End the duopoly

Newt Gingrich and the dawn of a toxic political era

June 10, 1988: Rep. Newt Gingrich, a junior congressman from Georgia, waving a copy of his ethics complaint against House Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat, over a fishy book deal. But Gingrich had his own fishy book-selling arrangement from a few years before. To hear President Donald Trump use the term, “corruption” can do double duty as a hand grenade and a safe word — a ready-made epithet to yell out whenever he’s feeling the squeeze.

It’s a tried-and-true strategy in the frantic trajectory of American politics since the 1970s. As Julian Zelizer shows in his briskly entertaining new book, “Burning Down the House,” an ambitious and impatient Republican from Georgia by the name of Newton Leroy Gingrich long ago figured out that corruption was a useful charge for a young upstart to deploy against establishment politicians — a way of turning their vaunted experience against them. More political experience meant more connections with powerful constituents, which meant more of a chance that some of those connections smelled bad, or could be made to seem that way.

Gingrich’s lasting innovation, Zelizer says, was to turn a rhetorical gambit into an actionable weapon. “Burning Down the House” looks at Gingrich before his […]

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