of the Founding Fathers can be reborn in new frontiers. Figures like Heinlein and Gingrich have played a crucial role in this complex ideological task of blending the past with the future. As critics have often noted, the alien worlds that Heinlein imaged often resembled the classic American frontier of the 19th century, with space critters taking the place of redskins. The lunar rebellion Heinlein described in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress closely resembles the American revolution.

As with all science fiction writers, Gingrich is happiest when working in a speculative mode, imagining a series of what if scenarios. It's notable that when he was clobbered by Romney in the Florida primary, Gingrich didn't offer a typical concession speech but instead painted a glowing picture of what he would do in his first day as president. Imagining the future is Gingrich's default mode, and perhaps explains his lack of attention to the nuts and bolts of day to day campaigning and governing.

In an era where left-of-center voices increasingly paint a dark vision of the future as fraught with ecological dangers, science fiction conservatives have a near monopoly on utopian dreams of a tomorrow of abundance and technological wonders. During the 1970s and 1980s there was brief upsurge of feminist and environmental utopian novels from authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Ernest Callenbach, but in recent decades left-of-center novels about the future see only looming dystopias, such as Margaret Atwood's grim series of books that imagine the consequences of resurgent patriarchy and out of control genetic engineering.

To be in love with science fiction is not the same thing as being in love with science. Gingrich has been notably wobbly on the topic of evolution. In the past he's accepted the theory of evolution, but more recently he has mocked natural selection as meaning that "we're randomly gathered protoplasm." He's been similarly shifty on climate change. Although in the past he's accepted the consensus on climate change, he's recently cited his credentials as an "amateur palaeontologist" as giving him the authority to be more skeptical of climate science.

Science is arguably a minor concern for science fiction conservatives like Gingrich, who are interested not in scholarship that tries to decipher nature but rather in gadgets and gizmos. The dream of high-tech solutions to social and political problems appeals not just to the American tradition of can-do pragmatism, it is also a way of pretending the existing order can be repaired with only a few more inventions. Technology thus becomes a way of ignoring fraught issues of economic exploitation and environmental degradation. Perhaps the ultimate appeal of science fiction conservatism is that it is the ideal form of evasive politics. In Window of Opportunity, Gingrich and his co-writers prophesied a new line of space shuttles that would serve as "the DC-3 of space. From that point on, people will flow out to the Hiltons and Marriotts of the solar system, and mankind will have permanently broken free of the planet." Of course, to be free of the planet is also to be free of any cares for its weighty, mundane, earthly problems.

Image credit: Jon Terbush / Business Insider