Shadow President

The following things were said about Donald Trump in recent days: “This is one of the worst mistakes Trump has made. I think it’s inexcusable.” It was “the kinds of mistakes that amateurs make” and even “an absurd amateur mistake.”

It is not at all unusual that someone said those things. It’s a pretty obvious response to Trump’s attempt to turn his personal grudge against a judge, tinged with an element of prejudice against people of Mexican descent, into a campaign theme.

What’s unusual is who said these things: Newt Gingrich, an early establishment endorser of Trump who is considered a potential selection as Trumps’ vice-presidential candidate.

So how should we interpret this criticism? Could Gingrich be laying the groundwork for a de-endorsement and abandonment of Trump? Or more likely, is it a way to keep supporting Trump while trying to keep himself from being tarred by Trump’s behavior? (Good luck with that.)

Or there’s a more intriguing possibility. This might imply that Gingrich is running for shadow president.

Consider how this sort of thing will be taken if Gingrich actually does get the vice-presidential nod or some other prominent position in the administration. The message is: Sure, Trump is crazy and shoots off his mouth off and makes these absurdly amateur mistakes. But he’ll be surrounded by responsible adults like me who will walk everything back and tamp it down and keep it from becoming a problem. From which we could draw the further inference: So maybe you should just come to me first, bypassing the flashy, loudmouthed figurehead and going straight to the people who actually runs things.

Gingrich is running to be what Democrats thought Dick Cheney was for George W. Bush. He is positioning himself, or someone like himself, as the power behind the throne.

I say “or someone like himself,” but let’s face it, Gingrich would almost certainly like it to be himself. Back in the 1990s, I read what was basically Gingrich’s campaign book—the kind of book you write when you’re running for president, except that Gingrich wrote it when he was about to become Speaker of the House, which tells you something. A recurring theme was that Gingrich is a big fan of the “challenge and response” theory of the historian Arnold Toynbee. The idea is that in every era, our civilization is presented with some big central crisis, requiring a great man and visionary leader to rise to the occasion and champion a creative response to that challenge. It was pretty clear that Newt Gingrich saw himself as this visionary leader.

His vision has frequently changed. It was futurism and free laptops, or the Contract with America, or a 51st state on the moon. The specific vision changes but the thing that remains the same is his belief that eventually America will realize the man they need to lead them out of an era of crisis is none other than Newt Gingrich.

He’s been hanging around waiting for that moment for a long time. And now, just when it seems that it passed him by, he has his second chance—this time with Trump as the powerful personality who captures the public’s imagination, but with Gingrich as the real visionary behind the scenes.

Maybe this sounds too much like a conspiracy theory or something even more ridiculously implausible: the plot line of a Shonda Rhimes television show.

Then again, isn’t this the central case we’ve been offered for Trump by the establishment GOP types who have come over to his side? Trump’s original sales pitch was that he would be the loose cannon who would break things and disrupt the establishment and overturn the status quo. Now we’re being told: Don’t worry, Trump will moderate. As Gingrich puts it, Trump has “learned…in the last two days and has taken very significant steps away from that and moved toward a more controlled, more civil approach.” So the new sales pitch is that Trump will have sensible people around him, people like us, who will take all of this populist rhetoric and divert it into responsible channels.

In other words, the concept of an establishment shadow presidency with Trump as its figurehead is already central to the Republican Party leadership’s acceptance of him as their candidate. It’s certainly central to the personal ambitions of many of the people now attaching themselves to his campaign.

Maybe that’s how it will play out, or maybe it’s the establishment types who are fooling themselves and will find themselves double-crossed by Trump. If this really is a live-action Shonda Rhimes show, then we know things aren’t necessarily what they seem, and there’s going to be some kind of crazy twist, even if it doesn’t make very much sense.

And Newt Gingrich running for shadow president makes about as much sense as anything else this election year.

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