Power  /  Antecedent

They Were Made for Each Other

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

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.