What have we learned from the fact that it was Newt Gingrich, not Rick Santorum, who surged past Mitt Romney in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary? The voters who turned out, after all, sure fit the profile of Santorum supporters. Fully 65 percent described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, and Santorum was the candidate who most stressed the cultural and religious values in which these voters believe, even as Newt’s private life made a mockery of them. Fifty-three percent of the GOP voters had no college degree, and, again, it was Santorum who explicitly defended both the economic interests and cultural importance of blue-collar workers.
But Gingrich won the votes of 44 percent of the born-agains and evangelicals, while Santorum won just 21 percent. And Gingrich got 43 percent of the non-college grads, while Santorum ended up with just 18 percent.
The appeals that Gingrich made mattered far more to these voters than the religious and economic appeals that Santorum offered. What Newt appealed to was these voters’ racism, which he also deliberately wrapped in the belief that the nation’s media elites favor liberal racial policies and look down on people like them. The two incidents that propelled Newt to his victory (other than Romney’s inability to deal with the issue of his taxes) were his assaults on Juan Williams and John King in last week’s debates. When Williams dared to suggest that Gingrich’s labeling of Barack Obama as a “food stamp president” had racist overturns, Gingrich slapped Williams down almost as though he were a surrogate for Obama—an uppity black in a privileged position complaining of injustices to his own minority group. The impact of this moment on many South Carolina Republicans was little less than cathartic; it was a triumphal outburst of pent-up resentments clearly screaming for release. A few nights later, Gingrich augmented his image as the man who whacks the liberal media with his assault on King.
It’s all straight out of the playbook of George Wallace, who not only slandered and threatened African-Americans in his speeches but also took out after the national news media (“Huntley and Chinkley and Walter Contrite,” as he termed them in a burst of almost surreal folk poetry).
The Republican voters of South Carolina may think of themselves as religiously devout and economically embattled, but what they were really looking for in a candidate was a champion who’d slap down pretentious blacks and promise a restoration of white normality. Abnormal as Gingrich may actually be, this was what he offered up in South Carolina, and it went down mighty smooth.