The Best President? Newt Gingrich Compares Donald Trump to Lincoln, With Some World-Class Sucking Up

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President Donald Trump concludes his remarks to reporters during his meeting with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko in the Oval Office on June 20. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Has any man ever admired another man as much as Newt Gingrich admires President Trump? After reading Gingrich’s new book, Understanding Trump, I can answer firmly in the negative. Think I’m exaggerating? He compares Trump to Abraham Lincoln, since “both had survived some of the most divisive campaigns in American history, and both appealed to patriotism.”

The fact that the historically divisive campaign Trump “survived” was the one he crafted doesn’t seem to occur to Gingrich, who writes here with all the fealty to truth of an official North Korean historian. Instead, the former speaker of the House emails one Allen Guelzo, a Gettysburg College professor deemed “one of the great historians in the country,” to check if the Lincoln-Trump analogy rings true. You’ll never guess what happens next: Guelzo declares Gingrich “entirely on the mark.”

Gingrich finds Guelzo such a fascinating, insightful interlocutor that he reprints several pages of their email correspondence, which I’m hereby predicting will not end up as one of the great epistolary exchanges of American history. Gingrich ends that chapter with a cliffhanger worthy of Hollywood: “Guelzo had more to say, but I have included his additional thoughts in the next chapter.”

Understanding Trump, it turns out, involves a lot of cutting and pasting, especially from The Art of the Deal, which Gingrich quotes on what I counted to be seven occasions, and always at length, as if it were a landmark of intellectual introspection on the level of Paul’s epistles. He quotes extensively from the Republican National Convention speeches of Trump’s grown children, and from Trump’s inaugural address, the one in which Gingrich heard echoes of Lincoln. The full speech is included in an appendix, “Selected Speeches of Donald J. Trump.” (It is unfortunate, however, that the selected tweets of Donald J. Trump are not similarly appended. One suspects those will prove more revealing to future generations than Trump’s fleeting attempts at sounding presidential.)

Also absent: any input from Trump, who apparently didn’t participate in this effort to understand him. Like any self-respecting autocrat, Trump expects tributes rendered without having to do any of the work himself. Lucky for him, Gingrich is happy to fawn away like a Politburo potentate. He compensates for the lack of input from Trump by reminding readers that he was frequently in the candidate’s orange glow: “Every time we saw Trump at the club, he wanted it to be a great club.” That sort of thing, over and over.  

So what is the understanding at which Gingrich arrives, all of six months into the Trump presidency?

“President Trump is a change agent.”

“He has experienced victories as well as defeats.”

“He is a person who gets up every day and wants to know what’s really going on.”

“He is a naturally generous person.”

Gingrich plumbs the “childhood” section of Trump’s entry on Wikipedia to arrive at insights unavailable to previous Trump biographers, none of whom are cited here: “He grew up in a 2,000-square-foot stucco house, not Trump Tower.” This corrects a common misconception, namely that Donald Trump grew up in the gaudy skyscraper Donald Trump built in his mid-30s. That chapter of Gingrich’s book is titled “Queens, Not Manhattan,” since Trump grew up in Queens, not Manhattan.

“[T]his man had fought for every inch of his success in life,” Gingrich declares. The millions Trump borrowed from his father, Fred, himself a real estate mogul, go unmentioned. Same for his practice of walking away from creditors large and small. But if you think those are relevant details, your name is probably George Soros. Or Hillary Clinton.

But wait a second, you might be thinking: While Gingrich is an apt Boswell to Trump’s Johnson, why does America seem less great to so many Americans than it did on, oh, November 7, 2016? Newt supplies the answer. “The elite media [are] so terrified of the future that they haven’t stopped and considered how extraordinary his success has been.”

I’d argue that we’re terrified precisely because we’ve “stopped and considered” just what Trump’s “extraordinary” win means for this nation. But don’t listen to me, because I’m just another coastal elitist, pecking this out as I sip third-wave coffee, some of which appears to have dripped onto my non-sweatshop-made sweatpants. 

Gingrich mentions elites in some variation nearly 50 times in Understanding Trump, while “the Left” gets nearly twice as much abuse. Neither term is ever explained. If these two terms beloved by Gingrich mean what I think he wants them to mean—people dubious about Trump’s qualifications to be president—then the elite Left includes both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, the editors of the conservative National Review and most Americans with a college degree. There’s no middle in Newt’s view of the political landscape, just a Manichean battle between the patriots who love America and the faceless, humorless Left that can’t even understand the timeless joys of “grabbing pussy” and obstructing justice.

If you’re seeking a contemptible member of this country’s elite, I nominate a career creature of Washington, D.C., who turned to politics after earning a doctorate in European history from Tulane, completing a dissertation on Belgian colonialism in the Congo. The one who got his start in politics in 1968, working for the presidential campaign of Nelson Rockefeller, scion of America’s greatest fortune. The ambitious young congressman elected to represent the wealthy suburbs of Atlanta, who eventually became speaker of the House, who presided over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with an intern, even as he was carrying on an extramarital affair with a Capitol Hill aide. You know, the guy who left politics in part because of his own ethics violations, and who has since gone on to do the kind of work blue-collar Americans have long valued: lobbying, investing, film production and paid public speaking.

I’m talking about the guy worth, by one estimate, $18 million, who rails against “establishment players.” If the label of “elite” doesn’t apply to Newt Gingrich, it doesn’t apply to anyone, anywhere

To be fair to Gingrich, he probably had little to do with the bowl of stale, flavorless popcorn that is Understanding Trump, whose wisdom frequently runs to statements like “Work is good. Everyone should work.” He more or less admits as much in the acknowledgements, thanking speechwriters Joe DeSantis and Louie Brogdon, who “developed the first draft of the book.” My only surprise is that there was a second draft.

To be fair, a voice that seems to be Newt’s shows up in the second half of the book. If not exactly original, the chapters on identity politics are at least worth reading, given that Gingrich was one of the 1990s’ most committed cultural warriors.  

Reading his explanation of “intersectionality,” or the list of 34 policy proposals the Trump administration should adopt, you are reminded that Gingrich is vastly more intelligent than his book’s subject. He’s also more cynical and calculating. This book is written for true believers who want Trump on Mount Rushmore and the Clintons in a federal penitentiary.

Then again, how many such people are left? It may be that the audience is even smaller than that, consisting of a single person: Donald J. Trump. Hence the many references to The Art of the Deal, as well as the electoral victories in the upper Midwest, which a certain head of state loves to revisit on Twitter.

As a window into Newt’s psyche, however, Understanding Trump is priceless. There might be no man in Washington more nakedly versed in the quid pro quo of politics than the former speaker of the House. He managed to finagle an ambassadorship to the Vatican for his third wife, Callista, but he clearly wants some plum position for himself. Plenty remain, after all, and as the Russia investigation ramps up, there could be many more.

This is that request, in writing, which explains the allusions to Trump’s properties, at which Newt and Callista always seem to be showing up, like third-rate lickspittles at Jay Gatsby’s estate:

“Callista and I were at the grand opening of Trump International Hotel…”

“My wife, Callista, and I belong to Trump National Golf Club in Virginia. It is a beautiful property along the Potomac River.”

And like the vain and vapid characters who form the backdrop of The Great Gatsby, Gingrich has little conception of his own irrelevance. Basking in the glow of Trump is enough for now, though Gingrich would like to remind you that he gave “a boldly visionary speech about what was possible” in Florida in 2012. Don’t remember that one? That’s OK, he quotes a decent chunk of that classic of American political rhetoric.

“I hope Understanding Trump has given you a better sense of the extraordinary figure who has become the forty-fifth president of the United States,” Gingrich writes at the commencement of the 15th chapter, which has the not-at-all-clichéd title of “The Road Ahead.”

The road ahead, many suspect, will be a steep downhill for Trump, one that will have Newt Gingrich hard at work on Understanding Pence.