Newt Gingrich Invented Donald Trump’s Lock-Them-Up Politics
How one man was the bridge from Reaganism to Trumpism.
By Jonathan Chait January 24, 2022
This past weekend, Newt Gingrich appeared on Fox News to denounce the Democratic voting-rights bill before veering — as he is wont to do — into other topics on his mind. Gingrich segued into the January 6 commission, which was cruelly “pursuing innocent people, causing them to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on legal fees” — a tactic Gingrich himself pioneered in the 1990s but which was now not only wrong but somehow illegal. When Republicans gain control of Congress, he warned, they will prosecute the commission itself for unspecified crimes: “When you have a Republican Congress, this is all going to come crashing down, and the wolves are going to find that they are now sheep, and they’re the ones who are going to face a real risk of jail for the kind of laws they are breaking.”
Gingrich’s host, Maria Bartiromo, rather than recoil in horror at this authoritarian-tinged threat, or even ask what crimes he had in mind, instead gushed, “This is such great analysis!”
The man casually threatening to imprison members of a bipartisan commission investigating a violent attack on the Capitol is not some marginal screwball. His influence is ongoing, most recently through advising House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on strategies to win the midterm elections, and long-standing. Donald Trump’s combination of bombast, ridiculous hair, and explosive political success would have been totally impossible were it not for Gingrich’s prototype.
A popular belief, especially among political centrists, holds that Trump is the antithesis of the old Republican ethos. On one side of this divide sits idea-oriented, Reaganite, small-government conservatism, and on the other, an angry, reflexively oppositional, authoritarian personality cult.
Gingrich belies that simple and comforting dichotomy. His career shows how the two strands are so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable.
Gingrich reshaped his party in two important ways. First, he instilled the belief that the party’s main problem was that it was too nice and accommodating to the opposition. “I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” he explained in 1978. “We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal, and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics.”
Gingrich trained House Republicans to depict their rivals in the most hysterical terms. A 1990 memo he wrote instructed candidates to label their Democratic adversaries with the terms betray, bizarre, decay, anti-flag, anti-family, pathetic, lie, cheat, radical, sick, traitors, among others.
And while Ronald Reagan gained credit for converting the party to supply-side economics and away from traditional fiscal conservatism, it was Gingrich who turned this program into a kind of theological tenet. Reagan, after all, had agreed to several tax increases in order to reduce the deficit his original tax cut had caused. But when George H.W. Bush made another deal in 1990 — to hike the top tax rate from 28 percent to 31 percent in return for hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts — Gingrich led a Republican revolt, ultimately deposing the House leadership. Since the 1990 Gingrich revolt, not a single Republican in Congress has ever supported even the tiniest tax increase.
Gingrich reached the pinnacle of his career after the 1994 midterm elections swept his party into control of Congress, which he depicted as a “revolution.” The conservative movement was intoxicated by power and possibility. The first issue of The Weekly Standard portrayed Gingrich as an action-movie hero, swinging from a rope while firing a machine gun over a flaming Washington landscape.
As the party’s chief ideologist, Gingrich castigated the Clinton administration as a radical, socialist threat that would destroy the American way of life unless it was destroyed itself. His party’s tactics reflected that apocalyptic conception of the stakes of their disagreement with the Democrats. First, Republicans shut down the government to force Clinton to accept their program, then impeached him.
While many Republicans initially met Trump’s 2016 campaign with disgust and attacked him as an apostate from the Reaganite creed, Gingrich quickly recognized Trump’s politics as an iteration of his own. In a March 2016 interview with Slate, he explained that he welcomed Trump not despite but because of his belief in movement conservatism: “Remember, I came in as a Reaganite, Kempite when I helped lead the effort in 1994. And I have consistently been in favor of a more aggressive, more active Republican Party that reaches out and expands its base and that is very, very idea-oriented.”
Gingrich’s fervent advocacy for Trump echoed the upside-down logic he had always used on his own behalf. On the one hand, he piously insisted he was motivated by high-minded ideas. “You are fascinated with sex, and you don’t care about public policy,” he scolded Megyn Kelly, shortly after Trump was caught boasting about sexual assault. On the other, he obsessively criminalized his opponents, both real and imagined, calling at various times for the arrests of such disparate figures as Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, Madonna, and various poll workers in states Trump claimed falsely to have won.
Meanwhile, the content of the policy itself seemed extremely pliable. In one postelection speech at the Heritage Foundation, Gingrich predicted, “My argument is that Trumpism produces a balanced budget largely as a consequence of its policies rather than by focusing on the balance itself.” It mattered not a whit to Gingrich that Trump’s policies actually increased the deficit. Sexual morality, like deficits, could either be the bedrock of social order or a totally insignificant hang-up of the elite media, depending entirely on which party could be held responsible for it.
Tax cuts remained the exception. Cutting taxes was the issue that enabled him to seize power within the party in the 1990s, and it held the party together under Trump’s presidency. No surprise that his advice to McCarthy reiterates the goal of cutting taxes again.
But more significant than the policy content of the Trump-Gingrich formula is its unwavering commitment to apocalyptic confrontation. Trump and Gingrich’s enemies are always liars and the embodiment of pure evil. The task is always to muster the courage to call out the lies of the liberals and the media and to mete out the same brutal treatment their enemies wish to use on them.
Many observers have assumed there is some neat conceptual divide between the slashing partisanship of a Gingrich and the naked authoritarianism of a Trump. If such a distinction exists, it is one of degree, not kind. At some point, the assumption that the opposing party is completely illegitimate and inherently criminal — beliefs Gingrich has promoted for decades — melds seamlessly into the conviction that your own party is entitled to lock up its enemies and hold power in spite of losing.
If you want to understand how the party of Reagan became the party of Trump, a grasp of Gingrich’s career is essential. He took control of the party at a time when its advance seemed precarious and infused it with the belief that it could only prevail through fanatical bellicosity. If Trump had not come along, there would have been no need to invent him; Gingrich was there all along.