The presidential candidate was loud, brash, and unafraid. He was not only a critic of the bipartisan establishment, he was also willing to name names. He possessed a brilliant and eclectic mind, leading him to make sweeping declarative statements, as well as raising issues that nobody else was talking about—or even thought of. Yes, everything about him was different; even his hairstyle was different.
His rivals and critics accused him of all sorts of things. He was an unprincipled opportunist. He was an unstable demagogue—even as he wasn’t ideological enough. Indeed, perhaps the biggest rap on him from the right was that the wasn’t sufficiently devoted to the orthodoxy of True Conservatism.
So into the heavy crossfire the candidate boldly galloped. Campaigning in heavily evangelical South Carolina, he was perfectly respectful of religion, and yet his outlook was distinctly secular; he was, after all, on his third wife.
Even so, he won big in the Palmetto State’s Republican primary, by double digits.
Am I describing Donald Trump in 2016? Yes, but I am also describing Newt Gingrich in 2012.
After South Carolina, of course, the fates of Gingrich and Trump diverged. Gingrich was walloped in the next contest, Nevada, four years ago, while Trump, on Tuesday night, won the Silver State in a landslide. And so in 2012, after Gingrich lost Florida to Mitt Romney—buried under a fusillade of negative advertising, to which he didn’t have the resources to respond—the Georgian was effectively out of the race.
Yet to the end of the campaign, and to this day, Gingrich has retained his following. Everyone who thinks to himself or herself, There has to be a better way, is an instinctive Gingrich ally.
As the veteran political strategist Marc Rotterman, who, as a Reagan campaigner and staffer, had a ringside seat to watch the rise of Gingrich—as well as other “young turks,” such as Jack Kemp—observes,
Newt has always had a rebel, anti-establishment side, to go with his enormous intellect. He has always rejected the crony-ish business-as-usual style of K Street, and that has freed him to think up genuinely new ideas.
We might observe that Gingrich always moved on two tracks. First, taking on the established powers that be. Second, hatching big ideas.
First, as to anti-establishmentarianism, beginning in the early 80s, Rep. Gingrich developed a clever and politically effective dichotomy. On one side, in Gingrich’s telling, we had the “Conservative Opportunity Society.” This was the world of freedom, entrepreneurship, and innovation. On the other side, Gingrich continued, was the “Bureaucratic Welfare State”—with all the creativity, elan, and effectiveness of the Post Office.
Moreover, Gingrich was willing to punctuate his argument with armor-piercing language: He routinely blasted his opponents as “sick,” “pathological,” and even, referring to the doddering Soviet leader of that era, “Brezhnevian.” Of course, the worst aspects of the 1980s status quo required such tough talk; the sclerotic incompetence of urban public schools, for example, was a scandal—a well-funded scandal.
Second, as to big ideas, in 1984 Gingrich published a book, Window of Opportunity, an unabashed paean to the transformative promise of technology. Luddite critics jibed at some of his ideas, such as his plan for orbiting space mirrors to beam solar power back down to earth. Yet all the snarking aside, Gingrich’s basic point was both sound and profound: Computers, Moore’s Law, and the power of human genius were going to change everything—and, as a country, we needed a plan to deal with both the upside, and the downside, of that change. The downside, of course, was the human destruction that happens within economic “creative destruction.” As his friend and colleague Jack Kemp always insisted, leaders must follow the model of the Good Shepherd, leaving no part of the flock behind.
So that was how Gingrich got his start. Although always a partisan Republican, he was impatient with, and curtly dismissive of, the familiar go-along-get-along mentality displayed by many GOPers of that era. And so Newt, the neo-Reagan Revolutionary, moved swiftly up the ranks: By 1989, he was the de facto leader of the House Republicans, and then, in 1994, he led a nationwide populist rebellion—the signature of which was the famous “Contract with America,” driven by the social media of the era. And the next year, 1995, he was Speaker of the House.
As with Trump today, Gingrich was outspoken, and that outspokenness sometimes got the Georgian in hot water. (Some might say that Gingrich was politically incorrect before political incorrectness was cool, although others might say that it was Trump who made anti-PC cool.)
Still, even after leaving the Speakership in the late 90s, Gingrich kept enough of his mojo that he was able to revive his insurgent energy when he ran for the White House in 2012.
In that campaign, as always, Gingrich was true to himself. And, as always, the establishment was true to itself. On January 26, 2012, on the heels of Gingrich’s Palmetto State victory, the Republican candidates met for a debate in Jacksonville, FL. In the course of making a point about, yes, making America great again, Gingrich mentioned the idea of building an American colony on the moon. We might note that such thinking, heavy as it was with high-tech, high-paying jobs, was common in the US a half-century ago, even if it has been lamentably scarcer since. As Gingrich said during the debate, “It is possible to do the right things in the right order to make this a bigger, richer, more exciting country.”
Immediately, Mitt Romney pounced, displaying the same spreadsheet mentality that made him so effective as a corporate cost- and job-cutter:
I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, “You’re fired.”
No, there was no vision in Romney—and he was proud of it.
Now fast forward to today: Whether one loves him or loathes him, it’s obvious that Trump, too, is saying different things. If Gingrich was an iconoclast, Trump is really an iconoclast.
Yet even so, there’s an intellectual core to Trump that his critics, obsessed with his stentorian style, tend to miss.
And so, as with Gingrich, onlookers don’t know what to make of the New Yorker. For instance, after Trump attacked Bush 43 for his handling of the Iraq War in the February 13 debate in Greenville, SC, the Smart Set’s reaction was swift: “Insiders: Trump flopped in debate,” was the headline in Politico; one of those insiders snapped, “Trump’s attack on George W. Bush was galactic-level stupid in South Carolina.”
Just a week later, of course, Trump won the state handily. Thus we might conclude that there’s more anger among the working- and middle classes—that is, the folks who actually did the fighting in Iraq—than those soft-handed armchair strategists ever imagined.
The Trump constituency might not have magazines and journals of their own, but it nonetheless has found ways to communicate—and motivate. And if this has come as a shock to the elite, well, welcome to the new world made possible by Facebook, Twitter, and message-boards.
In fact, all through history, we can observe that the lower classes have had trouble making themselves heard—until they erupt. The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle noted this phenomenon back in 1839; in those days, populist currents flowed swiftly through Britain, racked as it was by the tumult of urbanization and the Industrial Revolution. “The speaking classes speak and debate,” Carlyle wrote, but the “deep-buried [working] class lies like an Enceladus” [a mythological giant imprisoned under a volcano], who in his pain, if he will complain of it, has to produce earthquakes!”
That’s the Trump vote, right there: an earthquake. Over the past few years, while the MSM has been lavishing attention on, say, Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, the working class has been gathering in its anger—and in its plan for political revenge.
Yes, sadly, the decades-long trend of declining incomes (according to the Pew Center, the share of national income for the middle class fell from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent today), and even declining health (according to two Princeton economists, life expectancy for working- and middle-class whites is actually declining), merited only the scantest of attention from the chattering classes—until this year, when the Trump voters took history into their hands.
Indeed, even now, as Trump seems headed for victory, the condescension from up above is obtusely thick. National Review magazine, for example, has taken a principled orthodox conservative position against Trump, and that’s a fair stance, given Trump’s obvious lack of orthodoxy.
Yet some of its writers have gone further than that, reducing their stature, and that of their magazine, with streams of contemptuous venom. For example, NR’s Kevin Williamson, writing on February 4, begins by noting, correctly, that it’s possible to see an antecedent to the Trump campaign in the 90s presidential bids of nationalist conservative pundit Pat Buchanan. But then Williamson goes on to slur the men, and the women, of the Trump movement as mere “boys,” and welfare-minded boys–and maybe neo-Nazis to boot:
Trump is this year’s celebrity mascot for the Buchanan boys. The Buchanan boys are economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government without enduring the stigma of welfare dependency. So they construct for themselves a story in which they have been victimized by elites and a political system based on interest-group politics that serves everyone except them. Trump is supported by so-called white nationalists, as Buchanan was before him, but the swastika set is merely an extreme example of the sort of thinking commonly found among those to whom Trump appeals.
Indeed, on Wednesday morning, National Review casually referred to Trump’s “devoted core of rabid fans.”Rabid?
Note to National Review: You serve the conservative cause better by trafficking in ideas, not smears. If no black American should be insulted by being called a “boy,” or “rabid,” no white American, either, should be so insulted.
Of course, disdain for “Trumpkins” is hardly limited to the haute right. Speaking for the left, The New York Times, too, likes to rain down its opprobrium; a February 23 headline reads, “Measuring Donald Trump’s Supporters for Intolerance.” One guess as to the Times’ verdict.
So, having read, yet again, that white people are the bad guys and that Trump supporters are racist, a dutiful Times reader would undoubtedly be confused by this data point: Trump’s percentage among Nevada Hispanic voters, according to exit polls, was identical to his percentage overall.
As an aside, some will wonder why Trump, the would-be wall-builder, did so well among Latinos. No doubt political scientists will be picking apart the data for years to come, but history provides one obvious answer: Working people always appreciate tight labor markets, which tend to increase their wages. And that preference holds true across the ideological spectrum; a socialist manifesto from 1910, for example, was similarly hostile to wage-undercutting new workers:
The Socialist Party of the United States favors all legislative measures tending to prevent the immigration of strike breakers and contract laborers, and the mass importation of workers from foreign countries, brought about by the employing classes for the purpose of weakening the organization of American labor and of lowering the standard of life of the American workers.
So Democrats might be on notice: The hearts of American Hispanics might be with the next wave of migrants, but their wallets might be with the wall-builders.
We can further note that one issue that Hispanics care about especially is healthcare. While every American probably has one gripe or another about Obamacare, Hispanics have supported the national health insurance program in notably strong numbers; according to the Pew Center, 61 percent of Hispanics say that it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure that all Americans have health insurance, compared to just 47 percent of the public as a whole.
It’s easy enough to see why: Hispanics typically have lower incomes; they fully understand that the free market could leave them high, dry—and uninsured.
So once again, we can recall the historical wisdom of Thomas Carlyle, a fierce social critic who nevertheless wrote from a Burkean place on the right, strongly opposing the libertarianism of others to his left. Describing the protests of 1839, he heard an ironic and bitter laughter:
It is not a joyful mirth, it is sadder than tears, the laugh humanity is forced to, at Laissez-faire applied to poor peasants.
That is, the let-them-eat-cake attitude of the upper classes was funny—but only if you thought the French Revolution was funny.
Continuing, Carlyle mocked the idea that Englishmen of the 1830s could easily survive against the erosion of rural life and the rise of factories, which pushed the working poor off the land and made them completely dependent on their meager wages:
Laissez-faire, on the part of the Governing Classes, we repeat . . . will . . . have to cease . . . a world well let alone will no longer suffice. A Do-nothing Guidance; and it is a Do-something World!
Yes, it’s a “Do-something world.” Problems need to be solved. That is, at a time when traditional ways, and traditional institutions, are being pulled apart by the forces of technology and globalization, it’s simply not possible to say that the Invisible Hand will take care of everything and make it all well.
To put it another way, those atop the commanding heights of the planetary economy—Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Chinese government—simply laugh when they hear about “freedom,” as if that’s any sort of answer to the pulverizing power that they wield. To them, freedom is just another name for spreadsheeting, to be followed by algorithmic data-crunching, and, of course, outsourcing.
The point here isn’t to argue about the world economy, or the merits of capitalism in its diverse forms. Instead, it is simply to observe that world economic players need to be guided by rules—rules both of fair play, as well as of the national interest.
To be sure, there are those who would happily sacrifice their own fellow citizens—and national security—on the altar either of profit or of ideology. Thus Trumpianism stands athwart the railroad tracks of history, yelling “Stop!” One needn’t endorse Trump-the-man to see that Trump-the-ism has potent and enduring appeal.
So in the great struggle that’s already begun, we’ll have to wait and see who wins. Yet surely, if the elite were true to their own high opinion of themselves, they could find solutions that both preserve the free market and preserve the well-being of Middle America.
We might conclude by noting, once again, that a key concern of the working stiffs is healthcare. And we might also note that as Trump moves closer to the GOP nomination, the blank spaces in his platform become more apparent—including health policy.
Trump has said, in the organically conservative spirit of Carlyle, that we can’t allow people to “die in the streets.” Indeed, in a world of exotic new threats, such as the Ebola and Zika viruses—to say nothing of more familiar superbugs and even more familiar maladies such as cancer—it only makes sense to have some sort of provision for everyone. Nobody wants, say, infections to go running rampant; the bell can toll for any of us. Maybe that’s why, in yet another middle-finger to rightist orthodoxy, Trump has supported a health-insurance mandate, even as he has denounced Obamacare.
The truth about Obamacare, of course, is that it should be possible both to “repeal” and to “replace.” That is, getting rid of the left-wing social engineering of the Affordable Care Act while protecting the basic health-insurance needs of Americans. (Such a realization, we might add, would come as a godsend to Republicans in Congress as they eye future re-elections.)
In fact, we can do better than Obamacare—much better. If Trump wants, as he says, a “winning” healthcare policy, he might look back to the trailblazing work of . . . Newt Gingrich.
Back in 2003, Gingrich wrote a book with the affirming and promising title of Saving Lives & Saving Money. In it, he argued just that: The best way to save money on healthcare is by making people healthier. And that means curing disease.
Moreover, in 2011, as he geared up for his presidential run, he spoke in enormous detail at a DC think tank on the value of curing disease. As he put it,
America should pursue a program of the most rapid scientific discoveries, with the most rapid regulatory approval, with a constant focus on implementing and funding innovations designed to lengthen lives, increase independent living, and create more American jobs and more American prosperity. Our model should be Salk and Sabin replacing the iron lung with the Polio vaccine.
Mindful of the success of the anti-polio effort in the 50s—a medical triumph that Trump, born in 1946, no doubt remembers well—Gingrich added, “No one today worries about an explosion of healthcare costs in American polio patients.” That is, because there aren’t any American polio patients.
As Gingrich put it five years ago, a Cure Strategy “offers enormous rewards, but it will take very bold leadership and a willingness to produce solutions as big as the problems.” Yes, it will, indeed, require bold leadership.
As Dr. Bob Goldberg, my colleague at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, observes,
Gingrich was, and is, a visionary on healthcare. When he talks about Medicare, he means keeping granny healthy over her life span. He means that wellness—whether by changing lifestyles or preventing and controlling the progression of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer—should be the goal. When others were going on about dollars and cents, he was talking about flesh and blood. He was trying to solve the healthcare crisis by going right to the root of the problem: increasing our ability to produce life-improving and life-saving drugs.
Indeed, Gingrich’s logic is so powerful that it’s amazing that so few politicians have taken up the cause of cures (here’s looking at you, DC wonk class).
So with the striking exceptions of Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), few in Congress have embraced the idea of cures. Instead of seeking to advance the actual science of medical health, most legislators seem to prefer endless wrangling over the financial forms of health insurance—that is, Obamacare, pro and con, one shell within another shell.
We might also add that among the presidential candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has an ambitious plan to reform and streamline the dead-handed Food and Drug Administration. And oh yes: What should we make of President’s Obama’s belated bid to cure cancer? Answer: That’s a great idea, but where was he when what he said actually mattered?
So today, if Trump is looking for a truly “yuge” solution to the healthcare crisis, he might look in on what Gingrich has been saying for years.
So as we can see, in many ways, Gingrich and Trump are similar: Both men achieved great success in life prior to running for president, and that success gave both a valuable perspective. And while, so far at least, Trump is doing better than Gingrich in his quest for the White House, he might keep in mind that winning means hitting on all political and policy cylinders.
Yes, there’s such as thing as the Art of the Deal, but epic leadership requires an even higher art—the art of positive transformational thinking.