The cynical explanation for Newt Gingrich’s Thursday-night rant on Sean Hannity’s show, in which the insufferable gasbag called for the nation to violate the civil rights of its Muslim citizens in the name of fighting the never-ending War on Terror, is that Gingrich was giving one final, desperate audition for the role of Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate. Just in case Donald Trump had changed his mind about Mike Pence. (Which, apparently, he almost did.)
Watching the interview, I thought there was a much simpler explanation: The attack in Nice had rattled Gingrich, and he was lashing out in fear. Just what we would want in a vice president, especially one running alongside someone as unstable and impulsive as Trump.
By Friday, having perhaps chased a handful of Xanax with some warm milk and gotten a restful night’s sleep, Gingrich tried walking back his suggestion that we essentially pile all the existing copies of the Constitution on the Mall in Washington and light them on fire. This walk-back, which took place in a Facebook Live video, seemed to consist of Gingrich re-stating the ideas he’d expressed the night before but speaking much more slowly this time, so the audience might be fooled into thinking he’d given all of it some thought.
Whatever value Newt Gingrich holds as a conservative intellectual – quit laughing, I’m serious – has always centered on his willingness to take old and terrible ideas that American society long ago rejected, dress them up in a patina of pseudo-smart speak to give the impression these are serious issues to which he, a serious man, has given deep and serious thought, and present them as new, outside-the-box solutions.
For example, who can forget his call in 2011 to relax our “truly stupid” child labor laws so public schools could employ their nine-year-old students as janitors? Never mind that our society had decided decades ago that exploiting children for their labor was morally wrong, which is why the laws were put in in the first place.
Or there was his proposal, part of the Contract for America that was the centerpiece of his legislative agenda after the Republicans gained majorities in Congress in 1994, to ship welfare children off to orphanages, where Gingrich seemed to think everything was in black and white and Spencer Tracy would lead the musical numbers.
So it was unsurprising to hear Gingrich on Friday double down on the obviously unconstitutional actions he’d suggested on Thursday, while saying the country should at least “have the courage to start the conversation,” which is a shady way of pretending the controversial statement you’re about to make is entirely uncontroversial.
Being unsurprised, though, did not make the fact that he expressed support and admiration for certain ideas that the courts and/or history have long consigned to the dust heap any less frustrating. For example, in asserting that the country needs new thinking about fighting terrorism, he cited as one example Franklin Roosevelt waging World War II “with constitutional government,” a statement that must have had all of Fred Korematsu’s descendants reaching for the antacids.
Gingrich offered too many ideas for illegal religious tests, deportations and loyalty oaths to adequately tear apart here. But there was one in particular that stood out.
If we had had the kinds of counterterrorism surveillance that New York developed after 9/11, which has been disbanded in a way that makes no sense at all, the fact is in that period, the New York City police department was doing an extraordinary job of tracking potential radicals.
The NYPD’s counterterrorism surveillance program was ended by federal courts because they found it to be unconstitutional in the extreme. Just six months ago, the city settled two major lawsuits that included reforms and civilian oversight, and disbanded the unit primarily responsible for implementing and conducting the surveillance program. Before that, it had operated with impunity for a decade, only coming to light because of a massive investigation by the Associated Press in 2012.
Gingrich just came within an inch of being the No. 2 on the Republicans’ presidential ticket, and he would likely have a significant policy role in the administration of a President Trump, and here he was casually suggest reinstating programs that civil libertarians have spent the past decade and a half fighting and getting shut down one by one. And he was not the only member of his party jumping to these conclusions.
The irony is that Gingrich was making these statements long before anyone knew if the attacker, Mohamed Bouhlel, was a radicalized ISIS foot soldier. In fact, reports at the moment Gingrich made the comments indicated Bouhlel may simply have been a petty criminal who was angry and depressed over the end of his marriage and who knows what else, and who saw in the confluence of large crowds in his city and his access to a large truck an easy outlet for his rage. Later reporting over the weekend suggested he may have been recently radicalized, but Gingrich was jumping to a conclusion with no knowledge.
Fifteen years into this “War on Terror” and one of our political parties is still giving entirely too much credence to “leaders” like Newt Gingrich. Let’s hope a GOP wipeout this fall can finally remove him from any influence in our body politic once and for all.