Newt is Back. Can He Raise Trump's Rhetorical Game?

Newt is Back. Can He Raise Trump's Rhetorical Game?

No, it's not 1994 again.

SourceGage Skidmore / Flickr CC

Why you should care

If you’re in an all-out war with the Clintons, why not choose an ally who invented all-out war with them?

Donald Trump recently told The Wall Street Journal he wants a “fighter skilled in hand-to-hand combat” as his running mate — which in the world of campaign politics means someone who can talk the hind legs off a donkey, preferably a Democratic one. Trump might get that in Mike Pence, if the Indiana governor becomes Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick, as expected. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is set to speak at next week’s Republican National Convention, will still remain Trump’s trusted adviser — a seasoned attack dog with the verbal dexterity to extend and complement his campaign’s assault on the the nation’s political discourse.

Among other things, Trump has been something of a linguistic trailblazer, from his ad hominem tweets to his pejorative nicknames to his improvised rally speeches. While on the surface it would appear that the blustering billionaire has very little in common with the polysyllabic Gingrich, whose hard-won conservative policy edifice Trump has dismantled plank by plank this election season, the two politicians share a great deal in common when it comes to their political vocabularies and aggressive messaging. (Representatives for Trump and Gingrich did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

His PAC would send out cassettes to aspiring GOP candidates, teaching them his slash-and-burn rhetorical style.

While Trump was growing up in the wealthy enclave of New York’s Jamaica Estates, little “Newtie” Gingrich was living above a gas station in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. But, like Trump, Gingrich was mature beyond his years and had the gift of the gab. Even before he entered politics, Gingrich, who had moved to the South for college and his first job as a professor at West Georgia College, was fluent in the language of white resentment, a proto-Trump who had already started throwing verbal stones at the “corrupt left-wing machine” in Washington. “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party,” Gingrich told a group of College Republicans before he was first elected to the U.S. House, in 1978, “is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words.”

Gingrich learned the power of words in American politics early on in Washington — and they weren’t the Boy Scout sort. After a formative three-hour dinner with Richard Nixon in 1982, in which the former president observed how little impact the “boring” House Republicans had on the public, it dawned on the upstart Georgia congressman that language could be the key to unlocking the public’s political affections. Shortly thereafter he enlisted a pollster to test reactions to phrases like “conservative opportunity state” and was off to the linguistic races. Like Trump, Gingrich was not so much an ideologue as a marketing wizard, and his political action committee, GOPAC, would send out cassettes and videotapes to aspiring Republican candidates across the country, teaching them his slash-and-burn rhetorical style.

As his own political power grew, so did Gingrich’s obsession with messaging and language. By 1990, GOPAC and the House Republican whip were sending out a memo titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” to thousands of GOP candidates, promising to help them “speak like Newt.” “The words and phrases are powerful,” the poll-tested pamphlet boasted, listing more than 60 “optimistic positive governing words” like “strength,” “pride” and “liberty” to help candidates describe their Republican message, while offering a set of “contrasting words” like “corrupt,” “decay” and “self-serving” to characterize their Democratic opponents.

Thanks in part to such prefabricated phrases and an uncanny understanding of the media, Gingrich — who gave speeches on the House floor to an empty chamber to censure Democrats before a C-Span television audience — became the “architect of modern conservative politics,” says Northeastern University professor Daniel Urman. And it worked: Republicans seized control of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.

Now Gingrich may be on the verge of returning to battle the party he once labeled “the enemy of normal Americans” alongside another gifted rhetorician, if he ends up getting picked as Trump’s political wingman. Can the well-rehearsed Gingrich vocabulary give the Trump campaign a verbal upgrade that could appeal to more conservative and independent voters? “Gingrich can surely articulate Trump’s positions better than Trump can,” says John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, who has written extensively about Gingrich, “but that is a very low bar.”

The big issue for Gingrich, Pitney tells OZY, would be running away from some of his previous statements, including calling a mass deportation policy like Trump’s “a level of inhumanity the American people would never accept.” ProPublica recently obtained a recording of a private speech Gingrich made in February in which he praised Trump’s ability to “talk at a fourth-grade level,” adding, “How we make the transition from … language for fourth graders to real policy, I don’t know.”

It’s a good question, and one Gingrich is well-placed to help Trump answer. But can the former speaker whose own political career has crashed and burned more than once in a flash of fiery rhetoric help Trump further master confrontation politics without going overboard and alienating more voters?

“Gingrich will go too far,” Pitney predicts, “because that’s where Gingrich always goes.”

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.