Newt Gingrich scored a decisive victory in South Carolina on 21 January 2012, after his candidacy had seemed dead. It’s proof race-baiting still pays handsome dividends in American politics. Gingrich chose a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day debate to slap down Juan Williams. For many U.S. voters, November 2012 is more than just winning–it’s about avenging a perceived wrong. By slapping down Juan Williams, Gingrich lays claim to being most adept at slapping down President Obama in November:
In fact, even Mr. Gingrich’s rivals acknowledge that it was once again his performances at pivotal debates that most positively affected his showing here–notably at a Fox News debate on Monday in Myrtle Beach. It was there that he lambasted the Fox moderator Juan Williams for asking if some of Mr. Gingrich’s statements, like calling Mr. Obama a “food stamp president” and suggesting that poor children work as janitors to learn a work ethic, was not insensitive to black people. (Gingrich Wins South Carolina Primary, Upending G.O.P. Race)
Newt Gingrich won the primary by a decisive margin of 12.5 percentage points, and there is no mystery about how he did it. Two-thirds of voters interviewed in exit polls said they made their decision on the basis of the two South Carolina debates, where Mr. Gingrich exploited racial resentment and hatred of the news media to connect with furious voters. (South Carolina’s Divisive Message)
What else could it be? If the party had wanted a winner with the broadest appeal for November, it would have been Mitt Romney, who had won New Hampshire and had a sizable lead before this week. If the party wanted the candidate with the most evangelical bona fides, Rick Santorum would have been the choice. If the party wanted the most ideological consistency, it would be Ron Paul.
On each of these counts, Gingrich is incredibly flawed. But that’s not what this is about:
On Friday, Gingrich doubled down and told a campaign crowd that “the idea of work” seemed to Williams “to be a strange, distant concept.” This conjures the historical fiction that blacks are lazy and plays to the belief among many Republican voters that race is inconsequential to one’s ability to succeed in this country. . . . Gingrich is appealing to (and exposing) an ugly, gut-level anger and animosity among a sizable portion of the Republican electorate. (Charles M. Blow, Newt’s Southern Strategy)
Martin Luther King, Jr. titled his last full-length book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Since that time, we’ve been consistently choosing the chaos of inequality and individualism. Can we choose community?
For more on anthropology’s need to address Martin Luther King, see Anthropology and Martin Luther King, Jr.