Republicans Look Backward to Gingrich, Secession, and Socialism

Republicans seem caught in some sort of political time warp.

By + More

Time travel is a staple of science fiction, with the protagonists often getting lost in time or inadvertently bringing historical figures to the present.

I have been reminded of the dramatic time-travel trope while watching the Republican Party thrash around trying to flesh out its post-George W. Bush political identity. Such an internal struggle is natural in the wake of a 2008-style electoral defeat. But it almost seems as if Republicans have been in such a rush to get past Bush that they have inadvertently ripped the fabric of the political time-space continuum, scrambling the past into the present. How else to explain the procession of issues and leaders emerging from the GOP scrum?

Here comes former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He was the face of the 1994 "Republican Revolution" and seemed to fancy himself America's first prime minister. But government shut-downs and other Republican excesses blunted the conservative wave and gave Gingrich toxic public-approval ratings. He eventually disappeared into the political wilderness of the fundraising-and-think-tank circuit. Now he has re-emerged (along with Rush Limbaugh, an honorary member of the class of 1994) and, with an eye on 2012, positioned himself as a key voice in the conservative movement. He assailed what he calls President Obama's "war against churches" (referring to the president's proposal to lower the deduction that the wealthy receive for charitable contributions), for example, and criticized him for being insufficiently "cold and distant" when chatting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Newt seems to be everywhere, leading me to assume that this is a pre-1995 Gingrich, before he learned the dangers of overexposure.

Also visiting from the mid-1990s is the issue of home-grown violent radicalism. When a Department of Homeland Security report focusing on "right-wing extremism" surfaced recently, conservatives got up in arms, arguing simultaneously that the report did not list in detail the groups to which it referred and that those (unnamed) organizations must be mainstream, law-abiding, patriotic organizations (as opposed to "hate-oriented" groups or ones that reject federal authority, upon which the report was ostensibly focusing). The term "right-wing" was perhaps impolitic (though an earlier homeland security report focused on "left-wing" extremists), but the fact of the matter is that each end of the political spectrum stretches from the mainstream through the eccentric but legal and peters into the unlawful. There are left-wing extremists who would bomb office buildings in the name of animal rights (one was just added to the FBI's most-wanted list), and there are right-wingers who would blow up buildings to strike against federal encroachment.

This debate flared 15 years ago, focused on the militia movement and its fears of black helicopters, but faded after Timothy McVeigh committed what was then the deadliest act of terrorism in U.S. history by blowing up a federal office building in Oklahoma City. Now a focus on right-wing extremism is building again. Brisk nationwide ammo sales are leading to shortages; the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that the "sovereign citizen" movement, wherein citizens declare themselves beyond federal laws, is gaining support for the first time since the 1990s; throw in heated conservative rhetoric ("Those crazies in Montana who say, 'We're going to kill ATF agents because the U.N.'s going to take over'—well, they're beginning to have a case," Dick Morris said on Fox News Channel last month), and you have a disturbing confluence of data points.

Speaking of bizarre sovereignty theories, secession and states' rights have emerged from the 1960s (and 1860s) by way of Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who recently opined that his state can leave the Union. Perry seems to have forgotten that this matter was settled—rather bloodily—with the Civil War. In fairness to him, an appalling 22 percent of adults surveyed last week by Rasmussen Reports thought secession legal, with an additional 18 percent unsure. Perry has also been waving the bloody "states' rights" shirt, a concept that served as a code and a shield for sovereign practices such as segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.