Do and die

Ted Cruz fronted the government shutdown, but Newt Gingrich was its inspiration.

click to enlarge Newt Gingrich - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Newt Gingrich

Half a fake, half a fib,
Half a fraud onward,
All in the Valley of Lies
Charged the two hundred
“Forward the Lie Brigade!
Tread on the poor!” he said
Into the Valley of Lies
Rode the two hundred …

The 230 Republicans didn’t charge madly forward like a tribe of eager colonialists dumping tea, but surged together in organized ranks with their suicidal attack on “Obamacare,” reminiscent of another famous battle a century after the original Tea Party in Boston.

On Oct. 25, 1854, in what has been called “the stupidest exploit in British military history,” the British light cavalry, armed only with sabers, galloped into the cannons and rifles of the waiting Russian army at Balaclava, during the Crimean War. The soldiers, ordered by the now infamous Lord Raglan (though there remains some debate on who gave the order), charged bravely forward — Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die — and their useless and bloody defeat is mainly remembered now because of Tennyson’s resounding poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” written shortly after the bloody slaughter disguised as a battle.

The leader behind the Tea Party’s charge is usually said to be Senator Ted Cruz, the militant Canadian who prospered as his troops got decimated. During the skirmish that shut down the government, Cruz talked without stopping in both the foreground and background, whipping Republicans into a religious fervor till they were all talking in tongues. So many words poured out that the original simple idea kept getting buried: The Tea Party wanted to destroy “Obamacare,” despite it being the law of the land. It’s like a few prudes threatening to close down the Metropolitan Museum of Art unless it gets rid of Renoir’s “The Bathers” because they don’t approve of those bare bosoms.

But the intellectual power behind this movement isn’t Cruz, whom even many Republicans call frankly wacko; it’s Newt Gingrich, the Commander-in-Chief of the take-no-prisoners policy of politics, adapted with evangelical enthusiasm by 40 House members of the Tea Party, who in turn acted as sergeants in the ranks, enforcing discipline. In the 1980s Gingrich surged forward as a pompous imitation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s character, the “very model of a modern major-general” (who “knows the Kings of England and can quote the fights historical”). Applying cutthroat capitalism to politics, he preached that compromise is the enemy of success: the idea is to crush and devour the opponent, to block everything he or she tries to do.

After his initial victories, Gingrich was brought up on ethics charges, and flamboyantly imploded — but his “downfall” came too late. The Republican Party had been impregnated, and Rosemary’s baby was hatching.

The election of a black liberal Democrat as president in 2008 was the galvanizing spark, igniting both conscious and unacknowledged passions in Western and Southern Republicans, still unhappy about the Civil Rights Bill. Now the bulk of those states have switched from resisting Civil Rights to gerrymandering and suppressing the vote. Race warfare has broadened into class warfare against the lazy, lawless and uninsured poor.

Republican bumper stickers shout “100% anti-Obama!” It’s a headlong charge that in the long run they can’t win, but in the battle they’re bringing down a lot of innocent people with them. This tactic will rise again in a month or two. Their constituents, most of them hypocritically dependent on the government, look on them as brave soldiers. They may be brave, but they’re fighting the wrong battle with the wrong leaders in an old war.

When will their anger fade?
O the wild lies they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Laugh at the Lie Brigade,
Weep at the harm they did,
Shameless two hundred.

—From “The Charge of the Lie Brigade,” with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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