Some blame Donald Trump. Others blame social media. And those with longer memories blame Newt Gingrich for carving up America into blue states and red states racked by mutual fear, suspicion and alienation.
As speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, the Republican arguably did more anyone else to sow the seeds of division in Washington. “Newt Gingrich turned partisan battles into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump’s rise,” reflected the Atlantic magazine in 2018.
But now the 77-year-old party grandee, former history professor and author of three books lionising Trump must contemplate a new chapter in which the ultimate outsider president makes way for Joe Biden, the ultimate insider who has promised healing, unity and a return to pre-Gingrich norms.
So where does the Republican party go from here? “I’m guessing, but I think we’re going to be the commonsense reform party,” Gingrich says by phone from Rome, where his wife, Callista, is American ambassador to the Vatican.
“You look at the degree to which the bureaucracies don’t work. You look at these Democratic governors who are petty dictators and you look at the challenges facing us – whether it’s a collapsing education system, a collapsing infrastructure, competing with China – and you know that the Democrats, as the party of government employee unions and liberalism, aren’t going to be able to deal with any of this.”
As the dust of last month’s elections settled, Marco Rubio, a Republican senator for Florida and potential White House contender in 2024, called for the party to cool its love affair with big corporations. “The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working-class coalition,” he told the Axios website.
Gingrich believes it is already on the way but, as seems habitual among many in Trump’s orbit, he again pivots to a critique of the other side. “It is becoming that partly because the left is so desperately committed to being the party of very wealthy people living in enclaves, explaining that the police don’t matter because they have their own security guards.”
Democrats have also succumbed to a liberal theology, he argues, echoing a rightwing “culture wars” talking point. “What you have, I think, is a Democratic party driven by a cultural belief system that they’re now trying to drive through the school system so they can brainwash the entire next generation if they can get away with it.”
A red tsunami beat the blue wave at the polls, he continues, pointing to unexpected Republican gains in the House, victories in state legislatures and various defeats for leftwing causes in state referendums. He singles out for praise Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, whose political action committee dedicated to electing Republican women reaped dividends.
“What an amazing job she did. If we were liberals, the covers of all these women’s magazines would be ‘The year of the Republican woman’ but of course, that would be so politically incorrect they couldn’t do it. So the only place that’s truly an anomaly is the presidential race. I think it’s an anomaly so I find myself engaged as a historian every day trying to figure out what in the devil is going on.”
Though there is no factual basis for this claim, Gingrich shares Trump’s view that fraud must be the explanation and has said so on the conservative Fox News network. “I don’t see how any reasonable human being can – you can argue over how much it was – but it’s clearly the most in our lifetime,” he insists.
Trump’s homeland security department described the election as the most secure in history; his justice department uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud; state officials including Republicans reported no significant irregularities; judges tossed out numerous Trump campaign lawsuits.
Yet 18 Republican attorneys general and 126 House Republicans backed a preposterous lawsuit to invalidate millions of votes that was given short shrift by the supreme court. The failed coup was the latest measure of Trumpism’s spread into every organ of the Republican party.
But ultimately, Gingrich believes, Trump’s future sway over the party will depend on Trump himself. “He’ll remain a dominant figure for a fairly long period of time, depending on how hard he wants to work at it and how serious it is. People fade pretty quickly if they don’t pay attention. This is a country of enormous restiveness.”
Does he expect Trump to run for president again in 2024? “I have no idea,” admits Gingrich, who sought the Republican nomination himself in 2012. “He certainly can look at [former presidents] Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland and then make his own mind up.
“If he does run, he’ll be very formidable and part of it’s going to be based on what happens with Biden. If Biden ends up drifting into a really serious recession, the temptation for Trump to run on ‘I told you so, would you like to go back to my economy?’ may be overwhelming.”
Biden will inherit overlapping crises of public health, the economy, racial injustice, the climate and democracy. Even in more serene times, incumbent presidents typically suffer losses in the House midway through their first term. With Democrats now holding only a fragile majority, the Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, could claim the speaker’s gavel in 2022.
Gingrich, who was a member of Congress for 20 years, muses: “As a historian, I’m pretty cheerful. When [Bill] Clinton won, we picked up 54 seats two years later and when [Barack] Obama won, we picked up 63 seats two years later. I don’t know that the House Democrats get slaughtered on that scale but I’m 99% sure that McCarthy is the next speaker of the House.”
Control of the Senate, meanwhile, hinges on two runoff races in Georgia early next month. If Republicans preserve their narrow majority, will Biden be able to work with the majority leader, Mitch McConnell?
Gingrich, just seven months younger than the president-elect, says bluntly: “He won’t have any choice. That’s the genius of the American system. But if he wants to get nothing done, he doesn’t have to work with Mitch.
“Mitch’s memoir, called The Long Game, really helped me understand him much better. He’s a very long-term player and he’s very self-contained so he’s not intimidated by anything. When he finally forged an alliance with Trump, it was astonishingly productive if you’re a conservative and has given us probably two generations of conservative judges.
“Particularly if we win the two Georgia seats, which I think we will, Biden’s going to have to decide, does he want to try to move to being a moderate Democrat, in which case his left will rebel and go crazy, or does he want to stick with the left in which case nothing will get done? And Mitch will be happy with either outcome.”
There is a historical rhyme here with the 1990s when Gingrich led a Republican majority against a centrist Democratic president in the shape of Clinton. There may be lessons from that experience for both sides.
“An immense amount got done but it’s also why the left hates Clinton. He signed welfare reform, he signed capital gains tax cut, he signed four balanced budgets. It’s nothing to do with his personal behaviour. It’s very much like what happened to the prime minister in Great Britain, Tony Blair: both of them were centrist and both of them were viciously repudiated by their left even as they were popular in the country. It’s just fascinating stuff.”
Could Biden, who is making overtures to Republicans and giving little voice to the left in his cabinet, pay a similar price? “He will.”
The Clinton v Gingrich years are also often cited as the start of the rot in American democracy. Gingrich was a political pugilist who hurled insults, played to the cameras and set about blowing up the bipartisan consensus. His Contract with America proposals in 1994 helped Republicans win a majority in the House for the first time in four decades.
Clinton was impeached for lying under oath and obstructing justice to conceal an extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich declared it “the most systematic, deliberate obstruction-of-justice cover-up and effort to avoid the truth we have ever seen in American history”.
Looking back, does he accept the view that, among the causes of today’s hyperpartisan climate in Washington, he played a role akin to a coal-fired power station?
“We had been in the minority for 40 years and unless you had a clear, vivid, polarising message and style, you were going to be in the minority for 40 more years,” he says frankly. “So I did my job, but I also proved over and over again I could work with Clinton. I worked with Democrats all the time. It wasn’t a pathology. It was a professional job.”
Today’s dysfunction, rancour and tribalism cannot be pinned on one person alone but has multiple causes that run deeper, acknowledges Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington. But Gingrich certainly had an outsized role.
“He was the original polariser,” Lichtman says. “Way back when he was first elected decades ago he criticised the mainstream Republican members of Congress because he thought they were too acquiescent and not engaged in sufficiently vigorous political warfare against the Democrats.
“He was also, very importantly, one of the architects of one of the most pivotal elections in modern American history, the midterm elections of 1994, when Republicans took over the House and the Senate for the first time since the first two years of Dwight Eisenhower. That election also greatly contributed to polarisation because it wiped out a lot of moderate southern Democrats and replaced them with very conservative southern Republicans.”