The return of Gingrich, one of the most prominent political figures of the 1990s, to the heart of one of the greatest political narratives of the 21st century is no accident. As one of the leading purveyors of polarization in the 1990s, Gingrich helped create the political environment in which former President Donald Trump would later thrive.
In his heyday as chairman, Gingrich may have been the most visible manifestation of this movement, but it went far beyond Washington. From political entertainment to militias to media-driven conspiracy theories, a number of developments in American politics and culture in the 1990s paved the way for today’s radicalized and anti-democratic right. In doing so, they marked a sharp turn of Ronald Reagan’s politics.
Focused on building significant majorities, Reagan appealed to white voters by bringing popular policies to the fore and developing an optimistic personality. But in the decade that followed his presidency, the right closed ranks, broke down the big top and tried to polarize the electorate. In the process, they developed the right-wing ecosystem — and democratic skepticism — that shapes American politics today.
Three moments in particular stand out that can help us better understand the current political crisis — and by extension shed light on how to find another way forward. Not all carry the same weight, but each helps us better understand how the politics of the 1990s helped erode the lines between extreme and mainstream politics on the right.
The “Clinton Body Count”
The experiment, he claimed, proved that Vince Foster, a White House deputy counsel in the Clinton administration who had died by suicide a year earlier, could not have committed suicide. He must have been murdered. And the White House must have been involved in the cover-up.
The video, published by a group calling itself Citizens for Honest Government and distributed by right-wing preacher Jerry Falwell, was a lurid tale of corruption and crime surrounding the governor’s home in Arkansas, where Bill Clinton served before going to the White House. went. .
Daryl Gates on ‘Political Incorrect’
Both humor and controversy were key to the show’s popularity. As the name implies, panelists appearing on “Politically Incorrect” used comedy to say the things they thought people couldn’t or shouldn’t say. On the ‘Political Incorrect’ stage, a unique style of genre-bending late night TV – fueled by brash, joking right-wing punditry – was born.
Young conservative commentators such as Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter were perfectly suited to the show, taking advantage of the comedic stage to offer particularly provocative shots that were greeted with a mix of gasping and laughing. As part of the show’s roster of panelists, they often mixed with actors and comedians, each drawing on the professional acumen of the others as the stars tried their hand at the punditry and cracked the experts.
During the show, Maher questioned him not about the abuses that took place under his watch, but about whether America had become too soft on crime. At one point, when Leno took a punch at Maher, Maher turned to Gates and said, “Give me a baton.” The audience burst out laughing.
It was a moment that captured the comedy show’s pivotal political work: playing out police brutality for laughs as Gates was presented not as a disgraced former public servant, but as an expert on criminology. Concerns about excessive force were reclassified as yet another manifestation of political correctness. In a decade when the walls between politics and entertainment were thinning, Gates’ looks showed just how powerful the blending of the two worlds could be.
“Jack-booted government thugs”
Still, Bush’s resignation was significant. It drew a line between the anti-government rhetoric used to sell deregulation and tax cuts and the anti-government rhetoric used to foment violence against the state. It suggested that Republicans had a responsibility to the police rather than absorbing extremist elements.
At a time when Americans struggle to understand how extremist politics became mainstream in the US, it’s helpful to remember that there was a time when a former Republican president denounced comparisons between federal agents and Nazi stormtroopers rather than to embrace. It’s also helpful to note the limits of that charge at the time: The Right was ready to embrace extremism even when members of their own party sounded the alarm.
The echoes that bounce between these stories and current politics are not a case of a repetition of history. Rather, they are a reminder that our current political crisis is the result of decisions made in the 1990s to embrace controversy, conspiracy, and extremism. As such, it is also a reminder that the current crisis is an outgrowth of institutions as well as personalities, and lasting change will only result from deep-seated reforms of those institutions.