The blame for today’s polarised world is most often laid at the door of President Trump. He is credited with climbing to power on the back of colourfully-worded hate politics and of providing the inspiration for Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummins, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland.
But who inspired Trump? The answer is the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich was—still is—a staunchly conservative Republican from the deep south state of Georgia who entered the political arena in the 1970s when southern Democrats were shifting to the liberal left in a vain effort to retain power in the South in the aftermath of the civil rights campaign. Gingrich believed that the answer to the loss to the conservatives was to replace it with a radicalised and more conservative Republican Party.
Key to his goal was gaining Republican control of the House of Representatives. It was a difficult task because the Democrats had held the majority in the lower house of Congress since 1956. By the 1994 mid-terms, Gingrich had climbed through the congressional party ranks to become House Minority Whip and a power within the Republicans. And then, only six weeks before polling day, he launched a far-right manifesto entitled “Contract with America.”
The manifesto was a success. The Republicans won control of the House. But the tactics used to win that control were as important—if not more so—than the party policies. Before Gingrich the conventional political wisdom was that in the two-party system the route to political success was through the capture of the political centre ground.
Gingrich argued that the Republican base could be expanded by focusing on capturing the far right of the political spectrum. To achieve this he introduced a new emotive political lexicon. Whenever discussing rival Democrats, Republican politicians would pepper their speeches with negatively-charged words such as radical, sick, traitors, betray, lie and decay. Positively-charged words such as courageous, brave, wise and principled and opportunity were used to describe anything involving the Republican Party. Gingrich’s lexicon became official party policy and was circulated in 1990 by GOPAC, the Republican Party’s training organisation for elected officials, under the title “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control.”
Another of Gingrich’s contributions was “wedge issues.” These are carefully selected emotive subjects which can be boiled down to a simplified sound bite which appeals to an easily identifiable demographic. The purpose of a wedge issue is to force your opponents into an opposing position, leaving the voters to choose between what is portrayed as two extremes in which just as many will vote against as for a policy. Successful wedge issue topics in America include race, immigration, crime, national security, abortion, gay rights and religion. In recent years in the UK they included many of the same subjects with the addition of Brexit.
Gingrich’s success paid dividends. He was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1994 and elected Speaker of the House. Unfortunately for Newt, his tenure at the top of the greasy political poll was cut short. Eighty-four ethics charges were filed against Gingrich during his term as Speaker. One of them stuck—a claim for tax-exempt status for a college course run for political purposes. As a result, the House officially reprimanded its Speaker for the first time in history.
Gingrich was Speaker during the Monica Lewinsky affair and the driving force behind President Clinton’s impeachment in the House. But while Gingrich was attacking presidential morals, he was himself in the middle of an extra-marital affair with a Congressional staffer 23 years younger than him.
The Republicans retained their majority in the 1998 elections, but lost four seats. The unexpectedly poor showing combined with criticism of Gingrich’s low life and divisive tactics to force his resignation from Congress. But the Georgia Republican’s career was far from over. In 2012 he came close to winning the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. In 2016, he decided against running, but was an early supporter of Donald Trump and acted as a consultant on his campaign. He was reported to have been on a shortlist of three for the job of Trump’s running mate, but by then was more interested in his lucrative career as a writer, broadcaster and highly-paid after dinner speaker.
Donald Trump has used the tactics pioneered by Gingrich to great effect in adjusting the American system of checks and balances to the advantage of the presidency. Gingrich’s political strategy was also carefully studied in Britain and reached its fruition with the 2016 Brexit referendum and the post-referendum battle. The long and acrimonious debate raised disturbing underlying attitudes on immigration, race and national identity. It has also weakened parliament’s power to act as a check on the powers of an executive prime minister.
This week, the Cambridge University-based Centre for the Future of Democracy reported that 60.3 percent of the British electorate were unhappy with their political system. The researchers said that there was a global trend of falling trust in the ability of democratic politics to deliver good government—in the US and everywhere else in the world where they have adopted the Anglo-Saxon political model. Totalitarian countries—such as Russia and China—and countries which describe themselves as “Illiberal managed democracies”—such as Hungary and Turkey—are actively using the dissatisfaction and polarisation in Britain and America to argue that parliamentary democracy is the politics of the past.
Political journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor.