Last December, nearly 400 Hispanic conservatives and their allies crowded into conference rooms at the Washington Hilton, attending sessions on immigration and national security, the “melting pot” versus the “salad bowl” view of America, and developments in Latino blogging. A gala crowned the affair; the Miami Symphony Orchestra serenaded guests while they dined at linen-covered tables.
Officially, the forum and gala were hosted by a year-old web magazine called The Americano. Offering online news and opinion in Spanish and English, The Americano features topical stories like “Republicans Can’t Ignore Immigration” and “Hispanics Now Represent 12% of Rhode Island Population,” along with the occasional heart-warming feature about an “Outstanding Hispanic.” Its self-declared mission is to “offer a more balanced view on all the issues that concern American Hispanics today” and its content is devoted to “to what unites us all, which is our American Hispanic Heritage.”
The odd part: The Americano’s founder is Newt Gingrich. Yes, the same Newt Gingrich who—while generally pushing a moderate immigration agenda, advocating neither amnesty nor deportation, but guest-worker programs—has also likened Spanish to “the language of living in a ghetto.” Now, though, he is seeking to appeal to the kind of Latino “who is interested in a job and a paycheck rather than in unemployment and food stamps.”
All of this would seem strange except that The Americano is very much in keeping with Gingrich’s m.o. Since leaving office, he has established a mini-empire of conservative consulting companies, online ventures, and public policy groups—a collective he and his team affectionately refer to as “Newt World.” Fresh off the Speaker’s dais, he set up his first consulting shop, the Gingrich Group, in 1999. An offshoot of the Gingrich Group, the Center for Health Transformation (CHT), was born in 2003, and through it he quickly cashed in on his hard-earned street cred as the destroyer of Clintonian health care reforms, charging insurers and drug companies upward of $200,000 a year for his consulting services.
In 2007, Gingrich founded perhaps his biggest out-of-office project, American Solutions for Winning the Future, which calls itself a “tri-partisan citizen action network,” but is really a conservative doppelganger for Organizing for America or MoveOn.org. American Solutions boasts 1.5 million “citizen activists” and received more than $24 million in donations during the 2010 campaigns, more money than any other federally focused 527. It beat out the second-place Service Employees International Union by almost $10 million.
Gingrich recently extended his outreach to Christian conservatives, launching Renewing American Leadership (ReAL) to “help people of faith take back their own country.” At the ReAL website, believers can learn about the “suppressed infamy of progressives” or “how Christianity created capitalism.” The group seeks to connect fiscal and social conservatives, supporting Tax Day Tea Parties and a balanced federal budget while remaining committed to typical Religious Right fare (like a petition to stop the Islamic Center near Ground Zero).
In addition to the groups he directly oversees, Gingrich stays involved in a number of side-projects. Even though he once favored dismantling the Department of Education, in 2009 he toured the country with its leader Arne Duncan and liberal frenemy Al Sharpton, touting Obama-style education reform. Last December, he endorsed“Right on Crime,” a prison reform campaign that champions cutting costs through reduced recidivism. Gingrich’s opportunism has its commercial side as well. At the bottom of his column for the conservative online magazine Human Events, he regularly provides links to Newt-themed products; a recent entry hawked “limited edition box sets.” Last December, he counted down the 12 days of Christmas on Twitter, pitching a different Newt-themed item each day. At his online store, fans can even find a $99 replica of his Speaker’s gavel. He’s also branched out into entertainment. Gingrich Productions, a pet project of his wife Callista, produces documentaries, such as Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny (a biopic of the 40th president) and We Have the Power (a call for American energy independence).
What motivates Gingrich’s ceaseless empire-building? Part of it may be psychological: the consummate “ideas man” has admitted that self-doubt played a role in his life, telling Vanity Fair in 1995, “I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted it to.” From 1995 to 1998, that cause, it seems, was the Republican agenda in the House. Now, the many satellites of Newt’s world serve the same purpose, no doubt with political motivations. After all, if you’re thinking about running for president, covering as many different bases as possible within your party seems like a savvy idea.
There’s just one catch: All these different organizations have gone a long way toward muddling what Gingrich actually stands for. Nowhere are the incongruities of his approach more apparent than in his outreach to Latinos. The Americano has published editorials in favor of the Dream Act, Hispanic Heritage month, and lower deportation rates. But Gingrich’s other endeavors have taken a much harder line on immigrants. American Solutions, for example, calls for the country to “control the border first.” On the ReAL website, Representative Steve King wrote a column chastising Democrats for being soft on immigration reform. (King, Capitol Hill’s resident immigration wingnut, also wants to eliminate birthright citizenship.) Gingrich may flaunt bilingual outreach through The Americano, but, at his flagship site, Newt.org, he calls on the United States to “end [its] policy of official multilingualism.” He recommends making English the national language, eliminating bilingual education in public schools, and producing English-only ballots. His stance is nicely summed up with his pithy slogan: “Want to pursue happiness? Learn English.” Should he actually run for president, Newt Gingrich might find that he has built a tent so big, it’s bound to collapse.