The GOP in Limbo: How Low Can You Go?

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Sioux Center, Iowa.    The Republican Party managed to accomplish three amazing things last week, in the course of two debates and one election.  It revealed a bloodlust that easily trumps concern for personal character and social morality.  It scorned a fundamental teaching of Jesus Christ.  It showed that the only thing that really matters to the party is the perceived ability to beat Barack Obama in the November election.  At least those were the messages sent by South Carolina Republicans.  Not by all, but by many if not most.  We can hope they are unrepresentative of the party as a whole.

The South Carolina primary was on the eve of National Sanctity of Human Life Day, commemorating the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.  Ron Paul is the only pro-life candidate running for president this year.  Mitt Romney’s flip-flops on the issue of abortion are common knowledge.  Newt Gingrich had an anti-abortion voting record in the House, but, like Romney, his roots are in the pro-abortion Nelson Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party in the 1960s and he was considered a liberal Republican as late as the mid 1970s.  There’s no reason to believe he cares about the social evil of abortion any more than did Dick Cheney during his eight years as the power behind the George II throne—which is to say, not at all.  (If he’s elected, we can be certain it’s all pretense when Mrs. Gingrich reveals in an interview that she’s pro-choice.  That’s the way powerful Republicans send the requisite mixed signals regarding Roe.)

Rick Santorum is sincere in his anti-abortion stance, but he’s not pro-life.  He’s pro-death on most issues involving the sanctity of life, most notably war.  His embrace of the bipartisan American Empire, his fealty to the military-industrial complex, and his hatred of Muslims and/or his willingness to cater to the Likud lobby (as a Roman Catholic rather than an evangelical Protestant, his Israel First foreign policy is probably motivated more by politics than theology) add up to an enthusiasm for war which trumps his opposition to abortion.  Protecting unborn American life is important to him.  Protecting Iraqi life, Afghani life, Iranian life (born and unborn) . . . not so much.  Santorum is a good Catholic except when he declines to follow the church in its Just War teachings.  Then he becomes a cafeteria Catholic.

I have a soft spot for Santorum up to a point.  I like much of what he says on the campaign trail when it comes to domestic policy, including moral issues and blue-collar economics.  He brings strong logic to issues that are often clouded by mushy-headed sentiments.  He agrees with Ron Paul in his criticism of the NDAA provision allowing for unlimited imprisonment of U.S.citizens accused of aiding terrorism.  But then there’s foreign policy.  Santorum goes off the rails with a crazy foreign policy that tries to out-do George W. Bush’s Wilsonian liberalism.  It’s hyper-militarism and hyper-imperialism, gilded with God-talk.  It’s the same old s*** we’ve had for seven decades: what C. Wright Mills termed crackpot realism.  Ron Paul knows it can’t last.  The trajectory of empires is pretty standard.  We’re overextended and going broke.  We’re crumbling at home.  We’re morally bankrupt.  But, as one front man among many for the crackpot realists who administer our foreign policy, Santorum condescendingly smirks and shakes his hand while Paul tells the truth during debates.  Santorum’s thoroughly conventional and wrongheaded foreign policy eliminated any chance that I could support him for president in 2012.

Most of the audience at the Fox debate who cheered the Gingrich-Romney-Santorum glorification of killing and booed Paul’s call for a foreign policy based on the golden rule of Christ are “good Christians,” which says a lot about the debased nature of Christianity in the United States today.  It also helps us understand how the pious Pharisees stirred up the mob to cry “Crucify Him!” when Pilate inquired about the relative merits of Jesus and Barabbas.  Sanctimony is not sanctification.  In moments such as these, the Southern Baptists (and others) in South Carolina are far better Americans (in the corrupt, imperial sense of the word) than they are Christians.  They may be Christians in a personal, ticket-to-Heaven sense, but they are far removed from Christianity as preached and practiced by Christ.  To hear their hooting and see their high-fiveing, one would think that Jesus said, “Blessed are the war makers.”  He did not.

Yes, the crowd actually booed the golden rule of Jesus Christ.  You could argue they were booing Ron Paul, but it was Paul’s proposal that U.S.foreign policy be guided by the golden rule that elicited the booing.  The apostle Paul, archangel Michael, or Jesus himself could have been on the stage and they would have gotten the same reaction.  It was the message, not the messenger, that outraged the audience.  The crowd reaction to the militaristic, hateful pandering of a group of  chicken hawks was shameful in the extreme.  Sadly, it’s the norm for purportedly Bible-believing Christians so it barely raised an eyebrow.

There’s something inherently vile and violent about Fox News Channel so perhaps the tone of that debate should not surprise.  Rebutting Paul, Gingrich claimed to have “a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.”  (APPLAUSE)  I don’t remember that line in my Red Letter edition of the New Testament.  Maybe it’s in the Red Meat for Red States version.  Actually, Gingrich was trying to channel Jackson, not Jesus.  Ever the panderer, Gingrich claimed the mantle of the Carolina native, but Paul is a closer equivalent to the seventh president. Jackson was a Jeffersonian, a populist, a constitutionalist, an enemy of central banking, a proponent of balanced budgets, a man who loved his one wife, and a nationalist and military veteran who initiated no foreign wars.  Gingrich is closer to Jackson’s opponent Henry Clay—a plutocratic, wheeling-dealing, big-government politician.  Obviously, figures like Andrew Jackson and Ron Paul are imperfect.  They have sins, blind spots, and shortcomings.  Still, they represent something important and often-neglected.

The compromising and mendacious leaders of the Religious Right are one thing (think Ralph Reed).  The rank-and-file who sit in the pew are another.  Laurence Vance and Bill Anderson over at do their best to coax fellow evangelicals into a more biblical and rational approach to politics, but such voices seem to have little effect.  I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no group more naive in U.S. politics than Christians.  The more sincere the Christian, the more naive.  This is true for whites and blacks, evangelicals and modernists, charismatics and fundamentalists, Protestants and Catholics.  It doesn’t matter.  Committed Christians did not enter politics in an organized, self-conscious way until the 1970s and our inexperience shows.  Our gullibility is gigantic.  Both major parties take their most loyal voters—white Christians for the Republicans and black Christians for the Democrats—for granted because their votes can always be counted on, regardless of how little policy action they receive in return. The parties actively court and repay swing voters, not the loyal base.  Just as black Democrats are lucky to get a few crumbs from the table of power under a Democratic president, evangelical Republicans receive promises on the campaign trail and are then ignored for the next four years when a Republican is in the White House.

If we want to understand how politics and government really work, we need to stop listening to the flattery of politicians who want our vote and instead read Machiavelli.  In The Prince, he describes how power really works.  Nothing much has changed during the past 500 years because human nature has not changed.  Jesus told his disciples that he was sending them out like sheep in the midst of wolves so they should be “as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents.”  In other words, morally pure but politically savvy.  Today, most politically-engaged Christians are the exact opposite: worldly but naive, spiritually compromised yet politically gullible.  It’s the worst possible combination.

I like aspects of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left but both tend to place their faith in faithless politicians who cynically exploit our idealism, make promises they have no intention of keeping, and take Christian support for granted because they know true believers won’t vote for the other party—no matter how disappointed they become—because the other party has been successfully demonized.  It’s the boogeyman approach.  Vote Republican or the Democrats will get you!  And vice versa.  Last week, 78,000 South Carolinians (Christian and not) rose above the politics-as-usual theater of illusion.  They recognized quality, and an echo of God’s truth, in Ron Paul.  That’s something.  But not enough to win an election.

Let’s turn to the winner of the latest election.  The new darling of the Religious Right is the thrice-married bloviator and million-dollar Freddie Mac historian Newt Gingrich.  An unlikely pairing in some ways, but quite likely in others.

Gingrich is a bully.  Someone needs to give him a smackdown in the upcoming debates—fair but firm.  The equivalent of the excoriation Christ gave to the Pharisees, or, to take a less divine but more recent example, the hard-hitting “serial hypocrite” ad used by the Paul campaign to deflate Gingrich in Iowa.  Romney is too much of a milquetoast to do it.  Despite his passionate views, Paul is too much of a gentleman to aggressively go after an opponent in person.  Santorum could do it.  He’s a bit of an a-hole and bully himself—this likeability deficit accounts for part of his campaign’s weakness—but he may not be around too much longer since he couldn’t place higher than a distant third in S.C.  Also, Santorum’s own background as a lobbyist for crony capitalism and as a compromising politician make him vulnerable to push-back by Gingrich.  (It’s a common problem for candidates, most of whom live in very glassy houses.)  Mainstream journalists take their beating from Gingrich with little more than a peep, partly because the weak often envy the strong.  So who will hold Gingrich accountable and pop his bubble of self-aggrandizing deceit?

Exploiting the unfocused rage held by Republicans against the mainstream media, which is seen as being in the corner of the hated Obama, Gingrich has given the media talking heads repeated pokes in the eye during the debates.  Gingrich does it with ease and it has yielded rich dividends in cheers and votes.  But it’s contentless.  It neglects to mention that the ostensibly “liberal” media has never met a war it hasn’t liked and that it shares the foundational economic and foreign policies of every Republican president.  It ignores Fox News’ comparable propaganda and manipulation on behalf of the Republican establishment.  It also overlooks the fact that Gingrich, as president, would not be much different from Obama (based on his record).  So we have the opportunity to exchange Pepsi for Coke.  That tiny difference is enough to get many Republicans worked into a frenzy.  They can see Romney’s centrist opportunism for what it is.  They can’t see the presence of the exact same thing in Gingrich because he speaks conservative platitudes with such force and bashes Obama and his media friends with such aplomb.  It’s all style, no substance.  Just like Obama.  Ironically enough.  (If GOP voters really want to stick it to the corporate press, they should vote for Congressman Paul, who is ignored/ridiculed/attacked by the entire lot, from MSNBC to Fox, from AP to CBS.)

Gingrich is a master of righteous indignation although he’s far better at being indignant than being righteous.  Like his political twin Bill Clinton, Gingrich is a good liar because he’s shameless.  There are few politicians who can lie with more vigor.  It’s a trait that convinces the clueless.  Clinton is a more likeable man from a distance—a charming scoundrel while Gingrich is more easily recognized as an egomaniacal blowhard—but I think both are sociopaths.  Sociopathy (a.k.a. psychopathy) is labeled Antisocial Personality Disorder by the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM.  Its pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others reminds me of both Clinton and Gingrich: failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors; deceitfulness; impulsivity or failure to plan ahead; irritability and aggressiveness; reckless disregard for the safety of self or others; consistent irresponsibility; and lack of remorse.

Gingrich is a dangerous man.  I have little respect for Romney, but, on a personal level, he’s a doofus at worst.  Gingrich is in a whole different category, which is why he makes the GOP establishment nervous.  They have no policy differences with him, and they recognize that his anti-Bain rhetoric is just demagoguery, but they know that the reckless Gingrich could self-destruct at any moment, bringing a rockslide down on himself and, by extension, closing the path by which they can return to power.  This explains the wariness of Karl Rove, the elected party hacks, and their ilk.  It’s not about principle.

What would Gingrich do as president?  Anything is possible.  We can be confident it would be neither conservative nor Christian (as defined by Kirk and Christ, respectively).  He might well wreak havoc on a national scale like his heroes Wilson and FDR or perhaps on a global scale like Hitler (a fellow intellectual with a gravely-deficient moral compass).  I hesitate to mention Hitler because it’s such an over-the-top comparison—although casually used by establishment figures to describe every fourth-rate dictator who has the misfortune of transitioning from useful-ally to new-enemy of the U.S. government—but it has some relevance here.  Gingrich and other power elitists describe Paul’s foreign policy as “dangerous” because he favors defense at home and peace abroad.  To me, it’s far more dangerous when unbridled arrogance and ambition are combined with immense power.  That is what you would have with President Gingrich.  When you’re convinced that you’re the smartest person in the room and that you’re not subject to the rules that apply to others, you embody great danger.

Gingrich is in a position to say anything and everything.  When you’re not constrained by truth or conscience, all bets are off.  Nothing is too absurd.  This is why the debate crowds gave him standing ovations. Watching his performance in crushing John King’s opening question at the CNN debate, fueled by fake outrage, and watching the audience’s pavlovian response, was surreal.  Both elements seemed staged in some way—not only Gingrich’s theatrics but also the crowd’s hysterical enthusiasm.  It reminded me of Orwell’s two minutes hate and the final episode of The Prisoner.  Wild emotion which seemed to stop as quickly as it started.  Strange.  Gingrich is a serial adulterer but South Carolina Republicans don’t care.  He gets a pass because he feigns conversion and notes that he’s a grandfather.  It’s all very convenient.

Dear Religious Right, From here on out, please spare us the prattle about family values and the unborn. Just as Gingrich’s fellow draft-dodger Dick Cheney had “other priorities” that precluded a stint in the jungles of Vietnam, you have other priorities when it comes to politics.  Dobson and Bauer have endorsed Rick Santorum, for the time being, but when Santorum drops out, is there is any reason to think that the grand poobahs of Republican evangelicalism won’t endorse Newt Gingrich over Ron Paul?  If Gingrich flops, eventually they’ll end up supporting Romney over Paul.  Paul is too dangerous.  He’s been married to the same woman for over half-a-century, he sincerely opposes Roe v. Wade, he supports the Defense of Marriage Act, and he’s the only evangelical Christian still in the race.  But he’s pro-peace!  That’s the unpardonable sin for this group of Christians.

Don’t forget the example of Pat Robertson.  I’m thinking of Robertson’s classic endorsement of Rudolph Giuliani in 2008.  That’s the very same pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality, pro-womanizing Giuliani.  Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  The treasure of such Christians is not found in sanctity of life or upholding of marriage.  It’s found in the idolatrous doctrine of American exceptionalism with its attendant saber-rattling, blood-letting, and Israel-fawning.  With a dash of old-fashioned Republican power-mongering thrown in for bad measure (“electability”).  Rudy and Newt warm such hearts.  Ron does not.

Gingrich is a convert.  All is forgiven.  Or so he says.  I don’t believe Gingrich’s conversion-to-God story.  He doesn’t bear the marks of repentance.  First and foremost, and most obviously, he’s stuffed full of pride.  Pride is the original sin, the very sin of Lucifer that pre-dates the fall of Adam.  With Gingrich, there’s no recognizable humility, no meekness of spirit, no sense of common humanity.  Instead, there’s a continued and continuous display of braggadocio, coupled with dishonesty and thuggishness.  A failed professor (denied tenure) and failed leader of the House (forced out of office when caught committing adultery with a young staffer and when his GOP colleagues tired of his self-promoting/party-injuring shtick), Gingrich retains his inflated self-image.  Impervious to reality and possessing the snake oil salesman’s ability to convince the simple, he routinely compares himself to Churchill and other iconic figures.  He is sure he has a rendezvous with destiny as the transformative agent of our age.  We often deceive ourselves before we deceive others.

Maybe Newt Gingrich has convinced himself that God has now tapped him to lead the world, but I suspect he sees his true god each time he looks into the mirror.  (I’ll admit this may be uncharitable of me but I’ll own my suspicion.)  It reminds me of the religion of Obama, who defines sin as “Being out of alignment with my values.”  There’s a self-absorbed messiah complex discernible with both Obama and Gingrich.  Maybe Gingrich’s proposal for a series of seven three-hour “Lincoln-Douglas debates” between himself and Obama isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.  As narcissists who enjoy the sound of their own voice and the look of their own pose, both might be willing to inflict such pain on the rest of us.

When I went to bed at the end of South Carolina primary day, I was depressed.  I wondered, with Jeremiah, “Why do the wicked prosper?”  Of course, the answer is no secret.  It is as old as Paradise Lost.  If Christians are going to participate in politics, we should not only pray the Lord’s prayer but mean it.  We should avoid temptations concocted by the unscrupulous, ameliorate the effects of sin, and practice Kingdom principles on earth.  If we’re not up to the challenge, let’s stick to our pews and prayer closets—and stay away from debates and voting booths.

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