Julian E. Zelizer

Aug 27, 2020

Burning Down the House

Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party

Penguin 2020

Nearly everyone in the United States is aware of the fiery rhetoric and divisive political stratagems of Donald Trump and the contemporary Republican party. What many people forget, however, is that Trump is not the first Republican to rise to power by pushing incendiary policies and destroying opponents. Julian E. Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, traces many of these tactics back to Newt Gingrich, the former representative from Georgia and Speaker of the House of Representatives. Zelizer argues that Gingrich’s success with such tactics paved the way for Trump’s rise and his path to power. Burning Down the House examines Gingrich’s ascent within the Republican Party and to the Speakership, and the long-lasting effects of this approach to partisan politics.

Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party(Penguin, 2020) follows Gingrich through his controversial political career in the House of Representatives. Originally, he was dismissed by many within the Republican establishment as an angry newcomer who would, with time, mellow. Many of the party elites never suspected that he would transform their party’s approach to politics. His first conquest as a junior member of the House was a takedown of long-standing congressman, Charles Diggs, whose expulsion he called for over alleged ethics violations in the House of Representatives. Gingrich pushed hard for Diggs to be punished, and Diggs was officially censured in 1979. This bold success brought Gingrich attention within the Republican Party, and he continued to hammer away at the Democratic majority with personal accusations and media manipulation that catapulted into the national spotlight. These methods would lead to Gingrich’s famous showdown with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, and Wright’s ultimate resignation from his seat, representing the 12th congressional district in Texas, and the speakership.

Zelizer’s deep dive into this historical event highlights how Newt Gingrich fundamentally changed partisan politics, directly attacking political opponents, using the media to his advantage, and doggedly pursuing partisan power instead of legislative outcomes. This template, as he demonstrated the capacity for success, leading the Republicans to their first majority in the House of Representatives since the 1950s, has reshaped the GOP and has pushed a generation of Republican leaders to adopt his approach. Gingrich and his approach to politics has upended the Madisonian ideal of compromise—replacing it with a form of zero-sum partisan battle. And the former Speaker is still involved in politics in many ways, but especially as a media advocate for the GOP and Trump.

This podcast was assisted by Benjamin Warren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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