Newt Gingrich has been right about very few things during a long political career of hypocrisy, duplicity, narcissism and devotion to the no-holds-barred tactics of bomb-throwing and hyper-partisanship. But ever alert to political trends, he was right about this much: He openly opposed South Africa’s apartheid government back in the 1980s, and he tried to persuade Ronald Reagan to support the stiff sanctions that finally helped to topple the hateful regime.
Gingrich understood that the Republican Party would not be well served if it continued to be identified as a defender of South Africa’s pariah government. When Reagan vetoed legislation that imposed harsh economic penalties against the Pretoria regime, Gingrich helped to lead an effort to override the veto and impose sanctions.
Still, Gingrich has been as guilty as any Republican of using the 21st-century version of the Southern strategy to appeal to the least progressive members of the GOP base. So he shouldn’t be surprised that his recent praise of Nelson Mandela was met with harsh responses by so many of his fans on the right.
The Republican Party has a huge race problem — one that once again broke into the open in the aftermath of the extraordinary South African’s death. American conservatives still find it difficult to celebrate the life of a man who stood against white supremacy. While several Republican politicians were laudatory when reflecting on Mandela’s life, other conservatives were ambivalent.
Bill O’Reilly claimed that Mandela was a “great man” but also insisted he was a “communist.” (South Africa’s economic record under his leadership gives the lie to that.) Similarly, Dick Cheney called Mandela a “great man,” but stubbornly defended his opposition to the sanctions that eventually led to Mandela’s release.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gingrich sparked a firestorm when he released a statement citing Mandela as “one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime.” His Facebook fans unleashed a torrent of hateful comments in response, from chastising Gingrich for supposedly airbrushing Mandela’s past — “Newt, I thought you of all people, a historian, would be true to who this guy really was” — to those more open in their racial antagonism: “He hated America, Newt. Quit pandering to the blacks.”
Gingrich, to his credit, responded with a frank post to conservatives, asking them to consider what they would have done had they been in Mandela’s place. But it hardly quelled the uproar.
For far too long, Republicans have been comfortable playing to the worst instincts of their base, especially those steeped in racial antagonism and uncomfortable with the changes wrought by the civil rights movement. It will take years of hard work in the GOP vineyards to rip away all the kudzu of animus and suspicion toward black and brown citizens.
Since Barry Goldwater ran a 1964 presidential campaign on a platform of states’ rights, the Republican Party has honed a strategy of appealing to disaffected whites — stoking their resentments, fueling their fears, marshaling their paranoia. Every GOP presidential candidate since Goldwater has used that strategy because it reliably delivers certain voters to the polls.
In more recent times, GOP leaders have struggled to try to find a way to broaden the party’s appeal to a more diverse constituency while also continuing to win the hearts and minds of disaffected whites. But it’s a fence that cannot be straddled. Too many Republican voters refuse to acknowledge the toll of their country’s racist past. And too many fear a future wherein whites will no longer constitute a majority.
Gingrich knows that all too well because he pandered to those fears in his 2012 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. He labeled President Obama the “food stamp president,” an appellation designed to conjure up images of indolent black voters dependent on government aid.
The appalling comments he drew after he praised Mandela were simply retributive justice. Like other GOP leaders, he has appealed to the worst instincts of many Republican voters when he needed to — a strategy that will continue to haunt the party as it tries to plot a course to the future.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr