A few weeks after the 2016 election, Newt Gingrich appeared at the Heritage Foundation to deliver what had been billed as a speech on the “Principles of Trumpism.” Tellingly, he spent most of his time instead talking about the brilliance of Trump the Man—his epic debate performances, his social media cunning, his utter domination of every opponent that provokes him. “Donald Trump is the grizzly bear in The Revenant,” Gingrich gushed at one point. “If you get his attention, he will get awake … he will walk over, bite your face off, and sit on you.”
To the extent that he tried to articulate any “principles” then, they seemed largely to cohere around a collection of culture-war applause lines and campaign-trail talking points. Someone listening Gingrich’s speech in search of a definition could have been forgiven for assuming “Trumpism” aimed primarily to protect cashiers’ right to say “Merry Christmas,” and to shame NFL players who don’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. It was not, in other words a fully formed political ideology—at least not yet.
“Trumpism,” he said, “is a bold and profoundly different way of thinking that needs codification and development through action.”
And Gingrich has decided he’s just the man to do it.
Even as the unique brand of politics that Trump championed in the campaign has been all but sapped of meaning in the early months of his presidency, an ever-growing number of opportunists and stakeholders has emerged to compete for the mantle of Trumpism’s premier public intellectual. Arguably no one has pursued that title more aggressively than Gingrich.
Since Trump was elected, Gingrich has written two books—a quickie ebook titled Electing Trump, and a slightly-less-quickie biography due out next month titled Understanding Trump—and has expanded his original Heritage speech into a six-part lecture series on the subject of Trumpism.
In a recent phone interview, he made little effort to conceal his ambitions when I asked him if he was jockeying for a place in the intellectual vanguard of Trumpism. “I think I’m very happy to try to explain it,” he replied. “I think there’s a lot more substance there underneath the noise, but it doesn’t get covered because this is a town that loves noise.”
And yet, identifying the substantive victories of Trumpism proved challenging for Gingrich. He praised the president’s Supreme Court appointment and his ambitious foreign trip as two major achievements that were fueling “dual revolutions.” But for the most part, he kept returning to praise of Trump himself, celebrating him as a larger-than-life, once-in-a-generation leader—virile and strong; dynamic and masculine; a force to be reckoned with (though, perhaps, gently steered).
“Total energy,” he told me when I asked what he admired about Trump. “[He’s] more energetic than any president since Theodore Roosevelt.” And then: “It’s not an accident that he put Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. He identifies with Andrew Jackson as a disruptive figure.”
Laudatory talk like this is not surprising coming from Gingrich, who spent much of the 2016 campaign as a Trump surrogate, and much of the post-campaign as a quasi-authorized Trump biographer (his forthcoming book includes a foreword by Eric Trump). More notable, perhaps, is his analysis of the president’s weaknesses.
Trump is “too restless,” Gingrich told me, and “not introspective.” Though he possesses great talent for marketing, he lacks either the desire or the ability to persuade his constituents through education. “Reagan understood that a major component of his job was being an educator and moving the country—but you don’t really get that out of Trump yet.”
As luck would have it, though, these presidential shortcomings are precisely the kind that could be helped by someone like Newt Gingrich—a PhD-wielding history buff who excels at long, discursive think-tank speeches, and has written more than two dozen books. Indeed, if Gingrich views Trump as a world-class vessel, he seems to view himself as just the person to fill it.
Of course, some will understandably balk at the idea of Gingrich—who was recently seen giving credence to a fever-swamp conspiracy theory about a murdered DNC staffer—as a public intellectual. What’s more, he’s not alone in his aspiration. A range of factions is vying for the right to define Trumpism—anti-war isolationists, economic nationalists, conservative populists. But unlike them, Gingrich doesn’t appear to believe that Trump’s electoral success was rooted in his flagrant violations of ideological orthodoxy. Indeed, the ideas that he projects onto Trumpism are fairly in line with the traditional GOP politics he’s spent his political life serving. What he sees in Trump is a style, an affect that could make that brand of politics lastingly successful.
Maybe, when it’s released next month, his book will lay out a more thorough definition of Trumpism, and what he hopes it will become. In the mean time, he was crystal clear when we spoke about what he hopes the book accomplishes: To breed a new generation of mini-Trumps who mimic his style, attitude, and “entrepreneurial spirit.”
“I wrote the book because in a sense I wanted to take everything I got to know about Trump over the years and weave it together in a way that [conveys] his potential,” Gingrich told me. “You could imagine a state legislator reading this and applying it to their own state.”