How Newt Gingrich helped create Trump's toxic politics

by Paul Thomas / 03 November, 2018
President Trump’s Pittsburgh visit drew hundreds of protesters. Photo/Getty Images

President Trump’s Pittsburgh visit drew hundreds of protesters. Photo/Getty Images

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Trump may be the most ruthless and reckless practitioner of politics as civil war by other means, but Newt Gingrich started it. 

Being a strong believer that attack is the best form of defence, US President Donald Trump no longer bothers denying he had a fling with porn star Stormy Daniels shortly after third wife and future First Lady Melania gave birth to their son. Instead, he has given Daniels an insulting nickname: “Horseface”.

The instant reaction of some conservative commentators and politicians to the posting of pipe bombs to 13 prominent Democrats, including two former presidents, was that they were, in all likelihood, a “false-flag” operation perpetrated by leftists to make the right look deranged. Rather than pick up the phone to his predecessors who’d been the target of assassination attempts, however amateurish, Trump complained that the focus on the pipe bombs was deflecting attention from his message – specifically, that a Central American migrant caravan infiltrated by Middle Eastern terrorists is slithering northwards like a gigantic, venomous reptile and arresting Republican momentum heading into next week’s midterm elections.

The false-flag narrative, for which not a shred of supporting evidence was forthcoming, in effect asserted that leftists would happily maim or kill iconic progressive leaders and donors to liberal causes for short-term political gain. It’s quite possible there are individuals or groups on the far-left lunatic fringe who could contemplate such a thing. However, to wilfully overlook the obvious and proceed immediately to “false-flag operation” is like detectives leaping to the conclusion that a murdered woman who’d been trying to get away from an abusive, insanely possessive male partner arranged her own murder in order to frame him. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the pipe-bomb suspect turned out to be a rabid Trump supporter living in a van plastered with Trump posters, pro-Trump slogans and photos of Trump critics marked with gun-sight crosshairs.

Trump called for civility “on all sides” but, within days, was labelling Democratic donor and mail-bomb target Tom Steyer a “crazed and stumbling lunatic”. Republican House majority leader Kevin McCarthy posted a tweet suggesting that Steyer and fellow billionaires Michael Bloomberg and George Soros, another target, were trying to “buy” the midterm elections. All three have Jewish backgrounds. Fortunately for McCarthy, critics detected a distinct whiff of the “Jewish financiers” anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that goes back to the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a false-flag operation, probably masterminded by Czarist secret police, intended to promote hatred of Jews. McCarthy deleted the tweet before the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in which 11 worshippers died.

A woman pays her respects. Photo/Getty Images

A woman pays her respects. Photo/Getty Images

The republican way

Welcome to politics in the land of the free and home of the brave. The urgent need to reduce the toxicity levels in American politics and check Trump’s authoritarian tendencies make next week’s midterms the most consequential since 1994. With Bill Clinton two years into his first term, the Republicans ran on a Contract with America manifesto authored by congressmen Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey.

The effect was seismic and the aftershocks of the “Gingrich Revolution” are still being felt. The GOP gained control of the House of Representatives, ending 40 years of Democratic ascendency, the Senate and many governors’ mansions and state legislatures.

To the victors the spoils: Gingrich became Speaker of the House and was Time’s 1995 Man of the Year. Armey became House majority leader. The essence of their revolution can be gauged from some of their legislation: the American Dream Restoration Act; the Taking Back Our Streets Act; the Personal Responsibility Act.

Some of their legislation never became law and, at the federal level, the revolution petered out. Gingrich overreached, presiding over unpopular government shutdowns and leading the push to impeach Clinton over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The lack of public support for impeachment was evident at the 1998 midterms.

Newt Gingrich. Photo/Getty Images

By January 1999, Gingrich was gone, after being reprimanded for an ethics violation and forced to admit to an extra-marital affair with a much younger congressional employee. He was succeeded by Dennis Hastert, who had the twin distinctions of being the longest-serving Republican speaker and highest-ranked politician in US history to serve a jail sentence. The sentencing judge described Hastert as a “serial child molester”.

While Gingrich’s legislative record was mixed, his wider political influence was massive and enduring. Some Republican electoral gains were consolidated by gerrymandering, which the Democrats will have an opportunity to undo if they succeed in state-level races next week. And Gingrich adopted a tone and zero-sum approach that has become the Republican way of politics.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden: “The beginning of the scorched earth policy really began with Gingrich winning in the mid-90s and the enormous pressure put on moderate Republicans to walk away from anything remotely approaching a compromise.” Gingrich now advises Trump, who is both the inevitable product and most ruthless and reckless practitioner of politics as civil war by other means. They are, respectively, Dr Frankenstein and the monster.

All 435 House seats, 35 Senate seats, 39 governorships and various state legislatures are up for grabs. The polling has consistently indicated an 80% likelihood that the Democrats will gain control of the House and a similar probability that the Republicans will retain their Senate majority. However, polling guru Nate Silver recently suggested that the variables and unknowns at play mean other, very different outcomes can’t be ruled out. The first has the Democrats losing the key races by 2% or less and just failing to win the House while the Republicans actually increase their Senate majority. In the second, the much-talked-about “Blue Wave” sweeps the Democrats to a comfortable majority in the House and a narrow one in the Senate.

If the first scenario comes to pass, Trump and the Republicans will claim it as a resounding vote of confidence in them and an equally resounding vote of no confidence in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race. The next two years will be like the last two years on steroids.

And in that event, we might have to accept that the real problem isn’t the US President, it’s the US people.

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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