The GOP's Feigned Outrage

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The Wall Street Journal

The GOP's Feigned Outrage

It takes chutzpah to protest what you've created.

Those who followed news coverage of the "tea party" protests last month will recall that one target of the partiers' ire was the TARP bailout of the banking system -- a policy of the Bush administration that President Obama has carried on.

And yet, in a television interview last month, we find no less a representative of the late administration than former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsing the protesters' accusations with what is, for him, considerable enthusiasm. "I thought the tea parties were great," he told Fox News's Sean Hannity. "It's basically a very healthy development."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of the Republican Party's few remaining stars, has also cheered the public's willingness to "fight back against Wall Street and Washington insiders."

A Republican who wants to fight Wall Street! A Bush official who thinks protesting Bush policies is "great"! Contemplating these curiosities, we begin to realize how easy it has been for conservatives to swing back into full-throated opposition only months after their cataclysmic defeat. And also to understand why the obituaries for the GOP might be just a tad premature.

After all, there's something about conservatives' ferocious "No" that precisely fits the temper of the times. For all the past year's Democratic victories, the GOP still owns outrage, still has an enormous capacity to summon up offense, to elevate every perceived slight into an unprecedented imposition upon both the hard-working citizen and freedom itself.

What really dazzles the observer, though, is conservatives' fury over things for which they are themselves responsible.

As an example of this habit of mind, consider the essay that Mr. Gingrich published in Human Events last week. "The current liberal bloodlust over interrogations," he wrote, referring to the Nancy Pelosi-CIA flap, is merely "the Left's attempt to hunt down and purge its political opponents." And yet, in a different essay he published on the very same day (this one in the Washington Times), Mr. Gingrich regretted that, in all the years of Republican rule, "there was a strategic failure to root out the left and the special interests of the left."

Mr. Gingrich's side failed to "root out" and destroy their opponents; now he imagines that this is what is being done to his team.

Psychotherapists might call this "projection," and something similar pervades the essay the remarkable Mr. Gingrich published only two days later in the Washington Post. Here the former speaker can be found calling for a populist revolt in the "great tradition of political movements rising against arrogant, corrupt elites."

A healthy sentiment, to be sure, except for the fact that "elites" are exactly what decades of conservative rule gave us by unleashing the banks, smashing the unions, and funneling the economy's gains into the hands of the rich.

Then there are the "lobbyists" whom Mr. Gingrich accuses of running state governments here and there. By this he means "lobbyists for the various unions" who get their way "through bureaucracies seeking to impose the values of a militant left."

Even so, rule by lobbyists is a subject Mr. Gingrich should know well. It was while he was House speaker, for example, that his No. 3, Tom DeLay, launched the famous "K Street Strategy," which sought to make Gucci Gulch the exclusive preserve of the Republican Party.

It was Mr. Gingrich's own beloved House freshmen of 1994, the last bunch of conservative populists to come down the pike, who made the Republican Revolution into a fundraising bonanza. And it was public outrage over the conspicuous purchase of government favors by the moneyed that led to the Democratic triumphs of 2006 and 2008.

Turning to the government of New York state, Mr. Gingrich declares that it has "impoverished the Upstate region to the point where it is a vast zone of no jobs and no opportunities." Oddly, Mr. Gingrich appears to believe that deindustrialization is the direct result of governance by a political machine in Albany.

In fact, deindustrialization also occurred all across the Midwest. As it ground on through the Reagan years and the '90s, it was the investor class who called the shots, not the hirelings of organized labor.

And as our factories and steel mills were shuttered an army of politicians and management theorists assured us that the waning of industrial America was the next stage in human development, the coming of the glorious age of information. The most ecstatic and even otherworldly of these was, of course, Newt Gingrich.

In his much-discussed speech last Thursday, Mr. Cheney intoned, "We hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative." And so we do: A form of protest that persistently misses the point, a type of populism that only empowers the elite, and a brand of idealism that cohabits comfortably with corruption.

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan Books). His other books include The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God. He is the “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of The Baffler.

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