Julian E. Zelizer, the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton, has chronicled America’s volatile late-20th-century political history in eight previous books. He spoke to PAW about his latest, Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party (Penguin Press), which argues that Newt Gingrich’s takedown of Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright in 1989 set in motion a “more aggressive, more partisan, and less restrained” politics that is still with us today.
What prompted you to focus on this now mostly forgotten battle?
Gingrich really was the guy who wrote the playbook for how Republicans approach politics, even before Donald Trump was on the radar as a candidate. Someone needed to tell the story of Gingrich in his early years: how this guy who was a maverick and an outsider all of sudden became in line to be speaker of the House. This is the origin story of the modern Republican Party.
You argue that Gingrich’s no-holds-barred attacks on opponents and media manipulation foreshadowed Trump. What are some key differences?
In 1989, Newt Gingrich was already showing that, in pursuit of partisan power, he was willing to break with convention, and governance wouldn’t be a priority. Trump does it on a scale that even Gingrich wouldn’t have imagined. He is truly unrestrained. President Trump also is more willing to dive into reactionary nationalist politics than Gingrich was back then. In the ’80s, Gingrich’s mantra was, “Washington and the Democrats are corrupt. The whole system is broken.”
This theme of Washington corruption has been taken up by the left as well.
Absolutely — Gingrich comes out of that 1960s and ’70s era when the left didn’t trust the Washington that produced Vietnam and conservatives didn’t trust Washington because they believed government, inherently, was bad. And today we are hearing some of the same themes, not just from conservatives, but from progressives as well.
Prior to your book, I associated Gingrich mainly with his conservative “Contract with America” legislative agenda.
Yes, I do think he’s often presented — and he’d like to present himself — as the ideas man of the Republican Party. There is truth to that for sure. But he really was more about partisan power.
You suggest that today’s polarization stems in part from this rancorous divide that Gingrich catalyzed. But doesn’t the division also reflect this country’s growing economic and cultural disparities?
There’s something to that. One way to look at it is that the country is just fundamentally divided on these issues. Another way is that part of this comes from how political leaders explain issues. Some of this [rancor] was generated by party leaders adopting a strategy to further partisanship.
What surprises did you find in Gingrich’s archives?
One was just how consistent he was in the strategy of focusing on the corrupt Democratic establishment. Similarly, he was very deliberative about how to use modern media. The third surprise [was that] a lot of the Republican leadership, the old guard, accepted what he was doing.
You depict Wright as an unpleasant, abrasive character. Do you think he violated House ethics rules, as Gingrich charged?
He didn’t break any laws, and he didn’t violate the rules technically, though clearly he stretched them sometimes as much as possible. I don’t think he was more corrupt than other politicians. He was not Richard Nixon. You could argue he was not as bad as Gingrich himself.
On the other hand, the story of John Mack, a Wright aide who’d served prison time for a near-murderous assault on a woman, is shocking. Do you believe Wright’s claims that he didn’t know the details?
All Wright would really say was that Mack was a good man, and he didn’t really know the extent of what he’d done. It raised questions of who does the speaker surround himself with, and what kind of person he was. There was no way to spin it. It was pretty devastating.
So, in a sense, Gingrich got lucky?
That’s absolutely true. That’s the great part of writing history — it’s not all a clear, linear story.
What about the role of the press, all those wannabe Woodward and Bernsteins?
They did come out of that 1970s era. A lot were really focused on money and politics as a big issue. They thought, even in retrospect, that they were doing the right thing. I don’t think reporters understood how this would be used by some partisan figures not to root out corruption, but to bring down opponents.
There’s some irony in Gingrich’s own downfall in the late 1990s.
Yes, he’s having an affair as he’s heading the impeachment of the president for his relationship with an intern. And he suffers ethics reprimands for his videotapes and book deal. He’s explicitly violating rules. His basic message was that everyone is expendable, so, ultimately, he himself was subject to the same kind of treatment.
What are the lessons for today’s politics?
One lesson is that partisanship isn’t this big, inevitable thing. There are political leaders who have been key in creating the system we have. [Another is] the media do have to think more. We see how this kind of investigative work can be twisted in a pretty dangerous political way. Third, I think the Republican Party has moved in a direction since Gingrich which makes governance really difficult. I really think Republicans need to think about what the costs of that are. And the final lesson is that the Democratic Party has never gotten where politics has moved. They’re playing by old rules.
You’re blaming Democrats for not understanding the new world order, but not for contributing to partisanship?
There’s this idea in political science of asymmetric polarization. That means Republicans moved much further to the right than Democrats have to the left. Democrats remain much more divided internally. It’s not that Democrats are blameless at all. But the weight of the changes in modern politics has been produced by the Republican Party. You can have very intense partisanship while still accepting certain conventions of governance, certain limits. Or you can do it Gingrich-style, where everything’s on the table.
Interview conducted and condensed by Julia M. Klein