The rise and fall of Newt Gingrich: Princeton historian on the firebrand who remade the Republican Party — and paved the way for Trump
When I describe a Republican politician who rose the political ladder by smearing his political opponents with lies and attacking the system as corrupt, and who never expanded his core base while burning bridges with many of his onetime supporters, you might probably would assume I'm talking about Donald Trump. And you would be correct. Except there's another famous GOP politician cut from that same cloth who helped pave the way for Trump: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
As Princeton professor and CNN contributor Julian Zelizer lays out is his new book, "Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party," Gingrich was Trump before Trump. Zelizer explained in his recent visit to "Salon Talks" that Gingrich's "ruthless partisanship" and "political wrecking-ball" style helped usher in a new style of partisan politics. Before Gingrich, members of Congress in opposing parties were far more cordial with each other. Gingrich changed all that as the original "own the libs" conservative — who like Trump, he seemed to care more about garnering headlines and acquiring power (at any and all costs) than actually governing.
Gingrich led the GOP to a smashing victory in the 1994 midterm elections, gaining 54 seats in the House (and eight in the Senate) to win a congressional majority for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich's famous "Contract With America" was clearly a precursor to Trump's "Make America Great Again" agenda, but with a lot more legislative details.) Gingrich became speaker of the House in a major political realignment — but it all came crashing down just a few years later, when he was forced from power after the 1998 midterms, in large part because of Gingrich's scorched-earth style of politics as he championed the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Zelizer or read a transcript of the conversation below, to hear more about how Trump benefited from Gingrich's groundwork and why liberals have largely failed to learn the tough lessons of this new era of intense partisanship, but are finally showing signs of change.
Many will remember what happened with Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s and his impact on partisanship in Congress. Your book gets into that and Newt's origin story. I had assumed Newt was from some kind of elite family because he's stuffy and arrogant, to be blunt, but it was interesting to learn that his childhood and upbringing was vastly different than that. His father left his mother while she was pregnant with Newt. Share a little bit about that.
Yes, he was raised really in difficult circumstances. His mother would remarry to someone who was very kind as a person, but not a very easy person to be raised by. He was cold and tough on his son — a kind of macho stepdad who didn't give a lot of love, even though he took good care of him. He also did not grow up wealthy. He was an Army brat. He grew up in kind of blue-collar surroundings, living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for a good portion of his life during the summers and also settling in Georgia. Some of the conservative populism he promoted comes out of his own background and struggles.
You start the book with something that I did not recall that was much more recent. In 2016, Newt Gingrich almost became Donald Trump's running mate. He got very close. He was even interviewed by the Trump family.
As the Trump campaign started, Gingrich was one of the people in his inner circle. He was in his inner circle as an adviser, someone who Trump listened to, but he was also one of the people, in the final rounds, being considered for the vice presidency. In some ways, it became him or Mike Pence. I start the whole book with that story of him being considered, being in Indianapolis for a meeting with the Trump family and doing an interview on Fox News.
It was a great interview because Gingrich essentially gives a reason not to pick him. Saying that he's a pirate like Trump's a pirate, and two pirates on the ticket might be a little bit too much. Which is classic Gingrich — just saying what's on his mind, even if it hurts him. But it was important because I think the connection between them is at the heart of the book, with Gingrich's approach to partisanship and politics really being the foundation for what we see in the Trump White House.
Mike Pence has the unique ability to close his eyes and disappear in the middle of a storm of Trump literally yelling at people. Newt Gingrich is not like that. And with perhaps Newt on the ticket, Donald Trump wouldn't have won. Maybe the evangelicals don't come out when you have two deeply flawed men on social issues running together as a ticket.
Both their ego and their style don't necessarily complement each other. Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump have very large egos. This is something that even the closest advisers and friends of Newt Gingrich admit. Gingrich is also very much an in-your-face politician. That's at the heart of the book. He doesn't remain quiet. He likes to get out front and that's not what you necessarily want from a vice presidential pick. It would be triply hard with Donald Trump, who's constantly trying to get air time. Although in some ways it made sense, in retrospect it actually could have led to Trump's defeat.
You have a chapter titled "A Political Wrecking Ball." You've mentioned already that Gingrich laid the groundwork for Donald Trump to be a wrecking ball in 2016, both within the Republican Party internally and outside. There's one line you use about Gingrich's playbook, to the effect that everything could be turned to his advantage, and that if he's criticized for doing so, he cries foul. That's Trump. Without overstating things, if Barry Goldwater is a father of the modern-day conservative movement, then Newt Gingrich is the father of Trumpism.
I think it's not simply Trump, Gingrich helped invent the modern Republican political style. He came of age in an era where things were already becoming more partisan and the parties were more divided. Partisanship in the '70s and '80s was often seen as a good thing. That instead of bipartisan backroom compromises, we wanted politicians who stood for things. Gingrich then took it to a whole new level. He argued that in pursuit of partisan power, you can do almost anything. Any institution could be twisted and turned or it could be destroyed if it got in the way of what a Republican needed to do to win. The norms that were important to Washington so that legislators could interact with each other and that things didn't break down so badly that we essentially had a dysfunctional city — that didn't matter to him either.
He argued openly and repeatedly and in memos to colleagues, "We need an aggressive party that ignores all that stuff." He was willing to assassinate the character of his opponents. He was willing to take routine procedures and use them for his own political purposes. He was willing, and this is in the book, to take ethics reforms from the '70s meant to make Washington better and just use them to destroy his opponent. And that's Gingrich politics. And I think from Gingrich to the Tea Party to Donald Trump, there is a clear line. I do believe Gingrich was enormously important on that front.
Before Gingrich got to Congress, were Democrats and Republicans more cordial, more civil, to each other? Look where we are today. They barely talk to each other and it's become personal.
I do think before the 1980s there was more civility. I don't think that's just nostalgia. I do think members of both parties, generally, not everyone, but generally were committed to the job they had — to the idea that ultimately they were there to govern. And while they took firm positions — many Republicans opposed welfare programs, opposed civil rights, opposed any kind of federal intervention — in the end, they would work with Democrats on legislation, often compromising during the final vote.
Relations between members was far different. It was not as destructive as it was today. And there were just more boundaries to what you would do. Someone like Joe McCarthy from the 1950s, the famous senator who was a fierce anti-Communist, was ultimately pushed out. The party leaders said, "We can't have this as the face of our party. It's too destructive." And that mentality really was Washington until the 1970s. Gingrich just threw that out and introduced a new era where Republicans didn't have to worry about that. And you could have relations that were totally destroyed because that really wasn't his main concern. I think it's fair to say something happened in the '70s and '80s and he's a big part of it.
You write about Newt Gingrich attending Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1980 and a quote from that speech, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." When you hear that now, it seems so tone-deaf in the crisis we're living through today, both economically and health-wise with COVID-19. Do you think the GOP is going to have to shift away from this Reagan-esque philosophy?
Oh, we'll see. I think the quote you're talking about is at the heart of Republican politics since the 1980s. They're not always consistent. They certainly support military spending and Republicans allow the government to subsidize certain parts of the economy. But in general, this anti-government ethos is the guiding argument of what it means to be a Republican. It's part of why Gingrich could do what he does. I think Republicans can ultimately be more fierce than Democrats because they don't believe in government and they're not relying on it, whereas Democrats check themselves because they need government to function.
Does the pandemic undermine this argument once and for all? Meaning, is the crisis so severe and the need of government so clear that we move to a new philosophy in the GOP? I'm not sure. We've had other crises since the 1980s that revealed government was necessary, like the 2008 financial crash, where George W. Bush used a government bailout to save the economy. But the party keeps going back to this Reaganite philosophy. It's misplaced. I think it's just not accurate, but it still has a powerful hold on all Republicans.
You mentioned Joe McCarthy. Some have accuse Newt Gingrich of McCarthyism. As you point out in your book, Gingrich rose the ladder of power on the backs of carcasses, people he destroyed politically. What I was amazed by was that his only ideology seemed to be about acquisition of power, not focus on policy. Is that accurate?
Yeah, that is true. Before he's speaker of the House, he's not particularly interested in legislation. Members of Congress whose goal is to have a bill and to make policy, whether you're conservative or a liberal, he didn't care about that. And he was honest about it. He cared about partisan power. And everything he did revolved around that. And because of that philosophy, that's what allowed him to be very McCarthyite. One of the early stories I tell is in '83 and '84 where Gingrich would go on the floor of the House at the end of the day and make these one-minute speeches where he'd accuse Democrats of being weak on defense and failing to support Reagan's fight against communism in Central America.
He would ask individual Democrats to respond to the charge that they were essentially unpatriotic. What you couldn't see if you were watching C-SPAN was there was no one in the chamber. It was totally empty. Of course no one was going to answer, but it made the Democrats look like they were doing exactly what Gingrich said. A lot of Democrats said this was really low-ball politics, that it was Joe McCarthy again. The difference in my story is that Gingrich ends up in the leadership, as opposed to McCarthy, who was ultimately pushed out.
Now, at some point, there is a pivot to, at least on its face, policy, and that's with the Contract for America in 1994. And any fan of politics that rings a bell, Contract for America. Republicans were pushing this because they had not controlled the House for decades and they were getting a sense, maybe we could win the House. This is Bill Clinton's two years in, the economy's not doing great and here comes Contract for America.
What you started with is important to remember, Republicans were not in control of the House of Representatives since 1954. They were basically a permanent minority in Congress. And many Republicans thought that way. We're never going to have power. We're always going to be second fiddle to the Democrats. That was part of the appeal of Gingrich. He said, "That's not true." And he said, "We can fight in a way that will ultimately give us control back." And ultimately in '94, when he is leading the midterm campaigns, Bill Clinton is president, he nationalizes the campaign. He says, "Let's run it not as a bunch of local Republicans, but as a national party fighting for an agenda, just like a president does."
The "Contract With America" was actually for TV Guide. It's a pullout basically that you could put on your refrigerator with a 10-point plan promising what Republicans will do if they have power. A balanced budget amendment, term limits for members of Congress. It's kind of a hodgepodge of ideas, but the ideas didn't matter anyway, just like we're talking about with Gingrich. What mattered was having this symbolic piece of paper voters can put on their refrigerator and a promise of what they would do. And it worked. Many argue this kind of campaign tactic, very media-centered, was exactly what Republicans needed to do to finally win.
It was remarkable that you had Newt for years saying, "We can win the House." Finally it happens, they win in '94 and he becomes speaker in '95, third in line to be president. He gets his dream and then, within a few years, it completely unravels. Remind people again — this is like knowing the ending of the movie but not remembering exactly the details — what led to Newt Gingrich's collapse?
Well, it's the same thing throughout his career: He goes too far. It's in the nature of how he fights a battle. He will put everything on the table. He will go to places most people won't go and he uses the media to command constant attention. This is always the principle to what he does. All of that means it's easy for this to fall apart relatively quickly. And there were various moments before he's speaker where he goes too far and all the media attention he gets ultimately turns against him. And this was a big part of what happened as speaker. He introduces a new kind of speakership where he's on TV almost every day. He's challenging Bill Clinton for media attention, but ultimately stories emerged, such as when he was on the flight back from Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in Israel, he complained that Bill Clinton didn't come to the back of the plane and talk to him about a budget negotiation that was going on.
The media had a famous cover story, "Cry Baby," and it captured what he was about. He shuts down the federal government in '95 and '96 over this issue, and instead of turning in favor of Republicans for finally taking a stand, it made him look vindictive and petty and not capable of governing. Ultimately, he falls from power, but the other story is, his politics remains the way the Republican playbook is written. And that's a key part of the story that I want to tell: The Republican establishment, for the reasons you say, they were open to letting him in. They wanted to win and they were willing to embrace his style if that was the path to victory.
He probably was the biggest loser in the Bill Clinton impeachment, where he was leading the charge and then promising that in the midterms of 1998, Republicans be rewarded soundly with a lot of more seats. That didn't happen and he had to step down.
Two things happen during the midterms, which are right in the middle of the impeachment battle. Republicans don't do well in the House races, where traditionally these are midterms that you'd expect a Republican gain in seats. Because here you have a president being impeached. But they actually don't perform well and many Republicans blame Newt. The other part of it is the hypocrisy of Newt Gingrich, which is a part of the story that I tell.
He's often accusing people of doing exactly what he does. In the '80s, he's accusing the Democratic speaker, Jim Wright, of unethical behavior involving the sale of books, when he himself was unethically selling books, as would later be revealed. And in '98, he's leading a charge against the president revolving around his affair while he himself is having an affair. The combination of a poor performance in the midterms with everyone understanding that Gingrich is in the middle of the kind of relationship they were trying to tag the president with was devastating. They call for him to step down. In some ways that's very Gingrich-like, because Gingrich argued that no leader should be permanent. His whole career is about taking down people. Ultimately that's what they did to him.
I can't help thinking about the trajectory of Donald Trump. For years, he fought to become president, he talked about it for decades. Finally runs. Similar to Newt Gingrich, a scorched-earth campaign. He doesn't care who he destroys, even members of his own party, even former generals who served in his administration. Is it fair to say that Trump might be on that same trajectory of burnout?
Someone like Gingrich isn't a long-term player in many ways. Even though he's been around for a long time now, he's a burnout kind of politician because he puts so much heat and fire in his fights, and ultimately that's hard to sustain. Is Donald Trump in a similar situation? I don't know. Donald Trump has more of a foundation in some ways. He has an entire media apparatus with Fox News that wasn't there for much of a Gingrich's career. Even as speaker, it wasn't what it is today. Trump has a much more loyal Republican electoral base than Gingrich did. We've become more polarized and the Republican electorate is much more solid. It could be that he might be in a burnout mode, but it doesn't matter. The party is in a place where they will keep him in power. They will essentially say he's better than Biden and that works in his favor. It might not lead to the same fate, I guess I'm saying.
Republicans who like Trump are going to vote for him. But Trump used to tout his record, that everyone he endorsed for GOP congressional primaries won. Well he's lost three races in recent two weeks, including Mark Meadows' former seat in North Carolina. This 24-year-old insurgent, who will be 25 by the time he is sworn in, won the district. Does this show some weakening of Donald Trump's control of his base?
I think it's also a danger for him — meaning the burnout part. I think he can actually survive in the short term, but the one thing ultimately he can't survive is Republican leaders reaching the conclusion that they will lose their power because of him. They haven't reached that conclusion yet. But these primary fights, that's exactly what the signal is. Why doesn't he carry these tickets? Why can he put all of his energy into an endorsement — in Mark Meadows' case, for his chief of staff, former head of the Freedom Caucus, it's his seat and there's no control there. And that's where he's vulnerable because the Republican style of politics, there is no loyalty to person in this era. That is Gingrich in a nutshell. He wasn't loyal to anyone. What he was loyal to was power. So if these primaries start to suggest that Trump can't deliver. like Gingrich in '98, I do think more Republicans are willing to throw him off the ship. I think he understands that and we'll see how much they feel that. But I think it's definitely a red light for him.
The last part of your book is called "The Rise of a New Republican Party." I have to ask though, for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction, famous Newton's Law. On some level, isn't Newt Gingrich what led to the rise of a new Democratic Party in which you have insurgency and hyper-partisanship, not just because of Newt but with the fuse Newt lit? Now we have two parties where there are more extremes. On some level, do you think Newt Gingrich set us on a trajectory to where we are today?
It's an important point. In the period my book focuses on, the Democrats don't really adjust. And part of the story I'm telling, it's not just about Gingrich. It's about the fact Democrats didn't get where this was all going. They thought things were going to return to normal. They thought ultimately the Republicans would contain the Gingrich-like elements of their party, and they didn't have to fight in a tougher fashion because this was not how things worked in Washington. My book argues they were wrong. Jim Wright, the first real victim of this style of politics, resigns in 1989, based on the assumption he says in his speech, "If I resign, I'm sacrificing myself, let's go back to normal." He didn't get that Gingrich wasn't going to stop and the Republicans weren't going to stop. And what's interesting, in the last few years, just from observing it, the Democrats seem to possibly be changing. Some recognition that the rules of partisanship are pretty tough and that you can't simply sit back and assume "normal" anymore.
Then, at the grassroots level, you're seeing a pretty phenomenal showing of new elements of the party who on policy are demanding very different directions on issues from criminal justice to immigration to climate change. And we'll see, but I think if they connect to party leaders, as we're seeing with some of these Democratic primaries, which are bringing in a younger generation, they might start to embrace new tactics that aren't Gingrich like, but they're certainly a response to understanding that's what the Republican Party is about. AOC is a great example, I think, of a Democrat who is like what you're saying, who sees the game and without becoming Gingrich-ian is trying to hit back hard through social media, through very powerful appearances on the Hill and through good old-fashioned primary work to try to make sure the party moves in the right direction.