“I think it’s important to realize how much the world has changed.”
It’s the kind of phrase that sounds bold at first, but blander the second time. But context matters. The world has changed — a backlash from nationalist populists against the unpleasant backwash of globalism has grabbed headlines by the throat. This past year, we’ve seen Britain exit the European Union, a rejection of refugees from multiple countries and resurgence of the far right in countries such as France and the Netherlands. At the epicenter, of course,was Donald Trump, the tweet-mugging, bombastic, always entertaining leader of the free world. And the man now standing in front of us was none other than one of his staunchest allies, Newt Gingrich.
“In Brazil, they have a bribery scandal involving their government owned Petroleum Company, which apparently amounts to about 40 billion dollars in bribery. The current president was impeached, the former president was indicted and the replacement president is now under investigation.” He talks with a cutting voice that reaches all the way back to the auditorium. Physically, he isn’t impressive — he’s pudgy yet stumpy, and his default expression is bemused — but he speaks with such conviction you’re almost forced to believe him.
“In Italy, the corruption was so bad, that for the first time in its 1200 year history, Rome elected a woman as mayor, and she was the candidate of a party that was founded by a comedian.”
Before his meteoric rise in politics, Mr. Gingrich had lived a sleepy life as a history professor for an obscure Georgia college. Wanting something more, he left academia for politics. Still, the strands of the profession never left him. Like a professor, he barely used the podium given to him to speak from. Instead, he paced around the stage, never once lifting his gaze for the audience. His cadence was perfect for the lecture hall: clear and unwavering, with only a slight Southern drawl. While he looked like the kind of man who would say “dandy,” he didn’t. After all, you don’t become Speaker of the House by talking like Jem Finch.
His tales of Italy and Brazil had a point. What it showed to him was that the world was adopting a new philosophy in choosing their leaders. The political game had evolved. Career politicians no longer had an edge on outsiders. On some level, he’s Charles Darwin, explaining the obvious evolution of politics to this natural ferment of populism. But on another level, he’s talking about disruption.
“To understand Trump” — and now he held the gaze of every single person in the lecture hall — “he’s 1/3 Andrew Jackson for sheer disruption.” Inwardly, I groan a bit. Andrew Jackson isn’t exactly what people remember fondly as a great president. Between the Trail of Tears and the Panic of 1837, his track record is filled with some of the dimmest lowlights of any president. But then again, that’s maybe not what Mr. Gingrich meant. Put the portraits of Jackson and Trump together, and you might see the parallels: the flamboyant, sometimes untamed hair, the intense eyes that remain laser focused on something just beyond their grasp, revealing their high-wire obsession with the concept of never backing down. In 1832, Jackson was faced the dissolution of the Union, when South Carolina refused to comply with tariff laws and proposed that any state could nullify federal laws. Enraged, he threatened to send troops to the state that he declared stood “on the brink of insurrection and treason.” Squint hard enough, and you might convince yourself Trump was actually the one that presided over the nullification crisis.
“The reason he [Trump] got rich in part is that he’s very practical.”
One of the things Gingrich touts about Trump is his practicality. He could measure the number of bricks in a building with the margin of error of an engineer. He wasn’t Wall Street — he didn’t finance buildings, rather he built them. And that’s why, he believes, Trump won. He’s in touch with the working class, because he’s just like them. But the elites didn’t get him. Why?
He explains: “40 percent of our governing elite are intellectuals yet idiot.”
“The only thing they’re good at is taking exams and writing essays. They could write a brilliant essay on how to change a tire, but if you showed up with a flat tire, they wouldn’t have a clue.”
“Intellectual”, he pauses, “yet idiot.”
It’s not what he said that’s interesting. It is for whom he was speaking. In a country that is now split not along party lines but rural and urban ones, Gingrich (and Trump) have taken a sledgehammer to the façade of the intellectuals. It is why, when he ties Trump to an election in Rome or praises his practicality, he’s not being ; he’s being in touch with the commoner.
The Democrats learned it the hard way this time. But Gingrich too learned it himself a long time ago: in the 1974 election for the 6th congressional district of Georgia — his very first foray into politics — he’d run as a Republican candidate who appealed greatly to Suburban families, winning a substantial amount of votes. But he lost the election when the man running against him won large tallies in the rural areas, a striking parallel to last year’s election. At the time, it was a bitter defeat for the unknown history professor. But the election resonated with him. That’s why today, when he speaks about the sway of populism, he isn’t speaking as a Trump sycophant. He’s speaking from experience.
One of the things that surprised me about Gingrich was the striking contrast between him and Trump. While both he and Trump raised contentious points, Gingrich spoke in a self-aware, softer tone that belied my expectations. Watch Trump speak on T.V., and he’s looking to stoke anger. His cadence has been sharpened to a point, his emotions palpable, while thinly veiled threats are part of his repertoire. But Gingrich is smarter. He relies a bit more on humor and anecdotes. (At one point, he mentions that when his conservative colleagues become irate with Trump, he tells them: “Close your eyes, and say the words ‘President Hillary Clinton’.” The swarm of conservatives around me burst out laughing. My liberal friend and I aren’t so amused.)
He also shows a level of accountability. When pressured with a question on drug and criminal policy, he admits his past mistakes: “We made, I think, a major mistake in that we treated crack cocaine different than other cocaine, and that clearly had an unintended and dramatic effect on the black community.”
But most importantly, he’s a man of nuance. He understands the final act of his career will be defined by the Trump presidency. It’s a risky bet. He gets it.
“This is one of the great gambles of America in American history”, he admits. “It may work out to be extraordinarily successful, or it may it work out to be a mess, I don’t think we know yet.”
“But I’m on the biased side that it can be very successful.”
William Wang is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Willpower appears alternating Monday’s this semester.