Though it’s a safe bet that Newt Gingrich won’t win the Republican nomination, he has done well enough in the primaries to spare himself the embarrassment of abject failure. He has not made a fool of himself — or, at least, no more a fool than he does in the regular course of pontificating, lecturing and hectoring.
He will leave the campaign with his legacy intact. And what a legacy it is. Gingrich has done as much as any single person to divide the country, destroy civil discourse and promote incendiary rhetoric.
Rush Limbaugh, certainly, has spewed heaps of putrid commentary; the talk meister has done his part to rip apart the fabric of tolerance and compromise. But Limbaugh didn’t teach Republican politicians to use harsh language replete with demeaning phrases to describe their opponents’ policies. That was Gingrich’s great accomplishment.
Along with Frank Luntz, Republican strategist and wordsmith, Gingrich developed a systematic method to teach GOP candidates and incumbents a lexicon of constant battle against Democrats — hacking, slicing and bludgeoning with words.
Americans weary of the tone of civic battle, er, debate frequently wonder aloud how the nation arrived at this awful pass: Who summoned the war wagons? The truth is that this vicious era was born of a host of trends and developments, including technological change, new fundraising strategies and the proliferation of news outlets, each of which fed on the other to produce a culture of outlandish rhetoric.
But Gingrich certainly has a place in incivility’s hall of shame. In the past, he has proudly pointed out his development of something akin to an academy of rude discourse.
In 1995, Gingrich, then speaker of the House, wrote a memo for GOPAC, which trains Republican candidates, citing language as “a key mechanism of control used by a majority party.” In his inimitable, insufferable fashion, he went on to say that his videotaped GOPAC courses had elicited a “plaintive plea: ‘I wish I could speak like Newt.’
“That takes years of practice. But we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created this list of words and phrases,” he wrote.
He went on to give those Republicans who wanted to “speak like Newt” a list of “contrasting words” that he urged them to use in their campaigns: “These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.”
The list included several words and phrases that are by now routinely batted about in the course of public commentary about the opposing party, usually by Republicans against Democrats because, after all, Gingrich and Luntz were the masterminds: “betray,” “bizarre,” “cheat,” “corrupt,” “destroy,” “endanger,” “greed,” “hypocrisy,” “ideological,” “incompetent,” “liberal,” “lie,” “machine,” “mandate,” “pathetic,” “radical,” “sick,” “taxes,” “traitors,” “unionized,” “waste” and “welfare.” There were many more listed.
I’m not going to dwell on the supreme, well, hypocrisy of the fact that Gingrich’s lexicon includes the words “hypocrisy” and “ideological.” I will simply credit him with a superb understanding of the strong emotional undercurrents that govern political choices — not to mention the power of using words as weapons.
It took a few years for me to see that the Gingrich style would do lasting damage. Combative language and coarse innuendo became second nature for many Gingrich acolytes, and, over time, for many who weren’t even in office when Gingrich was House speaker. It’s no great surprise, for example, that U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., yelled “You lie!” at President Obama during a 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress.
The Gingrich style also had a corrosive effect on the Republican electorate. Republican pols may have understood that they were using vicious rhetoric merely as a “key mechanism of control,” but their voters weren’t in on the game.
So once GOP politicians began describing their Democratic opponents as “corrupt traitors,” their constituents began to believe that was true. Given that, you can understand why many ultraconservative voters would view compromise or cooperation with Democrats as akin to betrayal.
That’s some legacy, Newt.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)