Up until now, the Republican presidential primaries have been largely an exercise in the ludicrous, but with Newt Gingrich’s win in South Carolina, the prospects are ominous that they are about to turn ugly. Signs of such appeared in the first of the two South Carolina debates. When Juan Williams, an African-American who is not exactly renowned for being a liberal, tried to query Mr. Gingrich about whether some of his comments were demeaning to black people, the audience jeered Williams so loudly he could hardly finish his question. And when Gingrich flippantly replied — acknowledging his answer would not be “politically correct” — the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
This exchange followed on the heels of Gingrich’s comment about poor children who lack a work ethic and who should be put to work as public school janitors. If one asks, borrowing a refrain from Tina Turner, what’s race got to do with it, only the tin-eared could fail to hear echoes of the Southern strategy that Republicans pursued beginning in the 1968 presidential election, in which candidates for the nation’s highest public office have used all sorts of code words and phrases to talk about black Americans in ways that would appeal to the worst instincts of white voters.
Nixon did it in '68 with his mantra about crime in the streets and “law 'n order”; Reagan did it in 1976 with his repeated references to a fictitious “welfare queen” who allegedly drove her Cadillac to the social service agency to pick up her public assistance check; and Bush the Elder did so with his infamous Willie Horton ads during the 1988 campaign.
The coded-word, campaign conversation of the past half-century may be considered an improvement over the earlier, conventional Southern penchant for simply shouting the N-word at election time, knowing its political, Pavlovian effect would do the rest. Most of us, including most enlightened Southerners, would like to think we’re beyond such; this, after all, is the 21st century. But as the French are fond of saying: the more the change, the more things remain the same. And so Mr. Gingrich — an unabashed and unrepentant Southerner — is likely to do his best to stuff the political conversation of this election year with all sorts of intellectually clever — something he prides himself on being — but ill-concealed racial references, with which he hopes to prevail in the Republican national convention in Tampa and then march straight into the White House in November.
Mr. Gingrich gets some of his pseudo-intellectualism and his racial fodder from an odd source. Not quite two years ago, he accused President Barack Obama of being endowed with a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview — an obvious swipe at the President’s father (and an outlandish observation on the face of it, as though any sensible person these days would have nice things to say about colonialism). Gingrich made this observation while commenting on an article by Dinesh D’Souza, an émigré from Bombay who arrived in this country at age 17 and proceeded to make himself a self-anointed expert on America’s racial problems in general and on black Americans in particular.
In the article which Gingrich approvingly takes note of (according to Charles Blow in the New York Times, Gingrich called it the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama”), D’Souza states:
Our president is trapped in his father’s time machine. Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anti-colonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.
This is a taste of what we are likely to be bombarded with for the rest of this winter and spring. We can only pray it doesn’t last into the summer and fall — and beyond.