The Moment in 2012 That Foreshadowed Trump’s Rise

David French on how Newt Gingrich first exposed the schism that has since transformed the GOP

Newt Gingrich introducing Donald Trump in front of American flags during a 2016 rally in Ohio
Newt Gingrich introducing Donald Trump during a 2016 rally in Ohio (John Sommers II / Getty)

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

Since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, “an industry of rationalization and justification has thrived,” David French wrote last week. I called David, the author of the Atlantic newsletter The Third Rail, to learn more about what he sees as a pivotal moment for the GOP, and what it tells us about the party’s future.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


“Trump Was the Fist”

Isabel Fattal: Your latest article is titled “There’s Only One Group to Blame for How Republicans Flocked to Trump.” Which group is that, and why are they to blame?

David French: There’s a narrative of the Republican Party post-2012 that goes like this: The Republicans tried to do things the right way. They nominated Mitt Romney, a nominee of high character with a record of governing and a record of accomplishment in business, and he was savaged by Democrats. Watching a good man be so unfairly and viciously attacked radicalized Republicans, and those radicalized Republicans turned to Donald Trump out of a sense of desperation—they felt that there was nothing else that they could do, that nice guys finish last. And if Democrats want anyone to blame for the turn to Trump, they need to look in the mirror, because it was their attacks on Romney that radicalized Republicans.

But I was there, and I saw that this narrative is not so neat and clean. In fact, Republicans were divided in 2012. The dividing line was between those people who were already radicalized and the—for lack of a better term—Republican establishment. And you saw the nature of the base’s radicalization crystallize in a really important moment: Newt Gingrich’s now-famous answer to questions about his previous marital infidelity and a claim that he’d asked for an open marriage. [He later denied asking for one.] He lashed out at the media rather than address an important question about his character, to thunderous applause, and went on to win the South Carolina primary—the only time in the primary era that South Carolina has not voted for the ultimate nominee.

After the 2012 election, there was an “autopsy” in which the Republican establishment talked specifically about some of the language Mitt had used around immigration. Their prescription was more openness, especially to the Hispanic community. The base, however, had a completely different prescription: for lack of a better term, the way of the political fist. And Trump was the fist.

Isabel: You’ve written that the case for Trump is getting more radical every year. What does that mean looking ahead to November?

David: The apocalyptic argument has not eased at all. In fact, I would argue that it’s gathered momentum ever since the November 2020 election. The lie that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected feeds that sense of apocalyptic threat. If you’re a member of the Republican base, and you’re operating under the firm conviction that the current president of the United States is not a legitimately elected president, then you’re going to have an apocalyptic worldview about the state of this country, and you’re going to be extremely impatient with half-measures or with compromise.

In many jurisdictions in the United States, if you accept the 2020 election results, you can’t win a Republican primary. So where do you go from there? Once you have crossed that particular Rubicon, it’s very difficult to moderate.

It’s one of the reasons why we’re looking at a midterm election where, by historical measures, the Republicans should be overwhelming favorites to take both the House and the Senate. At the present moment, they’re still certainly favorites to take the House, but control of the Senate is very much in play, in part because the radicalization of the Republican base is, in fact, out of step with a great many persuadable Americans.

Isabel: What else are you thinking about as you look toward the midterms?

David: I think there are three unknowns. The first unknown: To what extent are crime and inflation going to trump any other concern about the merit of Republican candidates?

The second question is, how prominent will abortion be? And that is surprisingly difficult to measure prior to an election. Very few people expected such a resounding pro-choice victory in the Kansas abortion referendum. But that’s not the same thing as a choice between two candidates, because if you’re voting on a referendum, abortion is the only thing in the referendum. If you’re voting for candidates, you might be pro-choice, but if it’s a lower priority to you than crime and inflation, you’re going to vote on crime and inflation.

The last unknown is, to what extent will Trump make himself the issue prior to Election Day? There was some speculation he might declare his candidacy for 2024 before Election Day. The window for that is obviously closing rapidly. To what extent does he inject himself into the midterms, or to what extent do events inject him into the midterms? I think the more prominent that he is, the less well Republicans will do.

Isabel: I’m remembering how a month ago, in the thick of the Mar-a-Lago news, many of us thought Trump would be a specter over this election. And obviously Trumpism will be that, but it looks like Trump himself won’t be.

David: Exactly. Trumpism, of course, is going to stay dominant, because that is the prevailing ethos of the Republican Party. The influence of the effort to overturn the election really can’t be overstated, because there’s no impetus to change course when you believe you won the election.

It’s difficult to overstate the psychological effect. It has inoculated Trump against reevaluation. It has inoculated the Republican Party against self-reflection. In fact, it’s turned self-reflection into an act of weakness, because the strong thing to do is to confront the allegedly cheating Democrats.

Unfortunately, if the Republicans win in the midterms—something that they’re expected to do by any historical measure—that will be seen as a revalidation and a reaffirmation of Trumpism. Millions of Americans might go to the polls thinking they’re engaging in a referendum on the Biden administration and not an affirmation of Trumpism. But if the Republicans win, it will be interpreted as an affirmation of Trumpism rather than a referendum on Bidenism.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Liz Truss resigned as prime minister earlier today after serving in office for just 44 days—the shortest tenure of any prime minister in U.K. history.
  2. Ukrainian officials began issuing a program of emergency and scheduled blackouts after they said at least 40 percent of the total energy infrastructure was damaged in days of Russian air strikes.
  3. Former Vice President Mike Pence hinted at a potential presidential run in 2024: Asked whether he would vote for Trump in that election, he said, “There might be somebody else I prefer more.”

Dispatches

Evening Read
An assortment of round Twitter avatars that look like color gradients
(Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic)

Everyone Wants to Be a Hot, Anxious Girl on Twitter

By Kaitlyn Tiffany

Here’s a very popular tweet: “she’s a 10 but she cries on her birthday every year.”

Solid. Concise. I can see why people would relate to the sentiment. Who doesn’t want to think of themselves as hot? And further, who doesn’t already think of themselves as emotionally complicated enough to shed a tear on a day that is supposed to be happy? Nearly 246,000 accounts liked this tweet, and I have no problem with that.

There’s a whole universe of big accounts that post content like this—little snippets of language with mass appeal.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson squinting at each other over beers in "The Banshees of Inisherin"
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight Pictures)

Read. Convenience Store Woman, a novel by Sayaka Murata that uses the setting of an orderly neighborhood shop to illustrate its protagonist’s struggle to fit in.

Or choose something else from our list of six other short books that tell brief but powerful stories.

Watch. The Banshees of Inisherin. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson make the best, bloodiest frenemies, our critic writes.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

I asked David if he had a TV show he might want to recommend to our readers. He paused: “Do you want the honest answer of where my passion is at the moment?” Of course, I said. So he launched right in: “Don’t listen to the haters about Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Of course it departs from canon in some important ways. How could it not, given the sheer time span it’s supposed to cover? But it is very true to the ethos of Tolkien.”

He went on: “And especially don’t listen to those who critique the portrayal of Galadriel. It’s a compelling portrait of a person—well, in this case, an elf—thousands of years before the fully formed, wiser character you see in The Lord of the Rings.”

— Isabel