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They Were Made for Each Other

How Newt Gingrich laid the groundwork for Donald Trump's rise.

Getty Images/John Sommers II

Ronald Reagan may have defined modern conservatism’s political tone, but Newt Gingrich was responsible for defining many of its policy terms. The GOP of two decades ago was the Party of Gingrich, one unified by national themes and ideological coherence and dedicated to “60 percent issues”—non-divisive policy items that had at least that support with voters. Over the past year, Donald Trump has run with the intention of razing that party and upending all of those Newtonian rules. He has jettisoned much of the party’s conservative policy orthodoxy, replacing it with populist nationalism, and has built his platform on some of the most divisive issues in American politics.

So it might seem surprising that the former speaker of the House of Representatives has become one of Trump’s most high-profile foot soldiers and is on the presumptive nominee’s shortlist for vice president. But the two men have far more in common than it would appear.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Gingrich developed an obsessive focus on messaging, cultivating a political vernacular aimed at exploiting and stoking mistrust of Washington. This disruptive and symbolic politics of nihilism are now hallmarks of the Trump campaign. Gingrich also urged his fellow Republican representatives to transition from focusing on local issues to national ones, a shift that fostered much of the alienation on which Trump now feeds. In short, Gingrich wrote the slash-and-burn playbook that Trump has employed over the past year, and Gingrich’s Republican revolution created the conditions and political mood that allowed Trump to succeed.

Even before his election to Congress, Professor Gingrich kept a file on “Populism” in his office at West Georgia College that contained news clippings describing Americans’ loss of faith in government (one headline: “Why People Are Mad at Washington”). In 1979, he entered the House with a plan to forge a new generation of conservative leadership. But while he presented himself as a devout conservative, he built a platform around more pragmatic concerns. With poll-driven priorities, his Conservative Opportunity Society—a group of young, right-wing representatives intent on advancing a conservative agenda in the House—was as much about opportunism as opportunity.

Like Trump, Gingrich reveled in crossing symbolic partisan lines to signal his pragmatic reasonableness. He compared his tax policies to those of John F. Kennedy. He defended the Conservative Opportunity Society by equating it with the New Deal (“we believe in the New Deal,” he pledged in 1982. Like Trump exploiting the unmet needs of the GOP’s white working class, in the early 1980s Gingrich spotted holes in the political landscape and offered policies to fill them, supporting tech-industry investments, health insurance reforms, and tax simplification over tax cuts. This made him a rare political creature: the undogmatic ideologue.

For all this focus on policy, Gingrich believed the real key to electoral victory and governing success—to seizing power—was messaging. Gingrich understood that projecting seriousness about policy was a form of messaging. He organized his messaging efforts through GOPAC, a political action committee he cofounded with Delaware Governor Pete du Pont. GOPAC, which focused on training local and state politicians, distributed audiotaped speeches and campaign advice to Republican candidates. In one of these, the announcer advises, “Rule Number One about debates is always declare victory.” He continued, “In all of those media opportunities—debates, obligatory news stories, endorsements, advertising—try to get the media to raise your issues by repetition.” As a registered Democrat until the late 1980s who was focused more on real estate than politics, Trump most likely never listened to the GOPAC tapes. But he has mastered their tactics and strategies.

Thanks to Gingrich’s efforts, by the 1990s Republicans “were all singing notes from the same set of music,” as Guy Vander Jagt, a key Gingrich ally, recalled. And singing the same words: the GOPAC strategy memo “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” gave Gingrich’s army a common language. Promising to teach Republicans to “speak like Newt,” the memo listed more than 60 “optimistic positive governing words” to describe Republican positions—words like strength, pride, fair. Following that were as many “contrasting words” to describe their “statist, liberal opponents: corrupt, disgrace, pathetic, shame, lie.

Nor was Gringrich’s revolution simply a matter of messaging. Gingrich’s personal habits and political style, based on branding, confrontation, and anti-establishment rhetoric, display the hallmarks of Trumpism. Like Trump’s impulsive habit of scrawling bombastic notes to his opponents, Gingrich was also an obsessive note writer. His handwritten notes from the late 1970s and early ‘80s amount to page after page of numbered lists. They read like texts between Trump’s campaign staff today: “83. Be willing to be unpopular, uncouth.” “90. This is a confrontation business.” “67. Generate disorder.” “64. Have no shame.” Gingrich’s recent call for racial unity belies his earlier efforts to divide Americans on the basis of identity: “57. Get Blacks mobilized pro-life, anti-queer.”

Gingrich advanced his relentless messaging by a pioneering reliance on media—the signal strength of Trump’s campaign today. “My relationship with the media has been symbiotic since the beginning,” Gingrich said in a 1991 interview. His manipulation of new media was legendary. Noting that C-SPAN constantly filmed the House but seldom panned away from the speaker’s podium, Gingrich took to the podium one day in 1984 and delivered a blistering attack on Democrats, accusing them of being “blind to communism.” He even accused one Democrat of leaving communist propaganda in the speaker’s office.

Not a single Democrat protested—because the chamber was empty. Gingrich was playing to the cameras, and he understood that appearances, deceptive though they may be, mattered when it came to television.

This combination of messaging, media, and strategic confrontation was part of an overall politics of nihilism that Gingrich pioneered in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s difficult to capture just how novel Gingrich’s anti-establishment rhetoric was, given how central it has become to GOP politics. But Gingrich wanted to bring down the system and build something new, and Newtonian, on the rubble—just as Trump is attempting today.

Even some of the politicians with Gingrich on the frontlines of the revolution had reservations about his bomb-throwing (that tactic, too, was a priority on one list: “1. Bomb appropriate persons”). In 1994, Dan Coats, who served as a representative from Indiana throughout the 1980s, pinpointed the source of their discomfort. “Newt’s belief that to ultimately succeed you had to destroy the system so that you could rebuild it … was kind of scary stuff for some new people coming in,” he said. Opponents like Democrat Jim Wright weighed in as well, arguing, “At heart, Newt Gingrich is a nihilist. Throughout his career, he has been intent on destroying and demoralizing the existing order. He proudly calls himself a ‘systematic revolutionary.’” In Gingrich’s anti-establishment rhetoric and destructionist politics, he lay the seeds of the politics of nihilism that congressional Republicans have harvested in the Obama years.

There’s another, more structural way the Gingrich revolution begat the Trump nomination. As Gingrich’s congressional ally Vin Weber recalled, knitting together all of Gingrich’s tactics was an overall strategy of “nationalizing” congressional politics: focusing voters’ ire on the institution and partisanship rather than the Congress’s work. The 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns are well known, but Gingrich also pioneered the politicization of the ethics process (ironically, a strategy Democrats used to force his resignation as speaker of the House in 1998). Throughout his tenure, Gingrich’s nationalization of congressional politics accelerated the neglect of the local—infrastructure spending, social services, job training. Replaced by abstractions and posturing, Congress’ paralysis today feeds alienation in communities across America. Trump is now exploiting their anxieties and alienation in the most divisive terms imaginable.

Gingrich transformed the GOP, shifting its base from a postwar to a post-Reagan conservatism, one built on opportunism, media manipulation, and political nihilism. The conventional wisdom holds that Trump’s nomination is a rejection of conservative Republicanism. Rather, it is the apotheosis of Gingrich Republicanism turned in on itself: cynical, based on abstractions, and devoted to seizing political power. Which is why Gingrich and Trump have forged an unlikely partnership. Trump is the monster Gingrich helped create, and now the master has returned to serve his monster—perhaps even as his running mate.