Back in January, I weighed the possibility of there being a modern equivalent to Walter Lippmann, a columnist and public intellectual who “spent most of his career ingratiating himself with presidents whom he then tried to sway.” The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts was pretty dubious about there being a modern Lippmann — not because there aren’t suitors, but because President Trump has no private self for a modern-day Lippmann to reach.
After close to five months, however, I think we have out first candidate in one Newt Gingrich. As McKay Coppins wrote last month in the Atlantic:
Even as the unique brand of politics that Trump championed in the campaign has been all but sapped of meaning in the early months of his presidency, an ever-growing number of opportunists and stakeholders has emerged to compete for the mantle of Trumpism’s premier public intellectual. Arguably no one has pursued that title more aggressively than Gingrich.
Since Trump was elected, Gingrich has written two books — a quickie e-book titled Electing Trump, and a slightly-less-quickie biography due out next month titled Understanding Trump — and has expanded his original Heritage speech into a six-part lecture series on the subject of Trumpism….
Of course, some will understandably balk at the idea of Gingrich — who was recently seen giving credence to a fever-swamp conspiracy theory about a murdered DNC staffer — as a public intellectual. What’s more, he’s not alone in his aspiration. A range of factions is vying for the right to define Trumpism — antiwar isolationists, economic nationalists, conservative populists. But unlike them, Gingrich doesn’t appear to believe that Trump’s electoral success was rooted in his flagrant violations of ideological orthodoxy. Indeed, the ideas that he projects onto Trumpism are fairly in line with the traditional GOP politics he’s spent his political life serving. What he sees in Trump is a style, an affect that could make that brand of politics lastingly successful.
Anyone who aspires to be a president’s Walter Lippmann has to be willing to engage in a bit of Straussian discourse, writing prose that could be read one way on the surface but another way by the savvier reader. Sure enough, Virginia Heffernan is that savvier reader in her review of the book for Politico:
Get into “Understanding Trump” and — no surprise — it’s mostly obsolete rehash, padded with Gingrich’s old writings as well as long quotations and appendices by other figures, including Trump himself. But what’s good about “Understanding Trump” is very good indeed: a touch of sly irony. …
Because it throws some shade, “Understanding Trump” says more about the canny figure of Newt Gingrich than it does about the headache-inducing figure of Donald Trump. Since being ousted as speaker — almost 20 years ago! — Gingrich has realized the showbiz aspirations that animate so many modern politicians, turning himself into Gingrich Productions, which churns out his books and documentary films, cultivates his Twitter and Facebook followings, and sets up his appearances on Fox News and elsewhere. Gingrich never did enact much of the Contract With America nor manage to harpoon his white whale, Bill Clinton, but just surviving as a public figure all these years is its own form of victory.
In the modern Ideas Industry, it would seem that Gingrich is the perfect muse for Trump. Except that it is worth noting at least two instances in which Gingrich has had to publicly prostrate himself before Trump in order to preserve his political fealty. The first episode, during the transition, came when Gingrich stated that Trump was softening on his “drain the swamp” rhetoric. This has turned out to be true, but at the time Trump quickly rebuked him. Which, in turn, led to this paean to North Korean confession videos:
More recently, Gingrich has managed to reverse himself in less than a month on the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. Here he was three weeks ago on the Mueller appointment:
That was then. Yesterday, Gingrich was sounding rather different on Twitter:
Credit to RedState’s Jay Caruso for catching Gingrich’s volte-face. Caruso concludes:
Once again, we have a situation where somebody looking into President Trump is on the receiving end of a smear attempt. Why? If the President did nothing wrong, wouldn’t he want the best of the best looking into it to announce he’d done nothing improper?
Instead, we see the beginnings of a political campaign aimed at undermining a person with a hell of a lot more credibility than the President of the United States.
This is why, efforts at Straussian irony or not, it is impossible to take Gingrich’s efforts to be Trump’s house intellectual very seriously. There is no actual cause for Trump to fire Mueller — it would simply be an exercise in raw politics. Strategically, it would be a galactically stupid move for a president with an abysmal approval rating. This is particularly true if Trump forces Rod J. Rosenstein, the acting attorney general on the matter of the special counsel, to resign in protest. But Jonathan Chait is correct when he suggests that Trump could actually do it.
As my Post colleague Aaron Blake notes, this is Trump’s problem as commander-in-chief:
This is the central problem with Trump’s increasingly embattled presidency: He broke all the political rules and disregarded his advisers’ exhortations, and he still won the presidency. As president, he assumes he can continue to do whatever appears to serve him personally and get away with it, even when advised not to by the people he’s supposed to trust…..
The fact that [Christopher] [Jason] Ruddy and Miller even need to go on the airwaves and tell him to avoid such an obviously bad course of action suggests, whether it’s this or something else, Trump will at some point be tempted to take things too far, in a way that might — finally and permanently — do him the kind of damage he hasn’t done yet.
This is, in other words, exactly the moment when a proper public intellectual would offer sober counsel about why this is a bad move. Instead, Gingrich is at the vanguard of the idiot pitchfork mafia trying to goad Trump into taking action. And his intellectual rationale for thi course of action? I believe it has something to do with Kathy Griffin and Shakespeare in the Park:
Gingrich may well wind up being the closest simulacrum to Trump’s Walter Lippmann. The fact that I could write that last sentence speaks very poorly of both Trump and Gingrich.