Newt Gingrich is becoming Trump's secret weapon
Newt Gingrich was dozing off and one could hardly blame him.
An equally wonky and dry panel session on potential regulatory reform under President-elect Donald Trump was slinking into its third boresome hour inside a sunlit white-walled conference room on the 10th floor of a premier Washington law firm.
The former House speaker was seated in the final plastic chair on the dais, next to seven other dark-suited experts plucked from think tanks, congressional committee staff and the American Forest & Paper Association. As one after another slumped over a podium and drawled on about how best to go about reimagining the byzantine sets of rules that guide the country's most rudimentary functions, even the brainy Gingrich looked disinterested, shutting his eyes for noticeably lengthy periods during the forgettable presentations.
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That is, until it was his turn to take the floor as the grand finale and pitch his new pet project: the selling of Trumpism.
"I think the odds are better than even money that Nov. 8, 2016, was a watershed event," Gingrich told the modest crowd assembled at the Covington Group on Wednesday morning without much modesty at all. "The basic radicalism of Trumpism is dramatically greater than Reagan was in 1980 or we were in 1994."
In a brief interview afterward, Gingrich told U.S. News he's already been enlisted by the incoming Trump administration to perform his unofficial, but preferred, role of "senior planner."
"It is happening. I'm doing it now. But it's not an official job," he says.
Yet a Trump transition aide declined to ascribe that title to Gingrich, saying only that he's continuing in his role as vice chairman of the transition.
That Gingrich is already embracing a job he hasn't been formally assigned explains his own healthy ego as much as it does his driving ambition to remain an influential player in Trump's orbit, even if a few rings removed.
Passed over for the vice presidential slot and – by his own request, he says – a Cabinet position, the 73-year-old Gingrich's next play is to be Trump's unofficial ambassador to official Washington.
"Developing the agenda, pushing the agenda, explaining the agenda, learning as things change," he says. "I told Trump that I wanted to do what I'm doing, that I did not want a government job."
Being Trump's unsanctioned whisperer has its advantages, of course, and lends Gingrich a certain amount of freedom to preserve his prized commodity as an intellectually superior provocateur. With no formal tie to the White House but a direct line in – he reportedly would email Trump several times a day during the campaign – Gingrich can serve as an independent conveyor of information from the seminars, salons and forums he populates and often dominates.
But as an independent actor, he'll also be able to shape Trump's policy agenda as he sees it through his own unique lens, while hawking his latest book, which is currently and conveniently titled, "Electing Trump" and available on Amazon for $3.99. At the same time, if Gingrich meanders too far off the reservation or steps into controversy, the White House can avoid express responsibility.
"He's been very direct about the president-elect when he disagrees with him. It strengthens his role as an outside adviser," says Ed Kutler, a former staffer for Gingrich in the 1990s. "He can help people focus on the larger goal with a little more candor and feeding that candor back to the White House apparatus. He can serve as an early warning system on things brewing downtown. Newt knows all the games that are played in this town."
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A longtime student of the media with a love for stunts and hyperbole, Gingrich has a raw instinct for how to command attention all on his own.
More than 30 years ago, as a young Georgia congressman, he outlined his approach to a group of conservative activists.
"The No. 1 fact about the news media," he said back in 1984, "is they love fights."
"You have to give them confrontations. When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate."
On Tuesday, during a speech at The Heritage Foundation, a longtime Beltway conservative think tank that generates lengthy policy prescriptions, Gingrich fleshed out that strategy with a modern-day example.
"You have to have rabbits that the media can chase or they'll invent their own. I think [Mitt] Romney, by the way, was a two-week long rabbit," he said of Trump's dangling the 2012 GOP presidential nominee as a contender for secretary of state. "Trump's going, 'Good, that's good. Better than other things you could be talking about.'"
With delicious impromptu riffs like these, Gingrich is already applying the principle of media manipulation to his current endeavor, while simultaneously layering his analysis with just enough independence to keep his audience hungry.
"I am so happy that Hillary's not going to be president that nothing Trump does bothers me," he told the Covington audience, eliciting laughs before turning serious. "And it allows me to deal with the fact that he's inevitably going to make mistakes. He is a rollout quarterback who throws deep. Well, if you're that kind of player, you're going to throw interceptions. Question is, do you throw a lot more touchdowns than interceptions?"
Gingrich's definition of Trumpism is essentially a third attempt – after Ronald Reagan in 1980 and himself in 1994 – by conservatives to break the country cleanly away from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" big-government mindset. He sees it as a push to decentralize the many functions and services that have been guided by elites in Washington and return power and decision-making to the populace outside of the nation's capital. What makes such profound change possible this time? Trump is as disruptive as President Andrew Jackson, as energetic as President Theodore Roosevelt and as effective a salesman as P.T. Barnum, Gingrich says.
"By the way, he likes that analogy," he added on Tuesday, with a deliberate nod to his access to the president-elect. The only figure in American history who has had a dynamic rise comparable to Trump's, in Gingrich's eyes, is Abraham Lincoln's from his Senate defeat in 1858 to his presidential election two years later.
The fact that the PBS-loving, Ivy League-degree wielding, consultant-heavy Beltway bubble missed this on all levels allows Gingrich to relish in a strident anti-elitism that always plays well with crowds, no matter how unaware they are that in many cases he's essentially describing them.
"People are just idiots. They have a degree or they have a law degree or they have something. They're idiots. They shouldn't be allowed near anything that matters," he said.
There are no sacred cows in Trumpism, no rules that can't be broken, no standard operating procedures that can't be torn asunder. If executed effectively, Trumpism will amount to a wholesale revamping of the federal bureaucracy that will endure far beyond Trump's tenure and well into another generation. This mantra, Gingrich posits, is radical and unsettling only to those who rely on the rusty levers of the entrenched status quo to maintain power.
"If you weren't already doing it, would you start? If not, why are you still doing it? That's the heart of Trumpism," said Gingrich. "The great challenge to the Trump-Pence administration is going to be to get up every morning and remember, they're not here to accomodate Washington. They're here to kick over the table."
One example he cites is The Pentagon – an untouchable venue even for many Republicans – but a bureaucratic boondoggle that he views as deeply archaic, wasteful and redundant, and which he hints could be a fertile target for Trumpism.
"The minimum conservative goal should be to reduce the Pentagon to a triangle, by eliminating 40 percent. And you'd get faster airplanes, faster acquisitions," he said.
To ideological conservatives, smaller is almost always better – a peculiar trait to apply to Trump, who embodies a "big league" philosophy in measuring success, from television ratings to the height of buildings to the size of crowds. But Gingrich has evidence on his side when amplifying this argument, pointing to the New York City billionaire's achievements as a candidate against the better-funded, more richly staffed Clinton.
"Remember it's the smaller, less expensive Trump that actually figured out the keys to the American system," he said at Heritage on Tuesday.
In the short term, Gingrich is focused on defending Trump's Cabinet selections, boasting that they will likely number the fewest lawyers in modern presidential administration history, and therefore may be "the smartest Cabinet in modern times."
The fear that too many generals are creeping into the top echelons of power? Only in East Coast power centers, dismisses Gingrich. "'Oh gosh, shouldn't we replace two of those guys with lawyers? Or Harvard professors?'" he mocked. "This is why the left is in such trouble."
The slight that neurosurgeon Ben Carson doesn't have the aptitude to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development? "None of the people who write this, by the way, have ever been in the HUD building. Or they would know that, probably, Ben would be OK," he says.
Consistent throughout Gingrich's routine is a rolling hazing of the press corps, with which Gingrich, like Trump, maintains a love-hate relationship.
During his Heritage speech, Gingrich took ample time to explain to his listeners that the right should label mainstream journalists as the "propaganda media" in the incoming Trump era.
"Drop the term 'news' media until they earn it," he instructed.
"The entire story in the Post is a lie. It's a lie," he said, noting the FBI later delivered a contrary account.
There are the same "idiots," Gingrich noted, who have been wrong for "two solid years" about everything revolving around Trump.
But at the same time, they remain the primary vehicle that will help market Gingrich's new mission for immediate influence and long-term historical relevancy.
So on Friday morning, Gingrich will again field questions at an event populated by his much-loathed capitol city elites to discuss the Trump transition and will likely offer up more scintillatingly partisan sound bites designed to ricochet around the political ether.
The event's sponsor? The Washington Post.
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