The return of Gingrich, one of the most prominent political figures of the 1990s, to the thick of one of the biggest political stories of the 21st century is no coincidence. As one of the leading purveyors of polarization in the 1990s, Gingrich helped to create the political environment in which former President Donald Trump would later flourish.
In his heyday as Speaker, Gingrich was arguably 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 US politics and culture in the 1990s set the stage for the radicalized and anti-democratic right of the present. In doing so, they represented a sharp turn away from the politics of Ronald Reagan.
Focused on building sizable majorities, Reagan appealed to White voters by foregrounding popular policies and developing an upbeat persona. But in the decade that followed his presidency, the right closed ranks, tearing down the big tent and working to polarize the electorate. In the process, they developed the right-wing ecosystem — and democratic skepticism — that shapes US politics today.
Three moments in particular stand out that can help us better understand the current political crisis — and by extension, illuminate how we might find a different path forward. Not all carry the same weight, but each helps us better understand how the politics of the 1990s helped erode the boundaries between extreme and mainstream politics on the right.
The “Clinton Body Count”
The experiment, he claimed, proved that Vince Foster, a deputy White House Counsel in the Clinton administration who had died by suicide a year earlier, could not have killed himself. He must have been murdered. And the White House must have been involved in the cover-up.
The video, put out by a group calling itself Citizens for Honest Government and distributed by right-wing preacher Jerry Falwell, was a lurid tale of corruption and criminality centered on the governor’s house in Arkansas, where Bill Clinton served before ascending to the White House.
Daryl Gates on “Politically Incorrect”
Both humor and controversy were key to the show’s popularity. As its name indicated, panelists who appeared on “Politically Incorrect” used comedy to say the things they believed people couldn’t, or shouldn’t, say. On the “Politically Incorrect” stage, a unique style of genre-bending late-night TV — fueled by brash, jokey right-wing punditry — was born.
Young conservative commentators like Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter were a perfect fit for the show, taking advantage of the comedy stage to offer up especially provocative takes that were met with a mix of gasps and laughter. As part of the show’s roster of panelists, they often mingled with actors and comedians, each drafting off the others’ professional acumen as the stars tried their hand at punditry and the pundits cracked wise.
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 made a jab at Maher, Maher turned to Gates and said, “Get me a baton.” The audience erupted in laughter.
It was a moment that captured the crucial political work that the comedy show did: playing police brutality for laughs while presenting Gates not as a disgraced former official but an expert on criminology. Concerns about excess force were reclassified as just another manifestation of political correctness. In a decade when the walls between politics and entertainment were thinning, Gates’s appearance showed just how powerful the blending of those two worlds could be.
“Jack-booted government thugs”
Still, Bush’s resignation mattered. 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 Republicans had a responsibility to police rather than absorb extremist elements.
At a moment when Americans are struggling to understand how extremist politics became mainstream in the US, it’s useful to remember that there was a time when a former Republican president denounced rather than embraced comparisons between federal agents and Nazi stormtroopers. It’s also useful to note the limits of that denunciation even at that time: the right was ready to embrace extremism, even as members of their own party sounded the alarm.
The echoes bouncing between these stories and current-day politics are not a case of history repeating itself. Rather, they are a reminder that our current political crisis is a consequence 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-rooted reform of those institutions.