Here’s an observation that occurred to me the weekend of the South Carolina presidential preference primary, but which, being busy, I never got around to writing. It occurred to me again this morning, so here it is…
Before the primary, I wrote that the usual pattern for SC Republicans would be to pick the candidate who seemed most like the boss, or the massa, if you will. That would be Romney. I said it within the context of the possibility of Gingrich overtaking him, but at the same time I thought, wrongly, that most white folk in our state would follow the most patrician candidate just as they followed such men into battle in 1860. That’s what had happened in the last few cycles. OK, there were other factors, such as going with the guy whose turn it was, but that also worked for Romney.
Nice theory. It got shot all to hell.
What South Carolinians did, explaining it in terms of our history, was what they did in the 1890s — they turned away from Wade Hampton, and went for Ben Tillman.
Gingrich, with his fulminations against the uber-rich Yankee Romney and the dirty, no-good press, stirred something deep in the race memory of these voters. He was the closest they could find in these tepid times to fellow populist “Pitchfork” Ben, who urged them to rise up against the hoity-toity ruling class. Of course, Newt is rather tepid by comparison. Newt made the crowd roar by scornfully dismissing that Negro who dared to challenge him on his “food-stamp president” line. But that’s thin stuff compared to when ol’ Ben said he would “willingly lead a mob in lynching a Negro who had committed an assault upon a white woman.” Black men, said Tillman, “must remain subordinate or be exterminated.”
And Newt’s put-down of the media in the next debate was downright wimpy compared to Ben’s nephew gunning down my predecessor, N. G. Gonzales, at noon on Main Street for having dared write critical editorials about him. (He was acquitted by the ancestors of some of those Gingrich voters, who decided, after the editorials were entered into evidence, that the editor had it coming.)
No, Gingrich is no Tillman. But I suppose angry white folks have to settle for what they can get these days.
You must, of course, consider me a biased source. The State newspaper, as you may know, was founded for the purpose of fighting Tillmanism. The newspaper was from the start opposed to lynching (those wild-eyed liberals!), and has since that one incident frowned on shooting editors as well. And some of my own ancestors were anti-Tillman. My great-grandparents were appalled when they found themselves living next to Sen. Tillman in Washington. (My great-grandfather Bradley was a lawyer for the Treasury Department, and later helped found the GAO.)
In conclusion, let me say this this analogy, too, is imperfect. It doesn’t explain why, for instance, all those rather patrician, or at least Establishment, Republicans went for Gingrich at the last minute. That’s rather more complicated, and in some cases had to do with rivalries and resentments that wouldn’t make much sense to folks who are not SC Republican insiders. Some of it, for instance, was about stopping Nikki Haley from seeming to have a win. There were other old scores being settled, some going back a number of years. Once I can get some of these folks to talk about it on the record, I’ll write more about that.
But I think my analogy has at least a ring of truth in it when applied to the great mass of voters out there who never ran a campaign or even met many of these movers and shakers. Or am I attaching to much importance to those visceral roars when Gingrich baited black, liberals and the media in those debates?