Trump’s napalm politics? They began with Newt
By Jennifer Senior
Approximately 1 billion news cycles ago — which is to say, on June 9 — a businesswoman named Marjorie Taylor Greene won the Republican primary in Georgia’s deeply conservative 14th Congressional District, northwest of Atlanta, which means she’s all but assured a seat in the House of Representatives next year.
Unfortunately, she is a cheerful bigot and conspiracy-theory fluffernutter. She subscribes to QAnon, the far-right fever dream that says Donald Trump is under siege from a cabal of deep-state saboteurs, some of whom run a pedophile ring; she says African Americans are being held back primarily by “gangs.” (She’s left behind a contrail of unsavory videos through cyberspace, if you’d care to Google.)
The House Republican leadership is trying to distance itself from this woman, as if she belongs to some other party from a faraway galaxy. She doesn’t. Her politics are Trumpism distilled. And Trumpism itself isn’t a style and philosophy that began in 2016, with Trump’s election, or even in 2010, with the Tea Party. It began 40-odd years ago, in Greene’s own state, with the election of a different politician just two districts over.
I’m talking about Newt. You really could argue that today’s napalm politics began with Newt.
The normalization of personal destruction. The contempt for custom. The media-baiting, the annihilation of bipartisan comity, the delegitimizing of institutions.
“Gingrich had planted; Trump had reaped,” writes the Princeton historian Julian Zelizer in the prologue to his forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of a New Republican Party.”
I recently read Zelizer’s book with morbid fascination. My first real job in journalism was as a reporter for the The Hill newspaper the year it launched, in 1994, which happened to be the same year Republicans won control of the House, overturning four decades of Democratic rule. (I wrote nothing memorable that day, but I did come up with our banner headline: “It’s Reigning Republicans.”)
Gingrich became speaker the following January. It was a stunning development. Previous speakers, no matter how partisan they were, tended to work, lunch and even drink across the aisle. The only kind of cocktails Gingrich was partial to were Molotovs.
He conceived of governing as war. Democrats were not merely to be defeated ideologically. They were to be immolated.
Even as an inexperienced kid, I could see his ascension was bad news. Looking back, the parallels between then and now couldn’t be clearer.
Democrats were devastated that a man with so much malignity and anger in his heart could suddenly be at the helm; but in Republicans, Gingrich had a cult.
Gingrich despised the mainstream press, breaking with tradition and giving valuable real estate over in the Capitol to conservative, nativist-populist radio hosts who spoke loudly and carried a big shtick, just as Trump gives coveted space to the servile One America News Network.
Gingrich was my introduction to Orwellian newspeak. He had this tic of starting every other paragraph with “frankly” and then telling a lie; it was his poker tell. Falsehoods and hyperbole came as naturally to him as smirking. He freely trafficked in conspiracy theories. His PAC circulated a pamphlet for aspiring politicians who wished “to speak like Newt.” It advised them to repeat a long list of words to describe Democrats, including sick, pathetic, corrupt.
Like Trump, Gingrich was a thrice-married womanizer who’d somehow seduced the evangelicals. He too had a skyscraping ego, nursed grudges as if they were newborns, and lacked impulse control. In 1995, Bill Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One; he responded with a tantrum and shut down the government, prompting The New York Daily News to run a cartoon cover of him in a diaper under the headline “Cry Baby.”
Gingrich turned the politics of white racial grievance into an art form. It may have started with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, but Gingrich actually came from the South. He intuited the backlash to globalization, to affirmation action; the culture teemed with stories about white men under siege. (Including the Michael Douglas movie “Falling Down,” about a divorced, unemployed defense contractor’s descent into armed madness.) It wasn’t long before 1994 became known as “The Year of the Angry White Male.”
Most of Zelizer’s book is about Gingrich’s Javert-like quest to bring down the House speaker, Jim Wright, for his shady ethics. (Gingrich succeeded, only to later be reprimanded and fined for his own ethical breaches.) Zelizer never mentions individual parallels to Trump once he starts telling Gingrich’s story, which is clever, because there’s no need. They hop off the page like frogs.
But the one that stands out, the one that goosepimples me even as I type, is this: Gingrich was the first true reality TV politician. He understood that the C-SPAN cameras didn’t have to be a passively recording set of eyes. You could operatically perform for them. Early in his career, Gingrich staged a coordinated attack on House Democrats that drew so much fury from Speaker Tip O’Neill it earned him time on the evening news. “I’m famous,” he crowed.
“Conflict equals exposure equals power,” became one of his favorite sayings. Which may as well be the motto of reality television. And Trump.
Assuming she wins in November, Marjorie Taylor Greene will likely be relegated to the margins of her caucus. But if Gingrich — and Trump — have taught us anything, it’s that there’s no telling where the last exit is on the loonytown expressway to extremism; we know only that the guardrails get lower with each passing mile. “These are the depths to which we’ve descended,” Zelizer told me in a phone call. “No one ever thinks that an outlier will one day be the party’s future.”