I remember my first attempt at a web page back in late 1994. It was mostly just an excuse and an exercise to learn some HTML. The term ‘blog’ had yet to be coined, but one does have to write something between the angle-brackets, so I drafted some little essay about Newt Gingrich (who had just won the Speaker’s gavel) and the trends I was seeing: Carving up the country, and selling the pieces off to his friends. Every man a little Suburban Jefferson, secure in his gated property, with nothing but commerce and information flowing across his sacred property lines. And so on (those words are from memory, but not too far off– you can perhaps tell that I’d just read Snow Crash the month before). The page itself, which I never really updated again, is of course long gone.
At the time, I sounded perhaps a bit hysterical– those around me certainly thought so. But in hindsight, the early-to-mid 1990s do seem to have been the era in which radical Libertarianism, Objectivism, and Techno-optimism collided with the early Internet culture (early WiReD and Mondo2000 were in their prime, remember), cross-bred with the more prosaic strains of “I got mine” Conservatism, and hatched the multi-headed Hydra that we now recognize as the modern GOP. Once Fox News was born in 1996 to simultaneously define, sharpen, amplify and aggressively broadcast this mindset, the current state of American “political conversation” was probably inevitable.
The year 1994 was also the first time I had ever heard of Mitt Romney, as that was the year he essentially tried to purchase Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat (running as a liberal Republican no less… how quaint). There was still a liberal wing to the GOP at that time: I even got to vote for MA Gov. Bill Weld’s re-election that year. My first, last, and (most likely) only vote for a Republican candidate in my lifetime. By the end of the 1990s, it was already clear that the liberal wing of the GOP would soon be extinct, even as Pres. Clinton showed us that it was the DLC mindset, and not Progressivism, that would be in charge of the Democratic party for the near future. Gingrich had flamed out and resigned in disgrace by 1998. Romney went off to Utah to run the 2002 Olympics, though it was rumored even then that he’d be back in Massachusetts to run for Governor eventually. Y2K came and went, then GWB and 9/11 ushered in the next phase of US History.
Now, fast forward 17 years.
There’s a Black Democrat named “Barack Obama” in the White House. Romney denies ever having been a liberal Republican. And, to my horror, Newt Gingrich just might end up being the GOP nominee next year. He obviously feels comfortable enough to go after Romney’s history at Bain capital (via TPM):
“I would just say that if Gov. Romney would like to give back all of the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, that I would be glad to listen to him,” Gingrich told reporters in New Hampshire after a town hall. “I’ll bet you $10, not $10,000, that he won’t take the offer,” he continued.
While a Republican bemoaning massive layoffs in the name of profit does seem, shall we say, “unusual”, it’s an interesting shift in tone. Not really sure how this helps Newt in a general election matchup against Obama, but his history with Bain is Romney’s Achilles’ Heel in this newly neo-populist era (some would say pseudo-populist, but IMO the proverbial jury’s still out on this issue). I had hoped that the Democrats would have had the sense to use this tactic against Romney: Now it looks like they may not even get the chance. Newt it is.
But it’s a new Newt: In 1994, Gingrich seemed like the nasty leading edge of an inevitable wave of techno-conservatism (for lack of a better term). Fortunes were about to be made, virtual worlds were being created (with otherwise serious people were talking openly about this), and nobody who mattered wanted government to interfere with any of it. Just roll up your sleeves, create some value, sell to the highest bidder and cash out, dude! WTF are you waiting for!? Ah, good times.
But this is a new Gingrich, crafted for a much less optimistic, much more angry age: Having since converted to a particularly aggressive strain of Open Dei Catholicism –literally baptized into the evangelical mindset– he’s come back to us newly formed, the anointed Avatar of Elder White Rage, ready to “cleanse” the White House of… well, what, exactly?
All this talk, all this media, all these debates, and I still have no real clue what it is these folks are so angry about. I don’t think that they really know, themselves. All they know is that they want their regularly scheduled Apocalypse to arrive, as promised, and they want it now. And they don’t care who has to suffer or die to make that happen.
Andrew Sullivan, in a post which also includes the word “cleanse”, actually seems to get this:
Every day, it seems, the tectonic plates of our world shift. And what I see in Gingrich is the relentless rise of fundamentalism as the overwhelming threat to liberal democracy and world peace.
I’ve been certain for some time that we’re in a kind of “memetic war” to see if we get to keep the Enlightment or not. Maybe as a conservative Catholic himself, Sullivan can recognize this in a way a lot of liberals still can’t.
It’s a big fight coming. Be ready.