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 schtick, 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. They 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.