In the current era of economic hardship and political polarity, the ground has been fertile for various messiah figures to enter the scene in the form of politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals -- some warning of tyranny and promising to protect American freedom. With the next presidential campaign season coming to the fore, one prominent figure who has already taken up this mantle is Newt Gingrich. Gingrich has begun to explore the possibility of a presidential run. Fortuitously, if Gingrich does indeed declare his candidacy, we'll already have a blueprint for his campaign available, which he published last year as a direct challenge to Barack Obama.
In To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine Gingrich does not mince words. In 356 pages he gives his reader an explicit warning of the coming oppressive tide if Obama remains in office. Taxes will mount, government will bloat, and religion will be banished from the public square. Gingrich writes that there is no other way to describe the American left than as a "secular-socialist machine," dead-set on expropriating all that remains of individual liberty. By this account, more and more decisions will soon be made for us by dispassionate state bureaucrats who are paid with ever increasing taxes imposed against the people's will. "The most disturbing aspect of President Obama's first year in office [was] the machine's brazen willingness to use the power of the state to coerce and intimidate his opponents while rewarding his political allies," he writes.
Mr. Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House often credited with the GOP's 1994 resurgence, has maintained an active involvement in national politics since he left Congress in 1998. He is an established Washington intellectual with close ties to such esteemed establishments as the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution. Many conservatives consider him a cerebral voice in their movement, capable of reasoned and refined discourse, and with a wealth of ideas to address wasteful, inefficient government and enhance free enterprise.
Unfortunately, against this venerable backdrop, To Save America will likely land with a thud on most non-captive audiences. While reading this book, it becomes obvious that it is not meant for stringent intellectual consumption. Most of what can be gleaned policy-wise is standard fare along the lines of Reagan-era boilerplate conservatism: lower taxes, cut government programs, bolster the military. More pertinent is Gingrich's indulgent use of the shrilly exaggerated freedom-in-the-face-of-oppression rhetoric one would expect more from a radio shock jock than a statesman.
Perhaps conditions on the ground forced his hand. The most receptive audience for conservative authors these days are readers sympathetic to the Tea Party movement, a dispersed group of predominantly white middle-class Christians (according to a widely circulated New York Times/CBS News poll) who invoke the American Revolutionary period to equate any form of taxation or government intervention with a despotic requisition of personal liberty. Gingrich laces the tyranny-through-taxation specter throughout his book in order to paint everything from health care legislation to climate change mitigation as nothing but an added expense with no real benefits. Inherent in his argument is the removal of all historical context. There is no mention to his readers that taxes are in fact the lowest they've been since Harry Truman was in office, or that the man to whom most acrimony is directed -- Barack Obama -- made it one of his first orders of business to pass one of the largest tax cuts in American history (and extended his predecessor's cuts in December 2010, thus proving the predictions made on that front in To Save America wrong).
The other side of Gingrich's dictatorship diptych deals with social issues -- namely religion. The secular and the socialist in "secular-socialist machine" are mutually inextricable, and it is the left's supposed onslaught against religion that establishes the framework wherein despotic abuse will be doled out. Without the slightest hint of irony, Gingrich equates secularism to an "egocentric worldview", writing, "[Secular elites] believe religious expression should be private, marginal, and irrelevant. It's okay to be religious as long as religion has no meaning. It's fine to be vaguely spiritual as long as you don't try to translate it into some kind of historic religion, especially Christianity."
When reading To Save America, one cannot help but suspect Gingrich isn't really defending religious freedom per se, but rather Christian privilege. Moreover, most all his claims about the left's resurgent secularism are debunked by the observable reality. Like his predecessors, Barack Obama concludes all public addresses with the rote "God bless America" evocation and has ended Oval Office addresses with a call for prayer. Early in his tenure he revamped Bush era faith-based initiatives with a new executive office: the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, headed by Pentecostal pastor Joshua DuBois.
This foggy lens hovers over most of the book. As such, To Save America is not the work of a scholar, but of a partisan intent on rallying an already well-off portion of the electorate by convincing them they're oppressed. It behooves readers to recognize the non sequitur in play when any form of taxation, bureaucracy, deficit spending, social welfare/entitlement program, or measure that upholds the separation of church and state is described as the act of a "dictator." There is a large hole in that argument, forcing Gingrich to retreat into speculation and contrived historicism to fill the gap.
He substantiates his absolutist connection between central authority and dictatorship by citing a work of fiction: democratic socialist author George Orwell's 1984. (Orwell would later explain to a critic that his famed novel should be read as satire, writing, "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe that something resembling it could arrive.")
As such, much of Gingrich's message comes off as sullied by exaggerated absolutism, partisan talking points, and surprisingly unsophisticated arguments for the role of god in society (he writes that secularists' lack of a Ten Commandments leaves them liable to do anything). Tragically, there are exigent issue areas where he has sterling credibility and could effectuate meaningful reforms, such as in cutting wasteful spending and increasing efficiency in government, and improving education. But even in these instances, he often falls prey to politics rather than levelheadedness.
For example, Gingrich's crusade against spending is selective, applying to welfare programs and safety nets, but not to an unnecessarily extravagant military (or to government funded faith based initiatives for that matter). He links the Obama administration to 1984, and yet he has labeled Julian Assange an "enemy combatant" who should be imprisoned for life for publishing cables leaked to him by others. He also accuses the Obama administration of being too wedded to giant corporations -- and he is completely right -- but his attempt to put special interest favoritism solely on one party or politician comes off as frivolous. He decries the unconstitutionality of the health care reform package's individual mandate, and yet just a few short years ago he proposed a similar idea himself. These are some but not all of the instances where Gingrich's substance suffers at the hands of his bombast.
Ultimately, Gingrich's To Save America ends up being a smattering of blasé partisanship bedizened in absurd apocalypticism. He is not wrong to posit that oppression still exists in America; he's simply wrong about who sees the brunt of it. Freedom is an inclusive, All American brand. But this text's rhetoric seems aimed at exploiting the prideful, possessive claim of many Americans that their specific version of god is the fons et origo for that freedom. If the "Creator" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is the god of the New Testament, as this author would insist, then the implication is that followers of his particular faith are somehow freer than the rest (never mind the fact that the actual U.S. Constitution reads "We the People" and never makes any mention of a god or creator).
More often than not the notion of tyranny depicted by Newt Gingrich is incidentally anything that would erode the leveraged privilege furnished to those who share his socio-ethnic-religious standing. If this author is a freedom fighter, then a George Carlin quip may best describe him: "If crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that part to us, do they?"
An extended version of this piece appears in the current issue of Free Inquiry.