Newt Gingrich and “fundamental” everything

Newt Gingrich continues his lifelong metamorphosis into Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.

Newt Gingrich is a hyperbolist. When he says that child labor laws are “stupid” and articulates a plan for poor children to work half the day as janitors in their own schools, it’s not the right direction for America’s future—it’s “exactly the right direction for America’s future.” Mitt Romney changing his support for individual mandates isn’t just flip-flopping; he’s adopting “radically different positions.” Radically different! Remember when Rom-bot was like, “our plans to reduce the deficit should not rest on increasing revenues” and then, six months later, he was like “abolish the money system! kill all humans!” Neither do I. As an ironist, I consider the hyperbolist a dangerous jerk, for much the same reason that certain science fiction fans will get really angry when you ask them about Star Wars. Hyperbole is irony with no referent in truth. A man who thinks everything is “profoundly” or “truly” or “actually” what it is prefers the feeling of ideas to their content. You can learn a lot about such a man from which intensifier he likes best, and for Newt Gingrich, that intensifier is “fundamentally.” Props to John for the link.

Based on New York Magazine’s semi-scientific search, Gingrich has used “fundamentally” in interviews and transcribed speeches 418 different ways in the last four years. That 418 does not count instances where he used the same construction multiple times; the morning in 2009 when he spent four hours muttering “fundamentally destroying jobs” at his hairbrush, for example, only goes in as one entry. As you can see from the list, Gingrich uses “fundamentally” in some situations where “fundamental” might not apply. Like many hyperbolists, he makes the mistake of applying his intensifier to binary qualities, as in “fundamentally decentralize.” You’re either decentralizing something or you’re not, and if you’re doing so “fundamentally”—let’s remember the word’s root in “foundation”—then you probably haven’t done a great job.

This habit becomes more troubling in contexts like “fundamentally dishonest” or “fundamentally cheating.” As opposed to things that are technically dishonest but not really? It’s easy to forget during campaign season, but things are either honest or dishonest, cheating or fair. Gingrich’s use of “fundamental” in these constructions probably doesn’t indicate that he considers truth and falsehood relative terms and expects a certain degree of dishonesty from all statements. It probably just means that he likes what he says to sound really important.

See how this grabs you: Gingrich’s two affairs make him an odd inheritor of Herman Cain’s former supporters. Lame, right? Now try: Gingrich’s two affairs make him a fundamentally odd inheritor of Herman Cain’s dumbass supporters. That’s much more exciting. Why say there’s a difference between yourself and your opponent when there could be a fundamental difference? What if that difference were fundamentally, even radically profound? Back at the beginning of this paragraph, it was just another day in America. Now it’s a fundamentally new day, and we’re in the mix with history again.

Theory: Newt Gingrich likes “fundamentally” because he regards himself as really important. Like, fundamentally important, and not just to us—to history. The possibility that he will change history by becoming President feels kind of flat to him. It doesn’t sing, probably because everyone knew Newt Gingrich was going to be President all along. The only interesting question is whether he will fundamentally change this country, and that’s what we’re deciding now. If we don’t pussy out, Gingrich’s ideas will fundamentally change America, possibly even American society. We’ll all wear hats on our asses and pants on our heads, once President Gingrich alters the necessary base or core of the United States.

There’s another meaning of “fundamental” that has some relevance here: fundamental in the sense of “so basic as to be hard to alter, resolve or overcome.” As in, “the American people are fundamentally opposed to voting for a smug fat man.” In an ideal society, we would recognize the man who says “fundamentally” as a reliably poor source of useful ideas, just as we recognize the one who says “truly” as a liar. I don’t think we’re there yet, but all it would take would be some subtle change. Probably, a couple of minor developments would do it. All we need to do is adjust our approach while preserving what’s working, and America could become a superficially better place.


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  1. What about yet another definition of “fundamental”: “The lower part of the body, on which one sits; the buttocks” (OED)? Or am I just being a late-to-the-joker, spelling out what was already implied?

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