The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Newt Gingrich started us on the road to ruin. Now, he’s back to finish the job.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) with President Bill Clinton during a meeting in Washington in December 1995. (Keith Jenkins/The Washington Post)
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Kevin McCarthy and his House Republican leadership team have called on Newt Gingrich to advise them on their midterm election strategy, The Post’s Jeff Stein and Laura Meckler reported recently.

Man of No Principles hires Man of Low Character: What could possibly go wrong?

But the choice is perfect, in a way unintended by the upwardly failing McCarthy. Gingrich, leader of the Republican Revolution of 1994, bears a singular responsibility for precipitating the ruin of the American political system. So it’s appropriate that he is returning for what might be American democracy’s final act.

Before and during his four-year reign as speaker of the House, Gingrich pioneered much of the savagery we see today: treating opponents as criminals, un-American and subhuman; using shocking language; perpetrating a grinding attack on the press; and sabotaging government operations and institutions.

McCarthy has a famous weakness for strongmen. First, he was Donald Trump’s “my Kevin.” Now, he’s a disciple of Trump’s demagogic progenitor.

Gingrich responds: Dana Milbank’s take on my role as House speaker was way off

Right on cue, Gingrich displayed his anti-democratic instincts. He said on — where else? — Fox News that if Republicans regain the majority in the House, lawmakers on the Jan. 6 investigative committee are “going to face a real risk of jail for the kind of laws they are breaking.”

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Threatening to imprison opponents for unspecified crimes? The hallmark of authoritarians everywhere. And vintage Gingrich.

Three decades before Trump inspired supporters to chant “Lock her up!” Gingrich popularized the idea that Democrats weren’t just wrong — they were criminals. They didn’t just disagree — they were corrupt and anti-American.

In the 1980s, as a young backbencher from Georgia, Gingrich led a successful campaign to oust Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright over ethics allegations. (Gingrich was later reprimanded and fined for similar offenses.) On the House floor, Gingrich accused 10 Democrats of illegality and disloyalty to the United States. In 1991, he suggested Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee would betray national security by leaking secrets.

He accused President Bill Clinton and countless other Democrats of corruption, illegal financial schemes and political campaigns, and endless coverups. He accused administration officials of shredding compromising documents and the president himself of “blackmail,” “lawbreaking” and subverting the “rule of law.”

As Jonathan Chait noted in New York magazine, Gingrich “obsessively criminalized his opponents, both real and imagined, calling at various times for the arrests of such disparate figures as Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, Madonna and various poll workers.”

McCarthy was still making sandwiches at his uncle’s yogurt shop in Bakersfield, Calif., when Gingrich began his reign of ruin. So perhaps McCarthy could use a history lesson.

“Listen to how he describes the politics of his everyday rivals, `the left-wing Democrats’: ‘sick,’ ‘grotesque,’ ‘loony,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘corrupt,’ ‘extraordinarily destructive,’” John Harwood wrote in the St. Petersburg Times in 1989. Gingrich said the Democrats’ “value structure” included “all the multipartner sex you wanted,” “all the recreational drugs you wanted” and “let murderers out on the weekends.” Gingrich said Democrats “represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness, and the total right to cripple innocent people.”

Such vitriol is commonplace now. Then, it was shocking. Gingrich mainstreamed the appalling.

Two decades before Trump campaigned against a “rigged” system and elections, Gingrich accused Democrats of “rigging” the ethics process and making “rigged” tax calculations. Gingrich also embraced white nationalism long before Trump’s rise. When Pat Buchanan launched his race-baiting primary challenge to President George H.W. Bush in 1992, Gingrich boosted Buchanan and accused Democrats of seeking “a multicultural, nihilistic hedonism.”

Long before Trump attacked the “fake news” media as the “enemy of the people,” Gingrich attacked the media for “despicable demagoguery.”

Long before Trump invented facts and leveled baseless allegations, Gingrich claimed up to a quarter of the Clinton White House staff had used illegal drugs.

Long before Trump said “the world is laughing at us,” Gingrich said: “All over the world, we look like a violent, helpless, pathetic country.”

Like Trump, Gingrich said his opponents were “vicious.” He accused them of “shamelessly lying and exploiting children,” of supporting child sexual abuse, of “decadence,” of being “counterculture McGovernicks.” Labor unions were “dictatorial.” Clinton created a “European Vietnam” in the Balkans and encouraged mass shootings by undermining American values.

Like Trump, he threw sand in the gears of government. Long before Trump shut down the government over his insistence on building a border wall, Gingrich admitted he shut down the government because Clinton had disrespected him aboard Air Force One and forced him to disembark via the rear stairs.

Gingrich pioneered the now-common refusal to negotiate, which brought hopeless gridlock and dysfunction to the political system. “We will not compromise,” he asserted before budget negotiations began.

So it’s entirely fitting that Gingrich is back atop the GOP. In a sense, he never left.

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