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The Original Tea Partier

[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Newt Gingrich’s highly puzzling ascendance is his popularity among Tea Party voters. As of December 6 he was the overwhelming Tea Party favorite, with 47% of their support. (This enthusiasm may have flagged amid the targeted attacks Newt’s opponents have been deploying this week.) Gingrich’s lead could be a passing fad, but while it lasts, he’s got the Tea Party to thank. His numbers among “moderates/liberals” and “Tea Party nonsupporters” are virtually identical to Romney’s. The Gingrich surge, in other words, is quite similar to the Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain surges. But why Gingrich, of all people?

Here is a candidate who epitomizes K Street insiderism with self dealing and quasi-lobbying gigs. He has violated ostensibly sacrosanct principles of social conservatism. Perhaps most damningly, he has supported an individual health care mandate and affirmed the existence of climate change. So “progressive” is Gingrich, Glenn Beck said last weekend, only his whiteness distinguishes him from Barack Obama. This was evidence enough for Beck to conclude that Gingrich owed his Tea Party support to racism. A titillating theory to be sure, but probably not the right one.

In fact, there are more likely hypotheses. Perhaps the Tea Party has rewarded Gingrich for his incendiary rhetoric and Obama-bashing. Maybe it’s just trying him on for size and will lose enthusiasm as details about his past unfurl. Or it could be that Tea Party voters fondly recall Speaker Gingrich’s zeal for slashing basic government programs and his willingness to undercut moderate Republicans. David Axelrod suggested as much when he called him an “original Tea Partier” this week.

I suspect part of the surge, however, is rooted neither in his policies nor personality. It’s his shtick as a historian. Gingrich’s pedantic style is an improbable selling point for a bloc suspicious of elites and academics. What resonates, however, is probably not his intellectual pretensions, but his nuance-free version of history.

Historian Gingrich has two modes. Sometimes he cites his own expertise to justify non-factual, extremist bait (see his claim during last weekend’s debate that Palestinians were an “invented” people). More often, however, he cherry-picks parables most likely to resonate with a conservative audience. John Smith, he’s been saying for several decades, told early colonists, “if you don’t work, you won’t eat.” Gingrich is also fond of a bland section of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, unrelated to the law itself, which he cites to attack the modern secular "education establishment.” Or take his perspective on Henry Ford, whose wealth Gingrich used as proof of the “one percent’s” job creating potential. (Gingrich tends not to mention Ford’s minimum wage hikes, which Obama referred to in his recent Kansas speech.)  Gingrich's selective memory is not new—I highlight some more brazen examples in my piece on the class Gingrich taught in the mid-1990s.

This sort of scholarship is right up the Tea Party's alley. Over the last few years, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and the rest have claimed the mantle of American history by celebrating a very narrow version of it. The conceit of the whole movement, of course, draws from the symbolism of one Revolutionary-era event.  Gingrich, armed with a superior grasp of the facts, does a better Tea Party than the Tea Party itself. As Glenn Beck (who would know) said last weekend, “He knows which part [of history] to highlight and which to sweep under the carpet.”