The biggest scandal yet of the post-Trump landscape reveals a country already bored of Biden.
WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 09: Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) during a House Armed Services Subcommittee hearing with members of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee on Capitol Hill on December 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. The U.S. Army has fired or suspended 14 leaders at Fort Hood following an investigation into the death of Specialist Vanessa Guillén and numerous other deaths and reports of sexual abuse on the military base.
Well, that didn’t take long.
Not even a hundred days into a probable placeholder president’s first hundred days, and the nation is again obsessed with the alleged excesses of its right flank. Sex workers? Possible. Loopy finances? Plausible. Florida? Check. Cable news stardom? Check. Questionable media appearances? Check, once again. Intrigue with a foreign power? Surely.
Defiance in the face of it all? Absolutely.
“I’m not resigning,” Congressman Matt Gaetz told Emily Larson Brooks of Washington Examiner. For the media, if not the public, Gaetz would seem today’s stand-in for Donald Trump, his old friend. In this way, Gaetz succeeded Trump more quickly than he ever imagined— leapfrogging his ally Ron DeSantis, the Sunshine State’s governor, and other pretenders, to be the real deal bete noire of the left, its opera bouffe oppressor in power.
As with Trump, Gaetz’s moves have perplexed even erstwhile allies.
Take, for example, the solipsistic interview he granted to Tucker Carlson the evening the Times broke the story that now threatens a meteoric ascent. “You and I went to dinner about two years ago,” Gaetz told Carlson. “Your wife was there, and I brought a friend of mine, you’ll remember her,” while noting that he was “not the only person on screen right now who’s been falsely accused of a terrible sex act.” CNN’s intrepid media reporter justified his salary with this scalding scoop featuring a single, on-background quote on the state of mind of one of the most well-known people in Washington: “It pissed him off,” meaning Carlson.
The more you know.
It’s hard to see how Gaetz’s reference to a meal Carlson denied remembering, as well as to a long-imploded allegation against the television star from the years of the Bush administration served his cause. But like Trump, Gaetz always continues on with Trumpian panache — “Somebody’s doing the raping,” Trump once told Don Lemon on the reality of illegal immigration — and sure enough, Gaetz has proved a maestro if not so much changing the subject, as exploding it.
“What is happening is an extortion of me and my family involving a former Department of Justice official,” Gaetz told Fox. “Tonight I am demanding that the Department of Justice and the FBI release the audio recordings that were made under their supervision and at their direction, which will prove my innocence.” Some of his allies allege the hijinks of international intrigue, and there’s certainly a little unexplained smoke there. At the very least, one American, Bob Levinson, sits in prison in Iran, the object of the latest stillborn attempt to rescue him, as Gaetz says his father planned to do, possibly Ross Perot-style.
A Google search in the middle of last week for “Joe Biden” would have revealed all top ten stories of the commander-in-chief to be on the oral indiscipline of a “Major,” that is, the president’s dog. Breaking: a sober Hunter has a biting rival for the mantle of black sheep of the White House. This media treatment came as President Biden had just dolled out $2 trillion in rescue spending, and proposed another $2 in infrastructure spending. Yet, the talk of the town was Rep. Gaetz, or as Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough all but asked this week, before proceeding to opine lengthily about it: Why are we talking about this?
One supposes because it’s better, on this Easter week, than talking about the need to send Major to “Dog Jesus,” as Scarborough also suggested. Matt Gaetz’s aura can take on the elements of what the writer Michael Crumplar called the “hyperreal” during Trump’s rise five years ago. That is, something stranger than fiction, that is something that “renders House of Cards unwatchable,” as the farrago of allegations and counter-allegations that define Gaetzworld now do.
Something is at work here akin to what Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times once put forward.
That is, despite all of the hurlyburly about the intellectual roots of “Trumpism” — of which this writer is as enthusiastic a subscriber as any — sheer boredom is as good a proximate explainer as any. It took less than three months of Jen Psaki, Antony Blinken, John Kirby, Alejandro Mayorkas, John Kerry, Susan Rice, John Kerry and Joe Biden back in the high command for this dynamic to re-emerge.
It is not a secret that I know Congressman Gaetz.
I profiled him for this magazine nineteen months ago, before joining as a staff writer. As with many public figures, I found him to be somewhat contra his reputation. In this way he is different than Trump, the unanimous verdict of whom is: what you see, is what you get, for better and clearly for worse. Gaetz’s story of political inspiration and intellectual grounding in his days in high school debate was more Elizabeth Warren than entertainment gadfly. He evinced a real political philosophy, a “libertarian nationalism” he thought could one day be sold to millennials.
“Matt Gaetz is not a legislator. He’s an entertainer,” Paul Ryan told author Tim Alberta, the former House speaker apparently proud of his curriculum vitae of one, real but controversial legislative accomplishment in twenty years in Congress, and oblivious to the board seat he now occupies on what else, Fox News, to say nothing of his politically disastrous addition to a presidential ticket that forfeited a winnable race.
True, Gaetz has shown little interest in official leadership in the House itself, but if Gaetz simply aspires to be a green room grandee, or for a place on Donald Trump’s speed dial, he’s had a funny way of showing it, frequently voting against the Republican administration on foreign policy — where other would-be party reformers did not — and disclaiming star Republicans on drug policy, which if you believe the Times, is too near and dear to the Congressman’s heart.
I don’t know if I believe the Times. Importantly, no indictments have been filed, let alone convictions rendered, and this is still America.
Or as legal bigwig Jonathan Turley put it to Fox this week: “The question is, what is really being investigated? According to the congressman, there’s an extortion conspiracy that was involved here. According to The New York Times, there is a question of traveling with an underage girl for sex in violation of federal law. This is something that the truth could be determined. Either she’s younger than 18 or she’s not. Either he traveled with her or he did not. Those facts are probably established at this point. It’s hard to imagine that they’re not. So I’m a little bit confused as to the timing of this leak and the inability to confirm these basic facts.”
If Gaetz avoids conviction, I think he’s favored to stay in power, content to rule his R+22 fiefdom, and to wait and watch as history unfolds further. In some ways, for increasingly aggrieved conservatives, the stakes are far bigger than Gaetz, even if he is really larger than life. Establishing a red line that the Times can’t take down a career, or that a potentially political Justice Department investigation alone means “lights out,” is apparently important to some Republicans, if not Americans, as the country’s new culture war speeds toward crescendo.
What do I know, for sure? We can’t look away.