The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins had a fascinating interview with Newt Gingrich, who has latched onto President Donald Trump’s world like a 4-foot lamprey grasping onto an unlucky human in a Kurt Vonnegut story. The disgraced former House speaker and 2012 presidential candidate has been hovering around Trump's campaign and transition team for a year, defending him on Fox News and running a policy shop in Washington that was supposed to translate the new president’s disordered and often contradictory positions on issues into tangible, definable legislative goals.
The policy-shop job led up to Gingrich’s latest project: a book putting some sort of intellectual framework around Trumpism, that mix of rage, racism, braggadocio and simple-minded solutions that helped the businessman win the election. Coppins made clear that this is a difficult goal to achieve, considering how badly Trump’s agenda has foundered since he took office. Which isn’t going to stop Gingrich, a man who has never lacked for confidence in his own intellectual gifts, from trying really, really hard:
He praised the president’s Supreme Court appointment and his ambitious foreign trip as two major achievements that were fueling “dual revolutions.” But for the most part, he kept returning to praise of Trump himself, celebrating him as a larger-than-life, once-in-a-generation leader — virile and strong; dynamic and masculine; a force to be reckoned with.
This is laughable. Trump chose his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, from a list of bog-standard, hard-right conservative judges drawn up by the Heritage Foundation. The major result of his recent “ambitious foreign trip” may have been the final destruction of America’s standing as a partner of Western European nations and protector of the post-World War II international order. That is, I suppose, a revolution of sorts.
Take away those two “achievements,” and all we are left with from Gingrich’s definition of Trumpism is a personality cult propping up an inexperienced, intellectual lightweight of a president. Which ironically is a charge conservatives just spent eight years leveling at Democrats over their love of former President Barack Obama.
Gingrich is not the only right-winger who has attempted this exercise. There is also chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who has famously been portrayed in the media as the driving intellectual force behind Trumpism. During the campaign, a writer using the pen name Publius Decius Mus published a series of essays that endeavored to define what he called a “sensible, coherent Trumpism” and critics called bigoted and an apologetic for anti-Semitism. The man behind Decius was later revealed to be Michael Anton, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who now works in the White House as the National Security Council’s director of strategic communications.
What the efforts by these three men have in common is that they are trying to relabel old viruses that have coursed through America’s bloodstream since its founding as new forces in the nation’s political life. Donald Trump ran and won the presidency by spouting rhetoric steeped in the same old nativism and white supremacy that were present when his father was being arrested at Ku Klux Klan rallies. They have perhaps waxed and waned in how intensely they have affected the public’s consciousness and burst more fully into view at some points in the past than others. But as anyone who has even a passing familiarity with American history knows, such bigotry has always been part of the nation’s fabric.
The only difference this time is in the vessel. Trump himself is all id, incapable of the dog whistles favored by smoother politicians. There is no talk of “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” or a silent majority that favors equal rights for minorities but also wants a president to enforce law and order. There are only Trump’s Twitter outbursts and hard-right Republican policies, helped along by a GOP Congress.
Together, Trump and his party have tried to repeal Obamacare and mightily reduce taxes on the wealthy. They have rolled back regulations that keep businesses from destroying the environment and taking advantage of consumers. They have promised to turn Medicaid, a once-untouchable entitlement program, into the equivalent of Groupon. At the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions has been busy dismantling the slow, halting but nonetheless undeniable advancements made during the Obama years toward less racial discrimination in law enforcement.
It is impossible to know if Newt Gingrich really believes there is some intellectual scaffolding he can erect to camouflage this rollback of a century’s worth of building the welfare state or if he is just trying to remain relevant while padding his bank account with quickie biographies full of Trump hagiography. But one thing is certain: Whatever he and others may claim, nothing about Donald Trump's "movement" or ideology is remotely new.