Opinion: Why America is reliving the 1990s over and over again

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”

One day in 1994, GOP Indiana Rep. Dan Burton has a .38-caliber handgun and a melon—probably a cantaloupe—in his backyard. Then he aimed and shot the melon, a story he told on the floor of the House in early August of that year.

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.

Shooting fruit wasn’t the only way Burton spread plots about then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton during his time in Congress. That same year, he promoted “The Clinton Chronicles” to his colleagues, who all received a free copy of the full, documentary-style conspiracy video.

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. .

Several of the people in the video were paid; others later retracted their stories. But the video paid off in the Clinton years. It helped fuel the so-called “Clinton Body Count” conspiracy theory, still wildly popular on the right. And it taught Republicans that there was a powerful political opportunity to weaponize even the most outlandish conspiracies: The House Banking Committee spent two years and millions of dollars investigating the claims in “The Clinton Chronicles.” They found no basis for the video’s claims, but the scandal their investigations sparked helped define the Clinton presidency — and set a precedent for dealing with every Democratic president that followed.

Daryl Gates on ‘Political Incorrect’

In 1993, Comedy Central – then a fledgling cable network trying to establish its identity on a burgeoning television channel – hit gold with its new show, “Politically Incorrect,” hosted by Bill Maher. Maher wanted a show that “made controversy funny,” as he put it.

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.

The show’s controversy-as-humor approach has not only laundered ideas, but reputations as well. In March 1995, the panel featured Daryl Gates, the former Los Angeles police chief who resigned after the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings. He appeared on the panel of powerful stars: Jay Leno, George Clooney and Gabrielle Carteris from ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’.

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”

Several months after Congress passed the federal ban on assault weapons, the president of the National Rifle Association sent a six-page letter to members of the group. Then NRA executive vice president (later CEO) Wayne LaPierre, furious at lawmakers who passed the bill, said, “They don’t care that the ban on semi-autos gives government thugs in boots more power to exercise our constitutional rights, break into our doors.” , confiscate our weapons, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” Just in case “government thugs” were too subtle, he went on to describe federal agents in “Nazi bucket helmets and black stormtrooper uniforms.”
The letter went out in early April 1995. On April 19, domestic terrorists detonated a bomb in a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. LaPierre and the NRA vehemently denied any direct link between the two events.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), speaks on December 21, 2012, in Washington, DC, about the week-long anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
The NRA had built up power in the early 1990s, trying to push back legislation designed to curb gun violence in the US and drawing energy from the anti-government conspiracy theories of the nascent militia movement after the violent events at Ruby Ridge and Waco. , as journalists noted at the time and as historians such as Kathleen Belew have discussed recently.
But the timing of a letter demonizing federal agents, which came just days before the bombing of a federal building, jeopardized the organization’s reputation. In response to public anger at the NRA’s anti-government rhetoric, LaPierre took to NBC’s “Meet the Press” to defend his statements. “These words are not far off, in fact they are a pretty accurate description of what is happening in the real world,” he said on Sunday’s news show.
That was the last straw for a former president. After LaPierre’s comments, George HW Bush took up his lifetime membership in the NRA.
Former President George HW Bush attends the inaugural conference at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas, on November 13, 1995.
However, the organization did not lose power. Within the Republican Party, her influence grew rapidly in the following years, even as she continued to embrace extreme and conspiratorial rhetoric.

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.