The former speaker dispenses “the politics of rage for the Viagra set”—and brings Sheldon Adelson’s brand of Israeli rightism to American politics.
By Scott McConnell | January 30, 2011
I’ve never seen debates produce such a surge in the polls as followed Newt Gingrich’s performances in South Carolina. A surge triggered not by an event—a new war, a murder, an arrest, a scandal, some news somewhere. Merely by words, delivered on stage before TV cameras. Not even very many words. A contemptuous “Let me tell you, Juan” dismissal of Juan Williams’s question about whether it was coded race-baiting to refer repeatedly to Barack Obama as a “food stamp president.” Three evenings later, a retort to CNN’s John King for asking about the charges his ex-wife was making on ABC that very day. The question, said Gingrich, was “As close to detestable as anything I could imagine.” Applause in the studio audience was instantaneous. The New York Times blogger and political statistician Nate Silver later called Gingrich’s rise over Romney in the run-up to South Carolina “one of the most shocking reversals of momentum ever in a presidential primary.” Down by double digits, Gingrich, cruised to a 14- point South Carolina victory—a jump was mirrored in the national polls.
Romney braced and righted himself and flooded Florida with anti-Gingrich commercials, while the Republican commentariat rallied to him. At this writing, it seems unlikely that Gingrich could rise, for what would be the third time, to the top of the GOP polls. But for several days it did indeed seem possible that the former speaker, running as tribune for bundles of conservative resentment, could capture the nomination and, if things broke the right way, win the presidency.
Inevitably fascism comparisons sprung to mind. The hyper-aggressive quality of Gingrich’s rhetoric can’t help but invite them. As long ago as 1990 he produced a memo for Republican congressmen on what words to use in talking about Democrats: “betray”, “bizarre,” “decay,” “pathetic,” “lie,” “anti-family,” “cheat,” “radical,” “sick,” “traitor,” topped the list. Such words are still part of the Gingrich repertoire (except, perhaps for obvious reasons, “anti-family”).
But the Gingrich phenomenon lacks most of the essential qualities of a quasi-fascist or hard right-wing authoritarian movement. Behind him is little sign of mass organization—indeed a curiosity of Gingrich’s campaign is that no advisor besides his wife Callista is ever cited. More critically, there is no youth: the large Gingrich crowds in Florida are old and white. Fascism in its epoch, or indeed any movement which might evoke the comparison today, is able to convey an aura of energy, youth, vitality and struggle. Gingrich serves up a politics of rage for the Viagra set. If their chosen knight is to storm the bastions of “Saul Alinsky radicalism” emanating from the White House, Newt’s fans will watch on TV. Gingrich’s followers hunger to see Newt tear down the “Kenyan anti-colonial” candidate. Like Gingrich, they see Obama as the perpetrator of “a wonder con, [the] result of which he is now president.” They have no doubt that if engaged in a lengthy series of “Lincoln-Douglas debates” Obama, even if “allowed to use a teleprompter,” would be exposed as an affirmative-action fraud. But Newt’s crowd won’t be marching with torch lights to bring this about. As one more than one observer has noted, Gingrich’s campaign was really more a version of right-wing performance art than the real thing.
But if Gingrich is not a throwback to a European style anti-democratic right, his campaign does bring something quite new to American politics. There may be little in the way of a Gingrich movement, not much grassroots organization, few endorsements by major GOP figures. But Newt has one major backer. That is Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, one of the world’s richest men, who seems to have single-handedly resurrected Gingrich’s career. Adelson has close ties to the Israeli right and settler movement and has financed the distribution of anti-Muslim films in this country. He is an American citizen, but would probably be the last person to deny that his deepest loyalties lie in Israel.
Adelson has known Gingrich since the 1990s but became Newt’s major backer in 2006, when he seeded one of Newt’s early PAC’s, American Solutions for Winning our Future, with a million dollars. Over the next four years he contributed $7.65 million to it, where it served as a springboard for Gingrich to explore presidential runs in 2008 and 2012. Adelson’s $5 million injection to Newt’s current super PAC, “Winning our Future,” paid for a barrage of negative ads against Romney in South Carolina. After the primary victory, Adelson’s wife Miriam reportedly pumped another $5 million into the super PAC, allowing Gingrich to continue his campaign in Florida. The Washington Post recently reported that Winning our Future is now building a campaign infrastructure of phone banks and field directors in states where Gingrich still has a marginal presence—a kind of “shadow campaign” to compensate for the weakness of the real one. It may be fair to say that without the Adelsons, Newt Gingrich wouldn’t have a presidential campaign at all.
What have they purchased by supporting Gingrich? In the most direct sense, they have bought a vector for bringing the perspectives of the Israeli far right into the American presidential debate. Before receiving Adelson money, Gingrich was a relative moderate on Israel-Palestine. Wayne Barrett, whose recent article in the Daily Beast chronicles the shift, noted that Gingrich was sharply critical of Israeli land-grabbing in the West Bank as recently as 2005. I saw Gingrich speak at a Muslim Republican event in (I think) 2004 and was struck by his enthusiasm and eloquence in depicting how a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank could become prosperous.
The Adelson-financed candidate now sings a very different tune. He spent much of 2010 as an anti-Muslim circuit rider, warning that stealth Sharia threatened the US Constitution. Even major pro-Israel neocons thought the charge ridiculous. This December, he claimed that the Palestinians are “an invented people”—an insulting assertion which would have stunned the many nations, diplomats, and international bodies which have grappled since the Balfour Declaration with the question how Zionism and Palestinian rights could be reconciled. Shortly after Gingrich made the noxious claim, Adelson backed him up.
Adelson is a major player on the far right of Israeli politics. He owns one of Israel’s major newspapers, known for intense and shrill support of Netanyahu. He was a major supporter of AIPAC, until he thought the group overly amenable towards negotiations that might lead to a Palestinian state. He opposes the peace process and any effort to limit Israeli settlements on the occupied territories. He supports an attack upon Iran. The Adelson funded Institute for Stategic Studies held a conference of Iranian dissidents in 2007. Some speakers were not as eager as Adelson to see Iran bombed. Adelson dismissed one participant (the son of the late Shah) because “he doesn’t want to attack Iran.” He touted the views of another Iranian, who said the Iranian people would welcome an attack. Adelson added, “I don’t care what happens to Iran. I am for Israel.”
In the past weeks, several bloggers have come under attack by the Israel lobby blogosphere for using the term “Israel Firster,” and the term has even been deemed anti-Semitic. One wonders what word would be appropriate to describe Sheldon Adelson. Michael Isikoff recently did a piece for MSNBC about Gingrich’s patron. In a video uncovered by Isikoff, Adelson, speaking to an Israel army group said, “ I am not Israeli. The uniform I wore in the military, unfortunately, was not an Israeli uniform. It was an American uniform, although my wife was in the IDF and one of my daughters was in the IDF. Our two little boys, one of whom will be bar mitzvahed tomorrow… hopefully he’ll come back [to Israel]—his hobby is shooting. And he’ll come back and be a sniper for the IDF… All we care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel, because even though I am not Israeli born, Israel is in my heart.”
Make what you will of Adelson’s beliefs. They are commonplace enough. Their significance here is in what they say about Newt Gingrich’s campaign. The man who has been running around the country for years on Adelson’s private jets, warning about the threat of Sharia and talking about the president as an alien is now essentially mouthpiece for a bellicose foreign nationalism. His campaign stands at the nexus of the Israeli right and the American conservative movement and thus represents something quite new in American presidential politics. The current Israeli government wants American backing for a war against Iran, a war it cannot wage by itself. It seeks to terminate international pressure to find a fair accommodation with the Palestinians. The American security establishment (under both Bush and Obama) opposes a war on Iran and wants the Israeli-Palestine problem solved. Gingrich has become the Israeli right’s principle (though not sole) lever to overturn the American consensus and replace it with one more to Netanyahu’s liking.
Obama and Romney both pander to the Israel lobby, though neither can be said to be creatures of it. Gingrich, by contrast owes the very existence of his campaign to the lobby’s rightmost wing. Here then a question for Newt “as a historian”: when before in American history has a major presidential candidate been so closely tied to the nationalistic aspirations of a foreign power? Some might point to Henry Wallace’s Communist Party infiltrated campaign of 1948, though once severed from FDR Wallace was a fairly marginal figure. Others could point to the German–American Bund, though it did not have much sway with either major party in the 1930s. In his current campaign, Gingrich would seem to be breaking into completely new territory.
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.