by Dana Milbank
It began where it ended, on the West Front of the United States Capitol.
On Jan. 6, 2021, an armed mob invited and incited by President Donald Trump smashed barriers, overpowered police and stormed the Capitol. The insurrectionists scaled the scaffolding erected for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration and proceeded to sack the seat of government for the first time since the War of 1812.
Called to Washington by Trump, who promised a “wild” time, and sent to the Capitol with instructions to “fight like hell,” the mob halted Congress’s certification of Biden’s victory, sending lawmakers and staff fleeing for their lives. At least seven people died in the riot or its aftermath, and more than 140 police officers were hurt. Some 845 insurrectionists, several with ties to white-supremacist or violent extremist groups, have faced charges, including seditious conspiracy.
Many Americans were shocked that Trump, after first considering a plan to seize voting machines, had orchestrated an attempted coup, knowingly dispatching armed attackers to Capitol Hill and then refusing for 187 minutes to call off the assault. And many Americans have been shocked anew to see elected Republicans, after initially condemning Trump’s attack on democracy, excuse his actions and rationalize the violent insurrection itself as “legitimate political discourse.”
But a sober look at history might have lessened the shock, for the seeds of sedition had been planted earlier — a quarter-century earlier — in that same spot on the West Front of the Capitol.
On Sept. 27, 1994, more than 300 Republican members of Congress and congressional candidates gathered where the insurrectionists would one day mount the scaffolding. On that sunny morning, they assembled for a nonviolent transfer of power. Bob Michel, the unfailingly genial leader of the House Republican minority for the previous 14 years, had ushered Ronald Reagan’s agenda through the House. But he was being forced into retirement by a rising bomb thrower who threatened to oust Michel as GOP leader if he didn’t quit. “My friends,” a wistful Michel told the gathering, “I’ll not be able to be with you when you enter that promised land of having that long-sought-after majority.”
Newt Gingrich had almost nothing in common with the man he shoved aside. Michel was a portrait of civility and decency, a World War II combat veteran who knew that his political opponents were not his enemies and that politics was the art of compromise. Gingrich, by contrast, rose to prominence by forcing the resignation of a Democratic speaker of the House on what began as mostly false allegations, by smearing another Democratic speaker with personal innuendo, and by routinely thwarting Michel’s attempts to negotiate with Democrats. Gingrich had avoided service in Vietnam and regarded Democrats as the enemy, impugning their patriotism and otherwise savaging them nightly on the House floor for the benefit of C-SPAN viewers.
“Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt!” the candidates and lawmakers chanted. A pudgy 51-year-old with a helmet of gray hair approached the lectern. “The fact is that America is in trouble,” Gingrich declared. “It is impossible to maintain American civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t even read.” The pejoratives piled up in Gingrich’s shouted, finger-wagging harangue: “Collapsing … Failed so totally … Worried about their jobs … Worried about their safety … Trust broke down … Out of touch … Wasteful … Dumb … Ineffective … Out of balance … Malaise … Drug dealers … Pimps … Prostitution … Crime … Barbarism … Devastation … Human tragedy … Chaos and poverty.” “Recognize that if America fails, our children will live on a dark and bloody planet,” Gingrich told them.
Somewhere in this catalogue of catastrophe, Gingrich signed the Contract With America, a 10-point agenda proposing a balanced-budget amendment, congressional term limits and other reforms. “We have become in danger of losing our own civilization,” Gingrich warned.
Americans had seldom heard a politician talk this way, and certainly not a speaker of the House. But that’s what Gingrich became after the GOP’s landslide victory in the 1994 election. The Contract With America made little headway — only three minor provisions (paperwork reduction!) became law — but the rise of Gingrich and his shock troops set the nation on a course toward the ruinous politics of today.
Much has been made of the ensuing polarization in our politics, and it’s true that moderates are a vanishing breed. But the problem isn’t primarily polarization. The problem is that one of our two major political parties has ceased good-faith participation in the democratic process. Of course, there are instances of violence, disinformation, racism and corruption among Democrats and the political left, but the scale isn’t at all comparable. Only one party fomented a bloody insurrection and even after that voted in large numbers (139 House Republicans, a two-thirds majority) to overturn the will of the voters in the 2020 election. Only one party promotes a web of conspiracy theories in place of facts. Only one party is trying to restrict voting and discredit elections. Only one party is stoking fear of minorities and immigrants.