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Julian Zelizer on Our Hopelessly Partisan Politics
Q & A

Julian Zelizer on Our Hopelessly Partisan Politics

A Princeton historian sees a Republican Party with no incentives to alter course, before or after Trump.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of The NY Jewish Week.

Protestors rush the Capitol steps during a pro-Trump demonstration in Washington, D.C., Dec. 6. 2020. (Brett Davis/Flickr Commons)
Protestors rush the Capitol steps during a pro-Trump demonstration in Washington, D.C., Dec. 6. 2020. (Brett Davis/Flickr Commons)

Julian E. Zelizer believes that Donald Trump is a product not of the moment, but of a 30-year shift in the Republican Party  that he dates precisely to the late 1980s.

A professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, Zelizer is the author of “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party” (Penguin Press, 2020). The book tells the story of how the Republican Party became “more aggressive, more partisan, and less restrained” in the wake of Gingrich’s successful campaign to undermine Texas Democrat Jim Wright as speaker of the House in 1989

We spoke Thursday, one day after a pro-Trump mob invaded the Capitol building and disrupted proceedings to confirm the 2020 election results.

What were your reactions while watching what went on at the Capitol yesterday, from President Trump urging his followers to march on Congress to the storming of the Capitol halls?

My book is called “Burning Down the House,” but I didn’t mean for it to be literally true. What you saw was the consequence of a party that was willing to do almost anything and ignore the guardrails that are necessary for democratic politics. But this didn’t start in 2017. The party really changed in the 1980s. Since then the leaders of the party are much more similar to Donald Trump than they are to Jeb Bush.

Julian Zelizer (CNN)

What was happening in the party for Trump to emerge as its leader?

During Obama it was already clear how far the party was willing to go. They were working this conservative media where you could say almost anything about your opponents. The birther movement was the ultimate example. You also saw before 2017 with Mitch McConnell just how far Republican leaders were willing to go in pursuit of pure power. Blocking Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination is the obvious example. All those developments were just examples how that kind of partisanship could be pretty dangerous to our ability to govern and to our institutions.

Trump wasn’t subtle about what he was doing, but he actually settled pretty well within the party.

You introduced me to the term “asymmetric polarization,” which denies the idea that both sides are to blame for the current impasse in Washington and suggests the blame falls largely with the Republicans.

It’s an idea in political science and it is very useful. It’s true that both parties drew further apart, but that misses the difference between the parties. Republicans have moved as a whole much further to the right than the Democrats as a whole have moved to the left. Republicans also moved much further in what they consider legitimate political tactics than the other. That’s how you get Trump at the top of one ticket and Biden at the other.

In what way is Gingrich the launchpad for this polarization? Your book isn’t talking about the “Contract With America” in 1994, but about how Gingrich, a Georgia congressman considered a bit of a wildcard, engineered the downfall of the Democratic speaker of the House starting in 1988.

Gingrich brings down the speaker by launching these ethical attacks against him and using his media savvy in creating an image that Wright was “the most corrupt speaker in all of American history.” A — it legitimates the kind of attack tactics that other Republicans will follow, despite their suspicion of him. And B — during that whole scandal Republicans elected him as House minority whip and he goes from bomb thrower and maverick, a Joe McCarthy type, to being a part of the party leadership. His style of partisanship is normalized within the Republican hierarchy.

You argue that his style will characterize the GOP for the next 30 years. Will Trumpism have a hold on the party for that long?

I think it can last for a while. He’s not so different than Gingrich. Trump does things on steroids and in broad daylight. Republicans might get a cleaned-up version, like a Sen. [Josh] Hawley, but Trump is in the DNA of the party or he wouldn’t have gotten 70 million votes in the last election. Republicans are really not that different from him at all, and I’m not sure the GOP feels that if they continue this way they will suffer politically. Trump himself might disappear, but his style is not going anywhere.

I’m not sure the GOP feels that if they continue this way they will suffer politically. Trump himself might disappear, but his style is not going anywhere.

Not even after yesterday’s debacle?

After yesterday you still had Republican senators stand up and challenge the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, and even this morning the Antifa theory blaming the left for yesterday was gaining in right-wing media. You’ll see how the party is going to justify what happened or downplay it or blame other people. As dramatic and exceptional what we went through was, I am not sure it can shake the party.

People like Mitt Romney are outliers right now. Never Trumpers are really the outliers.

Is partisanship inevitable? Can Joe Biden make good on his promises to represent all of America, or is this vision no longer feasible? And is bipartisanship even desirable when each party’s hold on power is so fleeting?

There is an argument that Biden needs to be very partisan, especially with narrow control of the Senate, and to get every Democratic vote he’ll have to push for their issues right away. There might be two or three Republican votes, but I don’t think you can have any bipartisan support for anything he proposes. I don’t think his good personal relations with Republicans, and he has them, will be enough to get someone like McConnell to hand him big legislation.

The only real way is if the next five months go very well in terms of a vaccine rollout and economic recovery, and by summer or fall Americans are feeling really normal again and life is resuming. He’ll have some political capital to pull over maybe four or five Republicans. Otherwise he’s dependent on the Democratic majority he now has.

Is there any hope for change to this partisan bitterness, in the absence of some major structural changes in how we elect politicians?

Change is possible. If more states adopt gerrymandering reform, with bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions divvying up districts, it could ease up some of the pressure in the House. Campaign finance reform could undercut some of these big single-issue groups, where parties are on one page all the time. Also, you need a new generation of leaders who are young and savvy and can build a coalition and say this sort of politics is not good for the country.

Does the country get the politics it deserves, or do individuals and parties exploit our differences?

I don’t think the divisions are made up. Different parts of the country are fundamentally different in how they see problems. But I don’t think our institutions help. They fuel it and aggravate it. Look at the media. A lot of the media nurture this kind of division with openly partisan behavior, or you have filter-less journalism on social media. Political leaders have incentives to focus on the way we are divided rather than points of commonality. Republicans have an incentive to join in with fabricated facts. In the 1950s and ‘60s politicians were working against that. You don’t have that anymore, you have just the opposite.

Your father, Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, was the long-time rabbi at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, New Jersey. As a rabbi’s son and as a Jew, did you process what we saw happening in Washington Wednesday in a particular way?

That’s a good question. Certainly my father and my upbringing, and the fact that I am finishing a book on Abraham Joshua Heschel, has been on my mind. Growing up I would see how institutions and leaders could foster constructive communal interaction even when the communities were divided. I’ve seen it first-hand. Even sadder yesterday was seeing leadership employed in the opposite way, and seeing religion represented by Christian nationalist messages. Obviously, some of the very right-wing groups were there yesterday and have been part of a mobilization that is steeped in racism and anti-Semitism — all the destructive elements I grew up to understand as being so abhorrent and dangerous.

I’ll also say my grandfather was a rabbi in Ohio. He was an immigrant from Poland, and in the classic story became a successful rabbi. He was deeply interested in politics, and involved in all sorts of causes. I used to watch “Crossfire” with him as a kid on CNN, and that was some of my first exposure to politics. He had a deep appreciation of this county and the possibilities of politics. When I saw Congress not just being stormed but Congresspeople being attacked, and guns drawn in the House chamber, I thought of my grandfather with his incredible reverence for this country, and how that was under assault yesterday.

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