This past weekend Newt Gingrich seemed to be trotting his own eccentric version of the anti-Obama backhanded slander in vogue in conservative circles. Gingrich was quoted by the National Review Online as saying: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”
Gingrich's foray into wing nut rhetoric, and the failure of any conservative to rebuke him (at least so far), demonstrates how much the fact-free invective of Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party has been embraced by the mainstream GOP. His remarks also show how there are no more grownups in the conservative movement anymore.
Two recent books on our current fractious political landscape remind us that, once upon a time, responsible adults ran the GOP and the conservative movement. In The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama (review here). Will Bunch recounts how establishment Republicans went to great lengths not only to distance themselves from the John Birch Society, but actively undermined it. Bunch says the reason why the movement failed to reach a wider public
because mainstream Republican politicians turned against them, even though the party was at low ebb in the Kennedy-Johnson years. Barry Goldwater, the leader of the so-called New Right movement who won the G.O.P. presidential nomination in 1964, did have considerable support from the Birchers, yet not only did he not embrace them but secretly authorized the intellectual leader of 1960s conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., and his National Review to go after the organization, successfully marginalizing it and helping to keep its Richard Hofstadter-described paranoid style in the shadows, even as that decade grew more tumultuous.
Another example of a species once fairly common–the responsible conservative–comes from the re-issue of Robert Nisbet's The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (originally published 1953). Alan Wolfe gives a largely critical although not entirely unsympathetic review of Nisbet's most important work. Wolfe concedes that Nisbet would have had no patience for current GOP indulgence in populist vitriol.
The alienated, the frustrated, the paranoid, the neurotic: for Nisbet, they were the stuff of the modern condition. But for the leaders of today’s Republican Party, angry mobs susceptible to demagogic manipulation—as so many of the adherents of the Tea Party can be pithily described–are to be praised for their wisdom and virtue. Nisbet has read too much Tocqueville to ever fall for that nonsense. Not only does his thinking fall into a European rather than an American tradition, he is at heart also an elitist—in the best, that is to say the Arnoldian, sense of the term. For today’s Republicans, the best that has been said and thought in the world has been said and thought by Joe the Plumber.
To act like an adult in the public sphere would require, among other things, to take seriously the proposition that the government has a role in improving the lives of its citizens, that however paradoxical it may sound, a vital national government is critical to ensuring individual freedom. This proposition is rejected out of hand, without debate, by the the anti-government nihilists and power-hungry charlatans who currently dominate the Republican Party. With responsibility and accountability in the public sphere, there's no telling what course partisanship will take, but it probably won't be good for any of us.