Newt Gingrich (Google Image
Clearly it’s the year of the demagogue. If the Republican presidential race is teaching us anything this week, it’s that we have all underestimated the sheer depth of the hostility that many conservatives harbor for President Barack Obama.

How else to explain the rise and rise of an already bluntly discredited politician to the point where he is looking like the main contender for the Republican nod in 2012?

Newt Gingrich has expertly ridden an untapped wave of Tea Party contempt all the way to the top. In fact he has crested on it with a kind of skill only shared by California surfers. This week it’s looking like it will take him the distance.

In South Carolina, the mostly white conservative audience predictably booed every time they heard the words Mexican, black, or gay.  They cheered when Gingrich spoke of the despised “media elites.”

And they erupted with unbridled joy when he called Obama the “food stamp president,” a blatantly racist dog whistle.

If liberals can be classed as people who naively believe that everyone is equal, then conservatives can be classed as people who take the opposing view. For them there is always an in-crowd and an out-crowd, and it’s better to belong to the former.

And in conservative South Carolina, voters deeply resent it when the out-crowd starts agitating for their rights, hence all the jeering and cheering for Gingrich’s barbs.

Playing on all of those racial, political and social resentments like Christy Moore plays the bodhran, Gingrich connected with the conservative base there in a way that Mitt Romney never will. After all, Gingrich was a tea partier before the term was even coined, and he was among his people on Saturday and it showed.

Saturday also showed us the new face of the Republican Party. It’s an overweight jowly white guy with three marriages, a shady past and an anger management problem.

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Only the most ardent Tea Party member could fail to notice that doesn’t auger very well in November.

Although South Carolina is arguably the most conservative state in the union and what plays there may fall flat elsewhere, it may already be too late to stop Gingrich’s populist freight train from going the distance.

But have you noticed that not one of Gingrich’s former colleagues in Congress have endorsed him yet? Isn’t that a bit striking?

None of the people who actually know him best have stepped forward in his praise or defense. Surely that’s an indicator of something rather significant?

And have you noticed that both he and Rick Santorum have recently been asked to cool their divisive rhetoric about race and poverty by Catholic leaders? A group of more than 40 national Catholic leaders at universities across the country sent a strongly worded letter to the pair this week urging them “to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail.”

You know things have gotten out of hand when professors and theologians are stepping in.

Bloggers are having a field day, of course. Online they are already referring to him as Newt
Swingrich, a play on his request for an open marriage with his second wife.

Actual swinger sites are also championing him as an exemplar of their values, which is a development he probably failed to foresee in the 1990s.

But isn’t it undeniably nauseating that at the same time as he was pursuing Bill Clinton for conducting an extra-marital affair, Gingrich was having an extra-marital affair himself?

Gingrich claims that he was hounding Clinton for having lied under oath, but in effect wasn’t he really hounding him for simply having been caught?

Questionable behavior doesn’t become moot when a conservative performs it, although you wouldn’t know that from the results that posted from South Carolina over the weekend.

What fascinates me is how many conservative women voters there, who otherwise espouse “traditional values,” watched the children of Gingrich’s first marriage attack his second wife over claims she made about his third wife without flinching. It was hard to keep up with these soap opera permutations.

Having voted for a serial adulterer, I don’t think, considering all the dubious morality that came to light, we’ll need to listen to the traditional values crowd scolding us for our own shortcomings ever again.

They may claim they were really protesting the gotcha questions so beloved by the media, and not embracing a deeply compromised politician, but their voting records don’t lie.