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After a few hours at the zoo, Gingrich is ready for the next leg of our field trip, so we squeeze into the back of a black SUV and start driving across town toward the Academy of Natural Sciences, where there are some “really neat” dinosaur fossils he would like to show me.

One of the hard things about talking with Gingrich is that he weaves partisan attack lines into casual conversation so matter-of-factly—and so frequently—that after a while they begin to take on a white-noise quality. He will say something like “I mean, the party of socialism and anti-Semitism is probably not very desirable as a governing party,” and you won’t bother challenging him, or fact-checking him, or arching an eyebrow—in fact, you might not even notice. His smarter-than-thou persona seems so impenetrable, his mind so unchangeable, that after a while you just give up on anything approaching a regular human conversation.

But the zoo appears to have put Gingrich in high spirits, and for the first time all day, he seems relaxed, loose, even a little gossipy. Slurping from a McDonald’s cup as we ride through the streets of Philadelphia, he shares stray observations from the 2016 campaign trail—Trump really is a fast-food obsessive, Gingrich confides, but “I’m told they currently have him on a diet”—and tosses in a bit of Clinton concern-trolling for good measure.

“I’ve known Hillary since ’93. I think it would be extraordinarily hard to be married to Bill Clinton and lose twice,” he tells me. “It reinforces the whole sense that he was the real deal and she wasn’t.” Alas, he says, it’s been sad to see his old friend resort to bitter recriminations since her defeat. “The way she is handling it is self-destructive.”

It is difficult to identify any coherent set of ideas animating Gingrich’s support for the president.>

When Trump first began thinking seriously about running for president, he turned to Gingrich for advice. The two men had known each other for years—the Gingriches were members of Trump’s golf club in Virginia—and one morning in January 2015 they found themselves in Des Moines, Iowa, for a conservative conference. Over breakfast at the downtown Marriott, Trump peppered Newt and Callista with questions about running for president—most pressingly, how much it would cost him to fund a campaign through the South Carolina primary. Gingrich estimated that it would take about $70 million or $80 million to be competitive.

As Gingrich tells it, Trump considered this and then replied, “Seventy to 80 million—that would be a yacht. This would be a lot more fun than a yacht!”

And so began the campaign that Gingrich would call “a watershed moment for America’s future.” Early on, Gingrich set himself apart from other prominent conservatives by talking up Trump’s candidacy on TV and defending him against attacks from the GOP establishment. “Newt watched the Trump phenomenon take hold and metastasize, and he saw the parallels” to his own rise, says Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the president who worked with Gingrich in the 1990s. “He recognized the echoes of ‘You can’t do this, this is a joke, you’re unelectable, don’t even try, you should be bowing to the people who have credentials.’ Newt had heard that all before.” Trump’s response—to cast all his skeptics as part of the same corrupt class of insiders and crooks—borrowed from the strategy Gingrich had modeled, Conway told me: “Long before there was ‘Drain the swamp,’ there was Newt’s ‘Throw the bums out.’ ”

Once Trump clinched the nomination, he rewarded Gingrich by putting him on the vice-presidential short list. For a while it looked like it might really happen. Gingrich had the support of influential inner-circlers like Sean Hannity, who flew him out on a private jet to meet with Trump on the campaign trail. But alas, a Trump-Gingrich ticket was not to be. There were, it turned out, certain optical issues that would have proved difficult to spin. As Ed Rollins, who ran a pro-Trump super pac, put it at the time, “It’d be a ticket with six former wives, kind of like a Henry VIII thing.”

After Trump was elected, Gingrich’s name was floated for several high-profile administration posts. Eager to affirm his centrality in this hinge-of-history moment, he started publicly implying that he had turned down the job of secretary of state in favor of a sweeping, self-designed role with ambiguous responsibilities—“general planner,” he called it, or “senior planner,” or maybe “>chief planner.”

In fact, according to a transition official, Gingrich had little interest in giving up his lucrative private-sector side hustles, and was never really in the running for a Cabinet position. Instead, he had two requests: that Trump’s team leak that he was being considered for high office, and that Callista, a lifelong Catholic, be named ambassador to the Holy See. (Gingrich disputes this account.)

The Vatican gig was widely coveted, and there was some concern that Callista’s public history of adultery would prompt the pope to reject her appointment. But the Gingriches were friendly with a number of American cardinals, and Callista’s nomination sailed through. In Washington, the appointment was seen as a testament to the self-parodic nature of the Trump era—but in Rome, the arrangement has worked surprisingly well. Robert Mickens, a longtime Vatican journalist, told me that Callista is generally viewed as the ceremonial face of the embassy, while Newt—who told me he talks to the White House 10 to 15 times a week—acts as the “shadow ambassador.”

> “Donald Trump is the grizzly bear in The Revenant

,” Gingrich once gushed. “If you get his attention, he will get awake ... He will walk over, bite your face off, and sit on you.”

Meanwhile, back in the States, Gingrich got to work marketing himself as the premier public intellectual of the Trump era. Ever since he was a young congressman, he had labored to cultivate a cerebral image, often schlepping piles of books into meetings on Capitol Hill. As an exercise in self-branding, at least, the effort seems to have worked: When I sent an email asking Paul Ryan what he thought of Gingrich, he responded with a pro forma statement describing the former speaker as an “ideas guy” twice in the space of six sentences.

Yet wading through Gingrich’s various books, articles, and think-tank speeches about Trump, it is difficult to identify any coherent set of “ideas” animating his support for the president. He is not a natural booster for the economic nationalism espoused by people like Steve Bannon, nor does he seem particularly smitten with the isolationism Trump championed on the stump.

Instead, Gingrich seems drawn to Trump the larger-than-life leader—virile and masculine, dynamic and strong, brimming with “total energy” as he mows down every enemy in his path. “Donald Trump is the grizzly bear in The Revenant,” Gingrich gushed during a December 2016 speech on “The Principles of Trumpism” at the Heritage Foundation. “If you get his attention, he will get awake … He will walk over, bite your face off, and sit on you.”

In Trump, Gingrich has found the apotheosis of the primate politics he has been practicing his entire life—nasty, vicious, and unconcerned with those pesky “Boy Scout words” as he fights in the Darwinian struggle that is American life today. “Trump’s America and the post-American society that the anti-Trump coalition represents are incapable of coexisting,” Gingrich writes in his most recent book. “One will simply defeat the other. There is no room for compromise. Trump has understood this perfectly since day one.”

For much of 2018, Gingrich has been channeling his energies toward shaping the GOP’s midterm strategy—writing messaging memos and fielding phone calls from candidates across the country. (During one early-morning meeting a couple of months after our zoo trip, our conversation is repeatedly interrupted by Gingrich’s cellphone blaring the ’70s disco song “Dancing Queen,” his chosen ringtone.) Gingrich tells me he’s advising party leaders to “stick to really big themes” in their midterm messaging, and then offers the following as examples: “Tax cuts lead to economic growth”; “We need work rather than welfare”; “MS-13 is really bad.”

He predicts that if Democrats win back the House, they will try to impeach Trump—but he is bullish about the president’s chances of survival.

“The problem the Democrats are gonna have is really simple,” he tells me. “Everything they’re gonna charge Trump with will be irrelevant to most Americans.” He says that most of the “explosive revelations” that have come out of the Russia investigation are unintelligible to the average person. “You’re driving your kids to soccer, you’re worried about your mom in the nursing home, and you’re thinking about your job, and you’re going, This is Washington crap.”

I ask Gingrich whether he, as someone who follows Washington crap rather closely and does not have kids to drive to soccer, worries at all about the mounting evidence of coordination between Russians and the Trump campaign.

Gingrich guffaws. “The idea that you would worry about what [Michael] Cohen said, or what some porn star may or may not have done before she was arrested by the Cincinnati police”—he is revving up now, and his voice is getting higher—“I mean, this whole thing is a parody! I tell everybody: We live in the age of the Kardashians. This is all Kardashian politics. Noise followed by noise followed by hysteria followed by more noise, creating big enough celebrity status so you can sell the hats with your name on it and become a millionaire.”

This sounds like it’s intended as a criticism of our political culture, but given his loyalty to Trump—arguably the world’s most successful practitioner of “Kardashian politics”—I can’t quite tell. When I point out the apparent dissonance, Gingrich is ready with a counter.

“If you want to see genius, look at the hat,” he tells me. “What does the hat say?”

“Make America great again?” I respond.

Gingrich nods triumphantly, as though he’s just achieved checkmate. “It doesn’t say Donald Trump.”

A few hours after parting ways with Gingrich, I take my seat in a cavernous downtown-Philadelphia theater, where more than 2,000 people are waiting to hear him speak. The crowd of mostly white, mostly well-dressed attendees isn’t particularly partisan—the event is part of a lecture series that includes speakers like Gloria Steinem and Dave Barry—but at this moment of political upheaval, they seem eager to hear from a seasoned Washington insider.

Shortly after 8 o’clock, Gingrich takes the stage. “How many of you find what’s going on kind of confusing?” he asks. “Raise your hand.” Hundreds of hands go up, as laughter ripples across the theater. “Any of you who do not find this confusing,” he says, “are delusional.”

And yet, over the next 75 minutes, Gingrich doesn’t offer much clarity. Instead, he begins with a travelogue of his day at the zoo (“It was a wonderful break from that other zoo!”), and then lurches into a rambling story about the T. rex skull he used to display in his office when he was speaker. He reminisces about Time making him Man of the Year in 1995, and spends several minutes describing the technological advancements in private space travel, a favorite hobbyhorse of his. At one point, he pauses to lavish praise on the restaurant scene in Rome; at another, he simply starts listing impressive titles he has held over the course of his career.

From my seat in the balcony, I’m struck by how thoroughly Gingrich seems to be enjoying himself—not just onstage, but in the luxurious quasi-retirement he has carved out. He is dabbling in geopolitics, dining in fine Italian restaurants. When he feels like traveling, he crisscrosses the Atlantic in business class, opining on the issues of the day from bicontinental TV studios and giving speeches for $600 a minute. There is time for reading, and writing, and midday zoo trips—and even he will admit, “It’s a very fun life.” The world may be burning, but Newt Gingrich is enjoying the spoils.

As he nears the end of his remarks, Gingrich adopts a somber tone. “I will tell you,” he says, “I could never quite have imagined our political structure being as chaotic as it currently is … I could never quite have imagined the kind of political gridlock that we’ve gotten into.”

For a moment, it sounds almost as if Gingrich is on the brink of a confession—an acknowledgment of what he has wrought; an apology, perhaps, for setting us on this course. But it turns out he is just setting up an attack line aimed at congressional Democrats for opposing a Republican spending bill. I should have known.


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By the time Gingrich shuffles offstage, many in the audience seem to have lost patience with him. As we file out of the theater, I catch snippets of grumpy reviews: Waste of time … He didn’t even answer the questions … The last speaker was much better … One man grumbles, “I think that guy’s done more to fuck up our democracy than anyone.”

That may seem like an overly harsh assessment. But tomorrow morning, when these people turn on the news, they will see footage of a reckless president who ascended to the White House on the power of televised politics. In a few months, their airwaves will be polluted with nasty attack ads. They will read stories about partisan impeachment efforts, and looming government shutdowns, and lawmakers more adept at name-calling than passing legislation. And though he won’t be there to say it in person, Gingrich will be somewhere out in the world—at a trattoria along Via Veneto, or perched comfortably in a cable-news greenroom—thinking, You’re welcome.

This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “Newt Gingrich Says You're Welcome.”

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