Let’s lay this baby at the feet of its father: While Donald Trump may prove to be the one who administers the coup de grace, finishing off the Republican Party as we have known it, the individual most responsible for the GOP’s ongoing self-destruction is Georgia’s own Newton Leroy Gingrich.
He has always pined for a great historic legacy, and we are now witnessing it.
If you think that’s an exaggeration, make a list of the changes in the GOP that have been led or inspired by Gingrich over the last quarter-century. Then make a separate list of the problems that have undermined the party and brought it to a place in which Trump may be its next and last presidential candidate. You’ll find that the overlap between the two is significant:
— Start with the style and tenor of modern Republican politics. Ceaseless confrontation, bullying, appeals to anger, resentment and persecution, a capacity for shamelessness that allows you to say or do anything to win — these have long been the hallmarks of Gingrichian politics. As we’ve seen in this presidential cycle, the Gingrich style has become the house style of the Republican Party as well.
— The GOP world view, in which their political opponents are not merely wrong or mistaken but agents of pure evil out to betray all that is good and decent in America, is also a distinct Gingrichian legacy.
“These people are sick,” he said in a typical comment back in 1989, describing his Democratic colleagues in Congress. “They are so consumed by their own power, by a Mussolini-like ego, that their willingness to run over normal human beings and to destroy honest institutions is unending.” At the time, that kind of apocalyptic rhetoric was so rarely heard that it was shocking. Gingrich has made it standard behavior. It’s not just how they talk; it is how they have been taught to think, and how their base has been taught to think. As Gingrich once put it, “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz. I see evil all around me every day.” Again, you can hear that same messianic mindset every day on the GOP campaign trail.
— Gingrich came to power in the early ’90s through an all-out, brutal assault on the credibility of the GOP establishment, inspiring a cycle of cannibalism in which each succeeding wave of Republican politician is instantly cast as insufficiently conservative and ardent by those ambitious to replace them. Such constant purges build strict party discipline, making any breach of orthodoxy unforgivable, but as Eric Cantor can testify, they also cement in place an ideology that over time can only get more extreme.
— “One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” Gingrich told a group of Republican college students way back in 1978, and he launched a decades-long crusade to correct that problem and teach them to “speak like Newt”. Based on the crude invective now being leveled by Republican presidential candidates — allegations of pant-wetting, Mafia connections, the public use of the “p word”, innuendo about genitalia size — his efforts can be deemed a success.
— Two words: Government shutdown. During his tenure as speaker, Gingrich showed the party that it can accrue an easy form of power by always saying no, by never saying yes. Saying no made them feel good, as if they mattered, as if they were bravely standing up to the system. The fact that it is negative power, capable of shutting down the system but never capable of governance, does not register.
Look at what is happening in Congress right now, where House Speaker Paul Ryan can’t even get his GOP caucus to agree among themselves on a 2017 budget. The stubborn far right won’t give in to the stubborn far far right, and vice versa, because the instinct to say no, to refuse to compromise, is that ingrained in Republicans. By now, it is the only way they know how to operate.
It’s also telling to watch Newt react to all of this. Mitt Romney, John McCain and other top Republicans are horrified by Trump, but Gingrich is not. Trump’s attack style, his crudity, his appeals to bigotry and his lack of policy comprehension — I mean, what’s not to like, as long as it works?¹ The mere idea of Trump appeals to Newt’s romantic Jacobin instincts.
In short, Trump is the culmination of Gingrichian politics, and Gingrich rather likes it.
¹In a speech today, Gingrich even condemned Romney’s recent attack on Trump as “vitriolic and nasty,” terminology that he has never applied to Trump himself.