Newt Gingrich’s latest book, “Understanding Trump,” nominally notches another entry in the former House speaker’s bibliography of an eye-popping 34 books. But get into “Understanding Trump” and—no surprise—it’s mostly obsolete rehash, padded with Gingrich’s old writings as well as long quotations and appendices by other figures, including Trump himself. But what’s best about “Understanding Trump,” however, is very good indeed: a touch of sly irony.
Irony is a welcome surprise in the kind of crashed-out political biography that’s usually pro forma propaganda. But there is it, right in the thick of “Understanding Trump,” and with irony sounds a note of skepticism and even anxiety Liberal readers, if there are any, shouldn’t get too excited: Irony is not nearly enough to put Gingrich forward as the great white-haired GOP hope who will turn on the president and gun for his impeachment. At the same time, it does seem that Gingrich is angling far too earnestly for his own place in history to cede the role of Republican revolutionary to the unlettered New Yorker who just arrived in Gingrich’s town. By the end of “Understanding Trump,” you might even conclude that Gingrich does understand Trump, and therefore doesn’t admire or trust him anywhere near as much as he must, for now, pretend to.
The book is certainly styled—from cover to jacket copy—as a profile in courage. A two-page introduction by Eric Trump praises the book’s subject with max filial piety: “There is no greater man.” The younger Trump also praises Gingrich as being able to put his father’s scattershot beliefs, such as they are, into words, and further emphasizes that Gingrich is a “true friend” to the family. On this score, I’d offer Eric Trump a version of trust-but-verify, customized for authorized biographies. Authorize a biography, Eric, but read it in galleys.
Only time will tell about Gingrich’s loyalty to Trump. But as the rare Ph.D. in Trump’s orbit, with a penchant for writing alternate history novels, Gingrich is certainly competent to supply a sheen of intellect to the brute mayhem that is our president. Most impressive is how Gingrich marshals Trump’s unruly biographical data and forces it to conform to a passably congenial template: modest origins, shrewdness in business, common touch. Yeoman’s work. As writers have found ever since Tony Schwartz wrote “The Art of the Deal” in 1987, Trump’s is not an easy hagiography to write.
The book is divided into three sections: Trump the man; the 2016 election; and Gingrich’s recommendations for the Trump administration. The most substantial of these is the final one, and it rehearses Gingrich’s various policy positions before assigning his own agenda to Trump, aiming to re-glaze his Contract with America and Citizens United spiels with some Trumpishness. The effect is less than persuasive. Numbers in this section are outmoded (Jeff Bezos’s net worth is given at $65 billion; he’s now worth $18 billion more than that). Five-year old campaign speeches by Gingrich promise a regular shuttle to Mars and other stuff that’s nowhere in Trump’s sights. And finally, some of Gingrich’s suggestions for Trump (prison reform, for example), are laughably out of step with the president’s stated priorities.
But Gingrich knows what he’s about and, in this section, uses the language of assignment, given as if by a professor to an unpredictable student. There is no “Trump will”; instead, it is “Trump should,” “The president must,” “a successful Trump administration will have to.” There are even some cautionary moments: “If Trump doesn’t build effective teams, he will fail.” This will be familiar to anyone who’s read Gingrich’s many dial-a-quote sound bytes in the political press—at once mansplaining, flattering and knifing the president.
But it’s in the biography section that you really come to see Gingrich—like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter before him—try to scale that intellectual Everest: making Trump look like a plausibly OK person and a non-apocalyptic leader of the free world. This is where irony most laces Gingrich’s stilted prose. First Trump is called “unique”—fair enough. Gingrich’s dutifully goes over Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Then he remembers a few banal meetings. In 2011, he seems to have made an obligatory visit to Trump Tower, seeking support for his own presidential bid. What happened at this meeting of minds? Trump opted to endorse Mitt Romney, but not before giving Gingrich “several Trump ties—which he pointed out were longer than standard ties and had become the best-selling ties in America.”
The best moment damning with faint non-praise comes in the form of Gingrich’s story about a day in New Hampshire in 2014 with Trump, who was then planning his own presidential run. Dave Bossie of Citizens United, Gingrich’s close friend, was also on hand. It’s two years since Trump endorsed Romney over Gingrich, and now Trump, in trying to win over Bossie, takes Bossie’s kids up in his private helicopter. As Gingrich concludes: “It occurred to me then that offering a helicopter ride was a method of building support that few candidates have.” One imagines Gingrich, the historian and consummate politician, sighing for civilization, just a little, as he watches Bossie’s children ascend in the helicopter marked TRUMP.
Because it throws some shade, “Understanding Trump” says more about the canny figure of Newt Gingrich than it does about the headache-inducing figure of Donald Trump. Since being ousted as speaker—almost 20 years ago!—Gingrich has realized the show-biz aspirations that animate so many modern politicians, turning himself into Gingrich Productions, which churns out his books and documentary films, cultivates his Twitter and Facebook followings, and sets up his appearances on Fox News and elsewhere. Gingrich never did enact much of the Contract With America nor manage to harpoon his white whale, Bill Clinton, but just surviving as a public figure all these years is its own form of victory.
The acknowledgments to the book tell their own tale. Stephen Miller is thanked, fulsomely (“the most heroic figure in the campaign”), as is Melania Trump (“in the Jackie Kennedy tradition”). Paul Manafort, too, comes in for thanks (“easy to work with”), while Donald Trump himself—well, he’s acknowledged for “enlightening” conversations. Not quite the way you’d thank a true friend. Eric Trump might have seen a steadfast loyalist in his father’s biographer, but Eric notably does not have a Ph.D. in Newt Gingrich. If he did, he’d know his agenda will never, ever be the greater glory of the Trumps. Instead, Gingrich is all about Gingrich—even when he’s ostensibly writing a biography of somebody else.