The Shadow over Florida

Newt Gingrich as seen at a recent rally in Tallahassee

[The] Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.” ~H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

They say the greatest authors are relevant not merely in their own times, but in all times. With that in mind, perhaps H. P. Lovecraft, pulp horror extraordinaire, warrants joining that exalted pantheon for predicting over 80 years in advance the course of the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.

Like the god Cthulhu, Newt Gingrich is a Great Old One; at 68 he would be the second-oldest president in history should he be inaugurated. With three wives, three religions, and three hundred policy variations, he is multi-formed and can induce madness when viewed with the naked eye. Cthulhu is originally from space; Gingrich seems dead-set on returning there.

Gingrich is also like Cthulhu in his immortality. Nothing has been able to kill him: not staffer abandonment, not a 4th-place Iowa finish, not accusations of pursuing an open marriage. When defeated, he merely sinks beneath the waves, only to return when the stars align to spread chaos and seize convention delegates.  And so it has come to pass that just when Mitt Romney seemed to have the Republican nomination sewn up, Gingrich has roared back to triumph in South Carolina, make Florida a dead heat and take a lead in some national polls.

Gingrich’s surge, like the cosmic horror lurking beneath the lost city of R’lyeh, defies ordinary explanation. Mitt Romney, the erstwhile leader of the pack, has not made any devastating mistake, nor has Rick Santorum, the candidate who rose in the wake of Gingrich’s first collapse last December. There have been no national developments to accentuate Gingrich’s appeal, and his campaign strategy (blistering debate performances coupled with little on-the-ground organization) has been a constant the entire race.

Perhaps the best explanation is that Gingrich, tentacles and all, is being accepted by Republican voters as the anti-Romney. While Willard has made all the right noises in regards to abortion, guns, and the like, his words and deeds on the Massachusetts political scene have indelibly marked him as a moderate and political opportunist. This has made him quite popular with the pragmatic Republican establishment, which repeatedly makes the case that Romney is the only “electable” candidate. Even if this is true (and at this point it probably is), it’s a poor way to win a primary. Primary voters are both relatively informed on politics and passionate in their ideology, and they do not appreciate being told to pick an uninspiring candidate simply because it’s safe. Gingrich, in contrast, is anything but safe: He is polarizing, scandal-plagued, and has no gumption about saying borderline insane things in public (his threat to arrest activist judges is a notable case). He has the look of Romney’s negative, and so to him the voters flock, out of frustration if not enthusiasm.

Whatever the cause, Gingrich’s current surge should prove more durable than his last. His previous collapse came as media coverage reminded voters of his personal indiscretions and occasional deviations from conservative orthodoxy. That card has now been played. Ignorance may have explained the last rise, but it cannot explain this one. South Carolinians and now Republicans nationwide have evidently decided that whatever Newt’s foibles and follies he is still superior to his rivals.

Of course, throwing one’s lot in with an amoral chaos god has its risks. Gingrich is still the guy who was driven from Congress by his own party. He is barely more popular than New Coke. He is also a loose cannon ideologically, currently relying on some economic populism straight from the playbook of William Jennings Bryan. Accusations that Romney was a “corporate raider” who looted companies, destroyed jobs, and kicked orphans in pursuit of cash are an embarrassing sham; if Romney’s Bain record warrants criticism so does the entire concept of free enterprise. That Gingrich can float such arguments while remaining the “most conservative” candidate is unnerving and more than a little baffling. But then, that’s just how Lovecraft would write it, isn’t it?

–Blake Neff