Melanie Phillips

22 December 2011

A fearful symmetry

Published in: Daily Mail

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What is happening in American politics is simply astounding. Here is an incumbent President whose approval ratings are rightly dire. He is the most far-left, dangerous and damaging President the US has ever known. In office, he has amply fulfilled the worst fears of those like myself who warned well before he was even elected that his agenda was to neuter America’s influence abroad and to extend the reach of the state into people’s lives at home.

In foreign policy, he has made the world an immeasurably more dangerous place by strengthening America’s enemies and dumping on its allies (even vitiating the sacrifice of America's own soldiers in Iraq, now poised to descend into world-threatening anarchy because of the militarily illiterate and defeatist withdrawal of US forces from there). With the US economy tanking so disastrously, one might think that such a President offered an open goal for the Republicans.  Yet the amazing fact is that the Republicans just have not got a credible candidate. One after the other, they have been exposed as either embarrassingly third rate or off-the-wall or both.

Into this vacuum erupted Newt Gingrich, who stormed back from the political dead to shoot up to the top of the Republican polls and emerge as the only serious contender to challenge the front-runner, the less than inspiring Mitt Romney whose grasp of principle seems to be, shall we say, a little flexible. Gingrich appealed not just because (despite his own flip-flops) he tapped into the yearning for an authentic conservative on account of the positions he currently espouses with such vigour, but mostly because in his intellect, articulacy and charisma he is head and shoulders above the rest. He is simply a natural leader. And today that’s a rare quality.

Nevertheless he is demonstrably a loose cannon; and all too predictably that cannon has now misfired, particularly through his exceedingly ill-advised bluster about ignoring Supreme Court decisions with which he might disagree and even sending the police to arrest judges if they refused to appear before Congress. While there is without doubt legitimate cause for concern about rampant judicial activism, such a threat to the rule of law is not only unacceptable but makes Gingrich into a dangerously unstable prospect for the most powerful political office on earth.

So now it looks as if Gingrich may have crashed and burned – which is a pity because, more than any other candidate, he really does get the single most important issue right now -- the threats to the west from both within and without. These are extraordinary times; and such times require an extraordinary leader. That’s why Thomas Sowell has written:

‘While the televised debates are what gave Newt Gingrich’s candidacy a big boost, concrete accomplishments when in office are the real test. Gingrich engineered the first Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 40 years -- followed by the first balanced budget in 40 years. The media called it “the Clinton surplus” but all spending bills start in the House of Representatives, and Gingrich was Speaker of the House. Speaker Gingrich also produced some long overdue welfare reforms, despite howls from liberals that the poor would be devastated. But nobody makes that claim any more.

‘Did Gingrich ruffle some feathers when he was Speaker of the House? Yes, enough for it to cost him that position. But he also showed that he could produce results.... Those who want to concentrate on the baggage in Newt Gingrich’s past, rather than on the nation’s future, should remember what Winston Churchill said: “If the past sits in judgment on the present, the future will be lost.” If that means a second term for Barack Obama, then it means lost big time.’

Such a splintering of the Republican vote, however, can produce unexpected results. It is still possible that, like Isaiah Berlin’s popularised idea that the fox may have known many things but the hedgehog knew one big thing, Americans may conclude than the need for boldness and intellect are of such overriding importance to meet the daunting challenges of these times that Gingrich’s many failings have to be put to one side because of his invaluable strengths. It is possible that Republicans will play safe instead and that Romney may be unenthusiastically selected. And it’s also possible that at the eleventh hour another candidate will suddenly step out of the wings.

Who knows. But you really do have to scratch your head when the candidate who is currently capitalising most from the Republican disarray is the maverick Dr Ron Paul, now tipped to win in Iowa and do well in New Hampshire. He is now being talked of as not just a spoiler but as a possible kingmaker and even of winning the White House itself.

Yet Ron Paul has views which once would have consigned him to the far-reaches of outer-kookdom.  He is not just an extreme libertarian having opposed all drug laws and all income tax; Texas newsletters published in his name in the 1980s and 1990s contained racist and incendiary material from which he has subsequently sought to dissociate himself.

He also believes that the US brought 9/11 on itself; that there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme but if it did this would be reasonable, since Iran is threatened by hostile powers in its neighborhood some of which already have nuclear weapons (three guesses which one); and he has claimed that the war on terror has amounted to a declaration of war on the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.

Loony tunes? But the really striking thing is the symmetry between Ron Paul and Barack Obama. Both are isolationists; both blame America for the terrorist war being waged against it; both serve as apologists for America’s enemies; both take positions antithetical to the survival of America’s sole ally in the Middle East, the State of Israel.

This symmetry is actually no surprise. For not just in the US but in Britain too, significant elements of both the left and right now meet on this very territory. In the profound confusion of the times, both left and right march behind the banners of libertarianism and isolationism.

The core of these positions is the belief that nothing matters beyond the individual’s immediate gratification or circumstances. On the left, this takes the form of preening narcissism; on the right, pulling up the drawbridge against that terrifying place called ‘abroad’ and declaring ‘I don’t want to know’.  

This symmetry is yet further evidence of the death wish in the west, now progressively  paralysing itself before an enemy which on one flank is steadily conquering the citadels of western culture and on the other is poised for what in its apocalyptic fanaticism it considers to be the final war to end all wars.

So as we stagger towards 2012 we find that America first elected a far-left President whose entire history, past associations and declared beliefs always indicated that he would bring America to its knees -- and now that same America is prepared solemnly to countenance as an alternative Commander-in-Chief a man who acts as a cheerleader for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The question is therefore not just what in heaven’s name has happened to the Republican Party. It is what has happened to America.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
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2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie