It is hard to see why anyone was surprised by Newt Gingrich's self-ignited implosion in the earliest hours of his presidential candidacy. The career of the former House speaker and Georgia congressman is practically bursting with proof that he suffers from chronic paranoid hysteria -- a condition that has done more to advance than diminish his status among conservatives.
They loved him until he aimed his vitriol against one of their own, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, deriding the Wisconsin Republican's plan to gut Medicare as "right-wing social engineering."
Inundated by denunciations from every quarter of his party and movement, Gingrich swiftly backtracked and apologized and tried to blame the media. But his former fans are perhaps beginning to realize what most Americans understood about him years ago -- that he is wholly untrustworthy and unfit for leadership.
Addicted to excess in every facet of his life, Gingrich first became an important figure in the conservative movement almost two decades ago chiefly because -- unlike the more decorous Republicans who then led his party -- he was eager to utter the most vicious accusations against liberals and Democrats.
More than that, he encouraged other Republicans around the country to do likewise, founding an organization called GOPAC that trained right-wing candidates how to use a lexicon of slurs describing their liberal or Democratic opponents as "sick," "pathetic," "radical" and "traitors," among other things.
He echoed that list in his attack on the Ryan plan, too, which he described as "radical," giving great offense to his fellow Republicans.
Yet Gingrich's blustering, abusive rhetoric style has not only served him well, at least until now, but has also become the dominant tone among Republicans and conservatives. When he rants on about the "secular socialist Obama machine" as a threat comparable to Nazi Germany or Soviet communism, nobody on the right tells him to dial it back and almost everybody applauds.
Gingrich makes these wildly inappropriate comparisons habitually, without thinking about the harm they may cause. Last year, he saw an opportunity to exploit the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero mosque (which was neither located at Ground Zero nor simply a mosque). So he entered that debate warning that we are on a "precipice" and then quickly resorted to the most extreme language, calling the harmless people who wanted to build an interfaith cultural center downtown (with the support of Mayor Bloomberg) as "radical Islamists" whose behavior was like "Nazis demonstrating next to the Holocaust Museum."
He didn't worry that his aggressive blather might actually serve the purposes of the real Islamist militants, whose chief strategy is to persuade the Muslim masses that America hates them and despises their faith. He saw a chance to promote himself at the expense of others, and he seized it, as usual.
That reckless opportunism is what we can expect from Gingrich as the presidential primary campaign unfolds, which is why most Democrats hope that he stays in and many Republicans wish he would dry up and blow away. With his darkly comical history as an advocate of family values (who has been divorced twice and married three times under the most dubious circumstances) and heartland frugality (who racked up a huge debt at Tiffany's jewelry emporium in Manhattan), he has come to symbolize the least attractive aspects of his ideological brethren.
But as conservatives ostracize and isolate their former hero, they might also reflect on his unwholesome influence in their own development -- and try to imagine how to banish not just this egregious politician but the Gingrich style, as well.