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How Newt Gingrich Laid the Groundwork for Trump’s Republican Party

8 minute read
Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University. He is the author of a new book, Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker and the Rise of the New Republican Party.

As Republicans prepare for their party convention this summer, we will see the inevitable head-scratching take place about how the party leaders gave way to Donald Trump. There will be panels of pundits on television endlessly debating why the “establishment” failed to hold back the renegades—Republicans who refuse to abide by any norms, Republicans who are willing to tear down institutions, and Republicans who have almost no interest in governance. How was it, they will ask, that the party of Lincoln allowed themselves to become the party of Trump, controlled by the president, Senator Mitch McConnell, and the Freedom Caucus?

We experienced this recently when former Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that he would vote for Biden. In The New York Times, we learned that “growing numbers of prominent Republicans are debating how far to go in revealing that they won’t back his re-election—or might even vote for Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee.” The early stories included the claim that former President George W. Bush might not support Trump, though his spokesperson quickly announced that this was “completely made up.”

That entire conversation rests on a myth that the renegades have taken over the GOP. The truth is they did so decades ago. In the 1980s, “Party Gatekeepers”—the senior elected officials and party operatives who had greatest influence within the party—made a Faustian deal with the burn-down-the-house mavericks that forever changed the character of the party. Until analysts reckon with the fact that there is no old-school Republican establishment anymore, we will never understand what the GOP has become to its core. Donald Trump is not an outlier. He is a perfect fit for the modern Republican Party.

It all started forty years ago with Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980, which was both exhilarating and frustrating for younger members of the party. With his victory, the conservative revolution reached its greatest moment of triumph, finally gaining hold of the levers of power. But continued Democratic control of the House of Representatives, which had been the status quo since 1954, proved a massive obstacle to achieving their goals.

That’s when Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich entered the picture. Elected in 1978, Gingrich arrived in Washington eager to shake things up. He argued that if the GOP ever wanted to defeat the Democrats, they needed to embrace a smashmouth style of partisanship which revolved around character assassination, violating norms and tearing down governing institutions. “If you teach them how to be aggressive and confrontational,” Gingrich wrote to House Minority Leader Robert Michel, “you will increase their abilities to fight Democrats on the floor.” If the GOP was not more aggressive, they would always remain in the backseat. To promote his vision, Gingrich organized a group of like-minded conservatives called the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS).

Thirsty for power, party leaders took the deal. The gatekeepers invited the bomb-throwers into the temple in 1984 with Camscam, the stunt where congressional Republicans stood in front of the C-SPAN cameras and accused Democrats of being weak on defense. House rules stipulated that the camera could only show the person speaking. Since viewers couldn’t see that the chamber was empty, it looked to C-SPAN viewers like Democrats had no response. Robert Michel, known as an old-guard Republican who practiced civility and bipartisanship, authorized Gingrich and his allies to make these speeches as he realized it would wound the reputation of Democrats. When Speaker Tip O’Neill lashed out against Gingrich by ordering the television cameras to pan to the empty chamber, House Republicans jumped at the opportunity to call him a tyrant who broke the rules to shame the minority party. The party released a report trying to prove Gingrich’s point with countless examples of the Democrats violating the rules for naked partisan power. The corrupt Democratic majority became a central theme for all Republicans.

Then came the 1988 presidential campaign. By the summer of 1988, Gingrich had launched a series of ethical charges against Speaker Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, claiming that he was the “most corrupt” Speaker in the history of the institution. Although most legislators didn’t think there was much to the charges, other than lapses in judgement that were common among many members of Congress, Vice President and Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush promoted the scandal to the public during his campaign. Desperate to respond to the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who was attacking the “sleaze factor” in the Reagan administration, Bush’s campaign advisor Lee Atwater convinced his boss to start talking about Wright. “I wonder if Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson will join me in calling for the House of Representatives to appoint a special prosecutor to look into its own troubles,” Bush said during a campaign stop in New Jersey, “starting with the Speaker of the House.” Bush elevated Gingrich’s campaign to the forefront of party politics. The month after Bush took office, under the direction of Ed Rollins, the Republican National Committee announced that in the 1990 midterms Wright would be “Target No. 1.”

While mudslinging was always part of elections, Atwater was someone who took the art to new lows. Like Gingrich, he was willing to say and do just about anything in order to win. While Gingrich elevated partisanship over governing at every turn, Atwater did the same with campaigning. Whatever the costs to our institutions and ability to govern, so be it if the outcome was partisan victory.

As a result of his campaign against the Speaker, Republicans elected Gingrich to be their Minority Whip in March 1989. In a stunning upset against Ed Madigan of Illinois, a favorite of the party guardians, Gingrich won with a broad coalition. Even moderates such as Olympia Snowe of Maine went against their centrist political disposition to empower Gingrich because they believed he was their path to power. Gingrich “has the vision to build a majority party and the strength and charisma to do it,” explained Connecticut’s Nancy Johnson, a moderate who surprised many with her support. Once he secured the vote, Gingrich was officially part of the leadership team. “Confrontational conservative wins the party’s no. 2 post,” blared a Los Angeles Times headline. Emboldened by these developments, when asked how far he would go in the campaign to win control of the House, Rollins said: “I promise you today that I won’t steal, murder, lie, cheat or pillage, but other than that I think just about anything goes.”

April and May of 1989, the last months of Gingrich’s campaign to bring down Speaker Wright, were remarkable for how little distance there was between Republican leaders and Gingrich. The leadership supported Gingrich by promoting a full-scale attack on the way that House Democrats maintained their power through corrupt practices and a manipulation of rules. Although there was some element of truth to the fact that Democrats ruled Capitol Hill with a strong hand, that didn’t necessitate a partisan response that ripped apart institutions and norms to the point that they were irreparable. This was a choice that the GOP made. Most senior Republicans, until that time, had avoided such a path. When figures had emerged who pursued this style, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, they were ultimately checked rather than elevated into the leadership. When Wright delivered his famous speech on the floor of the House offering his resignation, Gingrich gloated in his notepad entry: “Must be doing good at my job for them to come after me like this.”

Ever since Republicans opened the doors to Gingrich, the Republican Party has never been the same. Gingrich pioneered the kind of tear-down the institutions partisanship, where the imperatives of governance are always secondary, that continues to define the party to this day. It drives elected officials to constantly push the boundaries of what is legitimate in the name of partisan warfare.

The party gatekeepers of yesteryear opened the doors to all of this. In 2020, not only can the so-called “establishment” not contain the renegades, the renegades have become the establishment. If there is any establishment figures left who feels qualms about Trump’s presidency, most will shove those concerns aside because Gingrich and Trump have helped maintain their power.

If that calculation changes, this is when Trumpism would finally find itself under internal fire.

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