Newt Gingrich Created the Atmosphere and Combative Politics That Gave Rise to Donald Trump: The vigor with which Democrats pursue Donald Trump has precedent – in the roots of our hyper-partisan political environment.
In the 1990s, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich “turned partisan battles into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump’s rise,” McKay Coppins wrote in an article titled “The Man Who Broke Politics.” Indeed, a line can be drawn from the Gingrich-Clinton relationship to the government shutdown of 1995, to the Monica Lewinsky affair, to Trump’s rise, and the Democrats’ subsequent treatment of Trump.
Remarkably, as history.com reports, it all began with a simple snub.
Did a Snub Plant the Seed for Partisan Politics?
“In November 1995, Newt Gingrich gave President Bill Clinton an ultimatum: approve cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other programs, or he would shut down the government.” Clinton didn’t blink – and neither did Gingrich, indeed shutting down the government when Clinton refused the cuts.
Gingrich had effectively orchestrated the shutdown when he sent Clinton a bill that Gingrich knew the president would not sign. Gingrich’s primary objective was forcing Clinton into a shutdown, for which Clinton would be blamed, hence harmed politically. It was clever, machiavellian, and of course, directly in conflict with the interests of the American people. Gingrich almost pulled it off – if not for some candid disclosures during a mid-shutdown press breakfast.
Gingrich acknowledged that he was motivated to shut down the government, in part, because of a snub aboard Air Force One. Apparently, while traveling to Israel for the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin, Clinton failed to speak with Gingrich, who was forced to exit the plane from the rear.
“This is petty,” Gingrich said at the press breakfast, “[but] you land at Andrews [Air Force Base] and you’ve been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp … You just wonder, where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?” Gingrich said the Air Force One trip was “part of why you ended up with us sending down a tougher” spending bill. “It’s petty … but I think it’s human.”
Gingrich’s willingness to shut down the government – over a social snub – emphasizes the manner in which he operated. Indeed, many scholars believe that Gingrich was a transformational figure, largely responsible for today’s hyper-partisan political climate. It wasn’t just the obstinance or the pettiness. Gingrich also infused hyperbole into the political conversation. “Gingrich instilled a more “combative” approach in the Republican Party,” The New Republic reported. “He called Democrats corrupt and sick, and accused them of trying to destroy the country.”
“Donald Trump is widely and correctly criticized for assaulting democratic norms,” TNR continued. “But Trump didn’t cause the problem. The erosion of democratic norms began decades ago.”
With Newt Gingrich. “Backed by a small but growing group of loyalists, Gingrich launched an insurgency aimed at instilling a more “combative” approach in the party. Taking advantage of a new media technology, C-SPAN, Gingrich used hateful language, deliberately employing over-the-top rhetoric…He questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism. He even compared them to Mussolini and accused them of trying to destroy the country.”
Why We Have Politicians Like Donald Trump and AOC
Such rhetoric has become commonplace today – prominent politicians from Trump to AOC employ that kind of talk regularly. It starts with Gingrich, who “helped to establish ‘politics as warfare’” and was willing “to seek victory by ‘any means necessary.’”
In Gingrich’s case, the any means necessary included several government shutdowns – “a dangerous turn. As norms of forbearance weakened, checks and balances began to devolve into deadlock and dysfunction.”
The Gingrich style of leadership paved the way for the House impeachment of Bill Clinton. “The move ran afoul of long-established norms. The investigation, beginning with the dead-end Whitewater inquiry and ultimately centering on Clinton’s testimony about an extramarital affair, never revealed anything approaching conventional standards for what constitutes ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’” Yet, the Gingrich led Republicans forged ahead, eager to impeach Clinton for something. It was a bona fide witch hunt.
Unfortunately, the behavior has become accepted and ingrained – even amongst Democrats, who have been investigating and accusing Trump relentlessly, of myriad high crimes and misdemeanors, for years, without solid proof. The ongoing DOJ investigation into Trump’s mishandling of classified documents is just the latest ripple of the style of governance Newt Gingrich mainstreamed.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.