In a meeting with NR staff, sipping a Diet Coke, Newt Gingrich reminded us that he’s a “historian by training.” Not that we needed the hint. Gingrich gabs about history with the acuity of a college professor (he was one) and an enthusiasm usually seen only in reenactors. But instead of gushing about great men or events, Gingrich enjoys getting tangled in history’s battles of ideas, be they from 1790 or 2009.
Asked by one editor whether he’d be a Hamiltonian or a Jeffersonian should a time machine suddenly become available, Gingrich said, “I’d be a Hamiltonian on economics, and a Jeffersonian on politics.”
“You’d be a fusionist even then,” quipped Jay Nordlinger.
Gingrich laughed. Although he and his wife, Callista, had in theory come to NR to chat about the impressive new documentary they co-host, Rediscovering God in America II: Our Heritage, the discussion was wide-ranging, covering everything from the history of the Left to the war in Afghanistan.
The couple’s film (co-produced with Citizens United), which documents the history of religion in America from the 17th century until the Civil War, is what Gingrich calls an “oral-history project,” in which he hopes to give “the facts” about the powerful role of religion in early America, told through the words of the Founding Fathers, “in their own words, for themselves.”
Though it may be about the past, Gingrich says the documentary’s themes are tied directly to the present. He says he worries that the “core definition of America” — that citizens are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” — is “under assault, both in the academic and news-media communities, as well as in the courts.”
Gingrich says he has major concerns about American culture, and “the degree to which it is becoming an anti-religious culture.”
“Ironically, in some ways, it is becoming a culture in which it is more acceptable for schools to teach about Islam than to teach about Christianity,” says Gingrich. “If you think about that, it verges on the bizarre.”
“We are the only society I know of that asserts that power comes directly from God to you, that you are sovereign, and that you loan power to the government,” says Gingrich. “A point that Reagan always used to make was that the Constitution begins with ‘we the people,’ and not ‘we the bureaucrats,’ or ‘we the lawyers,’ or ‘we the judges,’ or ‘we the politicians,’ but ‘we the people.’ If you eliminate that, and you make generalizations about where power comes from, then of course we can trust the judges, and of course we can trust the politicians.”
If power in America continues to move away from the people, Gingrich says that the country risks “actually eliminating the uniqueness that has made America an exceptional nation. You begin drift into a world where nothing is stable.”
“The modern Left is essentially proto-totalitarian,” says Gingrich. President Obama, he says, is “an authentic representative of the intelligentsia. I think he likes Reveille for Radicals for a reason; he likes William Ayers for a reason. He didn’t notice 20 years of sermons for a reason.”
But is Obama that different from liberals like George McGovern? “Oh, yeah,” says Gingrich. “My sense is with McGovern, unequivocally, that he was a man from a different world. McGovern was a man who had grown up in pre–World War II America. And he grew up in South Dakota. Obama really grew up in the world of the modern American intelligentsia — he is a person of the Left. The minute you accept that, you understand almost everything.”
Obama, Gingrich adds, “is a radical in the sense that the victory of those values would mean the end of American civilization as we know it.” President Reagan, in contrast, “was a radical within the American tradition. He was almost like the Jacksonian uprising against the establishment. Reagan represented a fundamental break with the dominant system of government for the last 60 years. He didn’t quite pull it off. He managed to defeat the Soviet Empire and managed to renew the energy of entrepreneurial America, but he did not in fact change the underlying crisis.”
And Americans didn’t vote for Obama’s brand of radicalism. In 2008, Americans, says Gingrich, “were voting for the end of Bush. They were voting to have no taxes raised on anybody making under $250,000, and they were voting for a tax cut for 95 percent of the American people. Go back and read what Obama campaigned on. This is a con job on the scale of Madoff.”
One editor asked Gingrich why America took such a sharp cultural turn after the Second World War. “I think it’s actually, in a bizarre way, the victory of the European intellectuals,” says Gingrich. “It would be interesting to go back and do a study of how this evolved. You have two streams coming together. You have an anti–middle class intellectual elite in the United States. You can go back and read, for example, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Main Street, etc. And you have the European refugees, who bring a very left intellectualism.”
“Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote about this,” says Gingrich. “There’s a huge difference between the English and Scottish enlightenments, which were actually within the context of God, and the French enlightenment, which ultimately ends up being anti-Christian and anti-clerical. What you had is this emerging belief among intellectual elites — you really see it intensely in Europe but you increasingly now see it in the United States — that you have to believe in a secular world, and that all this other stuff is somehow unacceptable.”
This trend emerged, he says, “partially because, ultimately, if you believe in God, then it creates limitations on your own ego and it creates limitations on your own behavior.”
Gingrich says two different wings of the Left have emerged. “First, Deweyism is the creation of an educated class which knows nothing. Dewey wrote about this: ‘You don’t want them to know too much history, because that limits their plasticity’; ‘you don’t want them to know too much math or science, because that limits their plasticity.’ I keep arguing that the most important political phrase of the next ten years is that ‘two plus two equals four,’ which the Poles used against the state. It partly came out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the state torturer says to the citizen: ‘If we tell you that two plus two equals five, it equals five. If we tell you that it equals three, it equals three,’” he says. “Deweyism, in that sense, wanted to create plasticity. William Ayers in that sense is a legitimate disciple of Dewey. How do you get to a revolutionized society? You make sure the people don’t know anything.”
Gingrich likened this to the Left’s current strategy of “saying that $10 trillion in debt doesn’t really matter because you won’t really notice it, and anyway by the time we get to that, something good will have happened.”
“The second [wing] is the highly educated intelligentsia,” continues Gingrich. “These are people of whom Ronald Reagan said ‘it isn’t what they don’t know that’s frightening, it’s what they know that isn’t true.’ These are the people who believe that Castro is really okay, that Chávez is a pretty good guy, and that it was terrific that Ahmadinejad got a nice run last week and no one was mean to him in New York.” This kind of thinking, says Gingrich, was evident in the recent argument between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Obama on whether or not to confront Ahmadinejad over his nuclear program.
Gingrich, a new convert to Catholicism, says that his recent documentaries and books, as well as his own faith, have influenced his politics and philosophy. “I think the centrality of the Eucharist in the Catholic experience, and the degree to which you’re directly infused with Christ, gives me a much higher appreciation of the cost of a totalitarian state on an everyday basis,” he says. “One of things that influenced my conversion, and influenced my thinking about the work we’re now doing, is reading George Weigel, starting from The Cube and the Cathedral to The Final Revolution to his biography of the pope.”
“If you read Weigel,” he says, “and think about the points he’s driving at, and then you look at the passion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to try to destroy every public cross in the country, to try to destroy every reference to religion, you begin to see this intense competition between this secular bureaucracy that literally is terrified of the sight of religion and the desire of humans to have access to being able to approach God without being constantly pressured by the state.”
Looking to Afghanistan, Gingrich says, “the real underlying challenge is that this is a much bigger problem than people understand. You can pull out of Afghanistan, and then what? You want to pull out of Pakistan? Fine. And then what? We pulled out of Somalia, and now we have pirates. You think these guys are going away? Or, do you think that this will become a bigger problem? It’s like dealing with Iran. The last few weeks have been worse than Chamberlain. This is Baldwin in 1935, just willfully blind because he didn’t want to tell the British people the truth because it would offend them.”
If things are so dire, then where is America’s Churchill? “I don’t know, we’ll find out,” says Gingrich. “I hope that we can find one.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.