Newt Gingrich and the GOP’s Creeping Authoritarian Streak

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Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock
Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock

I’ve always had a soft spot for Newt Gingrich. While I grew disappointed in his Trump boosterism, I always admired his intellect (heck, I even made the case that he should be Trump’s running mate).

But a comment he made Sunday on Fox News suggests Gingrich has tipped too far toward MAGA world’s worst authoritarian instincts to be redeemable.

Gingrich warned that Republicans will retake power after the 2022 midterms, and “all these people who have been so tough, and so mean, and so nasty are going to be delivered subpoenas for every document, every conversation, every tweet, every email.” In other words, Democrats who are investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot will have their turn in the barrel, just as soon as Republicans take over the gavels.

“I think when you have a Republican Congress,” the former House Speaker continued, “this is all going to come crashing down. And the wolves are going to find out they are now sheep and they’re the ones who are going to face a real risk of, I think, jail for the kind of laws they’re breaking.”

Matt Gaetz Backs Newt Gingrich’s Threat to Punish Jan. 6 Investigators

The “wolves” Gingrich refers to are better explained in his recent Newsweek column titled, “The Wolves Will Become Sheep.” In this piece, he accuses the Jan. 6 Committee of being a “lynch mob,” but (as was the case in his TV segment) does not cite any specific laws that have been broken by investigators. The closest he comes to making an actual indictment is to say that “The Jan. 6 Select Committee is in the process of potentially bankrupting scores of Americans who worked for or supported President Trump. They face financial ruin defending themselves against the committee’s attack.”

Gingrich responded to my emailed request for clarification by referring me to a Substack essay written by Glenn Greenwald, who does cite examples, including raising the theory that Congress simply does not have the constitutional authority to conduct this sort of investigation. Greenwald also argues the committee is playing hardball for no legitimate purpose. Citing a subpoena against former Trump campaign spokesman Taylor Budowich, he alleges that the committee schemed “with JPMorgan and its counsel Loretta Lynch to ensure that [he had] no time to seek judicial relief regarding the committee’s attempt to obtain mounds of his personal and financial records.”

Regardless, Gingrich and Greenwald’s legal arguments should be adjudicated on the merits right now, as opposed to the former House speaker dropping thinly veiled threats of future retaliation—threats that include the word “jail.” After all, the Supreme Court just rejected Trump’s attempt to block documents from being sent to the Jan. 6 Committee. Presumably, this suggests the committee has a legal right to conduct the investigation.

A senior statesman, like Gingrich, should not be promiscuously injecting political retribution into the discourse—especially in this political atmosphere.

But that’s just what Gingrich did.

In his appearance Monday on Steve Bannon’s podcast, MAGA Rep. Matt Gaetz said, “You know what, Newt’s right! We are going to take power. And when we do, it’s not going to be the days of Paul Ryan and Trey Gowdy where the Republicans go limp-wristed, where they lose their backbone, and they fail to send a single subpoena.” (On Monday, Bannon also floated the idea of impeaching Joe Biden. It’s probably just a matter of time before both ideas—Gingrich’s and Bannon’s—are the default position of Republicans running for office.)

Gingrich is well aware that using political power to “lock her up,” as it were, is the stuff of banana republics and authoritarian regimes. In his “The Wolves Will Become Sheep” column, seemingly oblivious to the irony, Gingrich compares the January 6 committee to some of history’s most vindictive:

“Think of Joseph Stalin killing his rivals. Think of the Castro brothers torturing, imprisoning and exiling political opponents. Consider the decay of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, as political opponents were imprisoned, killed and exiled,” he writes. “Recall the ruthlessness of Hugo Chavez in taking over Venezuela…”

In Gingrich’s telling, the Jan. 6 committee are the wolves, and Gingrich is advocating not revenge but a restoration of the rule of law.

Ideas have consequences, and Gingrich is trafficking in a very bad idea.

Exiled Republican Rep. Liz Cheney summed it up thusly: “A former Speaker of the House is threatening jail time for members of Congress who are investigating the violent Jan. 6 attack on our Capitol and our Constitution… This is what it looks like when the rule of law unravels.”

As future historians contemplate whether Donald Trump was the inevitable conclusion for the GOP or a fluky black swan, a complicating factor will be how many Republican heroes from the 1990s—think Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and Rush Limbaugh—embraced and enabled him.

Did Trump change Gingrich, or has the real Newt finally been liberated?

The Inside Story of How Newt Gingrich Single-Handedly Destroyed Congress

As a 78-year-old historian, Gingrich, unlike Gaetz, should be expected to know better. Unlike the backbencher congressman, Newt was once third in line to the presidency and he was appearing on the top-rated Fox News—not a fringe outlet like Bannon’s War Room podcast, One America News Network (OAN), or Newsmax.

Of course, the knock on Gingrich was always that he was grandiose and had too many eccentric ideas. But he was brilliant. He had panache. In the TV era, it helps to have a flair for the dramatic and I always thought Gingrich at least operated within the broad acceptable spectrum of liberal democracy.

This is to say, Gingrich was always a hyper-partisan culture warrior, but he was also an intellectual who was well within the conservative movement’s mainstream.

The scary thing is, he still is.

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