When Newt Gingrich stormed into Congress in January 1979, newly elected at the age of 35, he was already fully formed. His mop of hair had not yet gone gray, as it would soon do prematurely, but in all key respects he was the Newt we know: demanding attention, raging against one establishment or another, portraying politics as a holy war, and proclaiming himself the savior of Western civilization (a career goal he had set while in high school).

And he was proudly pro-cannibalism. “The great strength of the Democratic Party in my lifetime,” he told a rally of College Republicans in 1978, just before his election, “has been that it has always produced young, nasty people who had no respect for their elders.” This was a compliment. “The Democrats,” Gingrich said, “understand that cannibalism is the nature of the business” — that the old order, when it had exhausted its usefulness, should “get jumped on.” By contrast, “one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which . . . are lousy in politics.”

Four decades later, the nastiness of the GOP — and therefore of much of our national life — can be seen as Gingrich’s most lasting achievement: nastiness as a virtue, a governing principle, an end in itself. We live today in the world Gingrich wrought, and the story of how he wrought it is the focus of “Burning Down the House” by Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. Zelizer is not the first to suggest that Gingrich “broke politics,” as a recent article in the Atlantic put it, but his book provides an engaging, unsettling and, alas, timely look at the torch that Gingrich took to our system of self-government.

“Here’s how it starts,” Gingrich grinned at a House freshman orientation event in December 1978, flashing his brand-new congressional ID card and strutting around like he owned the place, or would someday soon. His agenda, like his manner, was almost comically grandiose: to make the GOP the majority party in the House, where the Democrats held a margin of 119 seats and had ruled without interruption since 1955. The prevailing mood among Republicans was acquiescence, a tacit acceptance of the order of things. Gingrich, however, relished conflict. He stoked it remorselessly — not just against Democrats but also their appeasers, as he saw them, within his party. “You’re fighting a war . . . for power,” he had told the College Republicans, and what he meant was a guerrilla war, contemptuous of the rules of combat. The goal, Zelizer explains, was “constant mayhem.”

The House offered many targets. As members of the majority, Democrats had long been cosseted by interest group money, favors and perks; party leaders seemed largely oblivious of the extent to which Watergate had heightened public distrust of politicians. And Watergate was hardly the last of it: That scandal was followed by Koreagate, which The Washington Post called a “cash-based lobbying campaign” by a South Korean businessman, and by Abscam, a 1970s sting operation in which FBI agents dressed as sheikhs handed bribes to congressmen while surveillance cameras rolled. When Gingrich charged onto Capitol Hill, clamoring about corruption and moral rot, the man had found his moment.

Gingrich had little interest in ethics, except as a cudgel. His own conduct, personal and political, was far from exemplary. But as Zelizer writes, he had “a central insight: the transformational changes of the Watergate era . . . could be used to fundamentally destabilize the entire political establishment.” Post-Watergate reforms, designed to open up the closed doors of the Capitol and let the sunlight in, gave Gingrich an arsenal of weapons. Public hearings were an opportunity to drag reputations through the mud. Ethics investigations were a means to portray legislative dealmaking as a venal, vaguely criminal act. C-SPAN, a product of the reform movement, became a forum for character assassination, unfiltered, in prime time.

It is hard, at this distance, and with President Trump in the White House, to appreciate how extreme this all seemed. House Republican leaders like Robert Michel of Illinois — a genial, agreeable, mid-century man — viewed Gingrich and his tactics with distaste. Still, they found his plan to slash and burn their way to power “highly seductive,” in Zelizer’s words. Frustrated by their many years in the minority, provoked by a rising class of radical conservatives and by the advent of right-wing talk radio, “the Republican leadership didn’t have to be dragged into Gingrich’s world kicking and screaming.” Neither did Presidents Ronald Reagan or George Bush, who looked the other way while Gingrich did the dirty business of maligning the opposition.

A self-styled David, Gingrich found his Goliath in Jim Wright, the long-serving Texas Democrat who became speaker of the House in 1987. Gingrich’s campaign to depose and, really, to destroy Wright is the central episode of “Burning Down the House.” Many readers will know how the story ends, but Zelizer tells it with authority, investing it with tension as Gingrich conjures the storm and wrecks, perhaps permanently, the political landscape. “Too often,” Zelizer argues, “we treat partisan polarization . . . as an inexorable force,” a law of physics. But that, as his book makes clear, overlooks the responsibility of politicians like Gingrich who, with forethought and malice, pushed Congress into “a deeper abyss.”

Within months of Wright’s election as speaker, Zelizer writes, “Gingrich pounced.” He and his aides circulated newspaper articles claiming that Wright had cut favors for shady associates and augmented his income in unscrupulous ways. Gingrich played the press brilliantly, letting reporters imagine they were the next Woodward and Bernstein. Inevitably, an Ethics Committee investigation followed, generating more of what Zelizer calls “smoke that looked like fire.” While “Wright had done some unsavory things,” the author observes, no evidence emerged that the speaker had gone “beyond the ethically gray behavior citizens often see from legislators, including Gingrich himself.” Wright had always been unloved, if effective; now, as his hold on the reins slackened, his party abandoned him. He resigned his post and his seat in May 1989, admonishing both parties to “bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end.”

It was a vain hope. In a matter of weeks, Gingrich’s allies and aides began spreading false rumors that Tom Foley, Wright’s successor as speaker, was gay, and Michel, laboring to keep step with the times, insisted that the “cleansing process must continue.” This it manifestly has. Republicans learned not only to “speak like Newt,” as a 1990 pamphlet urged, but to act like Newt — even, it turned out, toward Newt himself. Gingrich’s troubled tenure as speaker, after the GOP took back the House in 1994, lies beyond Zelizer’s scope, but there is an excellent book to be written about the difficulty of running an institution that one has trashed. Gingrich has never been much for irony, but when his fellow Republicans forced him out in 1998, in part over ethics violations, his final lament had a familiar ring: “I’m not willing,” he complained to his colleagues, “to preside over people who are cannibals.”

Burning Down the House

Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party

By Julian E. Zelizer

Penguin Press. 356 pp. $30