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The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism

By Steve Kornacki, Ecco, 512 pages, $17.99

A long-established internet meme points both seriously and frivolously to behaviors, events, personalities and movements that might explain “ how we got Trump “.

In his new book, The Red and The Blue, Steve Kornacki points to the 1990s. Within that decade, he points to a political revolution wrought by two men: Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

The MSNBC host is one of the most perceptive political analysts on cable TV. On the page, in a crisp and fast-paced narrative, he lays out his thesis: the last decade of the 20th century gave rise to the tribalism and polarization that dominates American politics today.

In his two key figures, Kornacki finds clear antecedents to Trump. Clinton was the original Teflon politician, surviving a host of scandals that would have laid low virtually anyone else. Gingrich was a political steamroller, flattening all sense of bipartisanship in pursuit of Republican goals.

There are key supporting roles: Ross Perot, the eccentric billionaire who turned an entire election on its head. Pat Buchanan, proponent of a paleo-conservative, protectionist Republican party.

This is by no means a comprehensive history of American politics at the end of the 20th century. One searches the index in vain for a mention of Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas. But it starts, fascinatingly, with Bill Clinton overshadowed by Mario Cuomo at the 1984 Democratic convention. Then Arkansas governor, Clinton is a politician on the make, ready to fight through any obstacle - many self-inflicted - in pursuit of the ultimate prize.

His story is interwoven with the rise of Gingrich, who appears on Capitol Hill as a Lucifer character offering Republicans forbidden fruit, the possibility of becoming the majority party despite seeming doomed to forever being the minority. The price? The traditions of civility and decorum that underpinned a long-established order.

The narrative proceeds swiftly down two tracks. Clinton hustles on, first to the Democratic nomination and then into the Oval Office, powering through scandals with a mix of political acumen and simple chutzpah. Gingrich advances towards the speaker’s gavel, facing down a series of increasingly maladroit foes culminating in Clinton himself, who fumbles the first two years of his presidency.

Pat Buchanan, paleo-conservative, campaigns in 2000. Photograph: Sam Mircovich/REUTERS

From there, we watch the two pudgy baby boomers as adversaries through government shutdowns and impeachment. Eventually, Clinton bests his rival, picking up seats in the 1998 midterms. Gingrich resigns before he can be deposed.

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In aftermath, Hillary Clinton becomes the key surrogate who pushes an underdog Democrat, Chuck Schumer, over the top in his New York Senate race before taking the political plunge herself. As she does, Trump flirts with taking over the Reform party before pulling away.

By book’s end, America is divided into red states and blue, poised for the turmoil of Bush v Gore and the Florida recount.

Although Kornacki provides a sterling study guide for those millennials who spent the decade more absorbed by Super Mario than Sister Souljah, he merely grazes the surface. The book is based heavily on secondary sources; it will leave those with a serious interest in American politics and history wanting more. Kornacki has asked the right questions, indicating the right ground to be plowed by future authors.

Hopefully he will be followed, and followed soon.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd