After the insurrectionist rioters who stormed the halls of Congress looking for members to harass (or worse) had cleared out, more than a few Republicans who had insisted the election was stolen backed down. But among those who kept banging the drum as loudly as ever was Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, one of the outgoing president’s loudest and most visible defenders, who last year voted against a symbolic resolution calling for a peaceful transfer of power.
Speaking when the House returned to vote on the Electoral College results, Mr Gaetz spoke up to challenge the results from Arizona. Citing unsubstantiated allegations of electoral meddling on the left, he also condemned the violence of that day – explicitly denying Mr Trump played any role in inciting it while also raising the notion that it was at least in part a false flag attack by radical leftists.
“I don't know if the reports are true,” he said on the floor, “but the Washington Times has just reported some pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company showing that some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters, they were masquerading as Trump supporters, and in fact were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa.
“Now, we should seek to build America up, not tear her down and destroy her. And I am sure glad that at least for one day I didn't hear my Democrat colleagues calling to defund the police.”
Despite many Republicans voting to decertify the results, Congress ruled that Joe Biden had won the election – and the House soon moved on to pass articles of impeachment against Mr Trump. Among the few Republicans to vote for them was Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, part of the party’s leadership team, who now finds herself on the end of intense anger from her party – and among those challenging her hard is Mr Gaetz, who is taking a trip to Wyoming to campaign against her in her home state.
Asked what her team thought of this, a spokesperson for Ms Cheney sniped back via the Washington Examiner: “Rep. Gaetz can leave his beauty bag at home. In Wyoming, the men don’t wear make-up.”
That dig is a reference to HBO’s 2020 documentary The Swamp, an examination of Washington corruption that followed Mr Gaetz along with various other members of Congress – and which showed him applying his own foundation before one of his endless TV appearances.
In response to the Cheney team’s slight, he retweeted a rejoinder from gay Trump administration veteran Richard Grenell: “This comment should be widely & loudly condemned. We’ve made too much progress. @Liz_Cheney”
That Mr Gaetz can exist as a boundary-violating, norm-trampling hardcore Trumpist and also an object of scorn over his supposed effeteness illustrates perfectly how the Trump era has redrawn the lines between the Republican Party’s diverse tribes.
The next generation
First elected to his ultra-safe seat in 2016, Mr Gaetz is an unabashed culture warrior in the current right-wing mould. He loudly expresses a typically Trumpian disdain for the left, “cancel culture” and all things “woke”. He espouses theories that the Democrats and agents of the “deep state” have together intrigued to undermine and overthrow the Trump presidency by underhand, cynical means. He points to Antifa as a violent threat to the American way of life, and was once flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence” when he tweeted the authorities should “hunt them down”.
Hyper-partisan though he usually is, he is also known for his surprising friendships with certain younger Democrats – not least Katie Hill, a former California congresswoman who was hounded out of office in 2019 after conservative blog RedState published nude photos of her and accused her of improper affairs with members of her staff.
Mr Gaetz, who had long acquired a reputation as a Democrat-baiting party footsoldier, stood up for her. “Who among us would look perfect if every ex leaked every photo/text?” he tweeted at the time. “Katie isn’t being investigated by Ethics or maligned because she hurt anyone—it is because she is different.”
He also defended Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the socialist devil incarnate as far as the Trump base is concerned, after his fellow Republican Ted Yoho reportedly called her a “f***ing bitch” (though Mr Gaetz’s declaration that “she is not a bitch” did not dispute whether the word should ever be used at all).
I can confirm that AOC gets along w many of her Republican colleagues on a range of things that don’t have anything to do w legislation or politics.
She is not a bitch.
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) July 21, 2020
But for all the quirks of his young-gun Trumpist libertarian Republican brand, Mr Gaetz’s first biggest moment in the national spotlight was rather less surprising – though outside his party, it certainly counted as shocking.
During the 2019 hearings for Mr Trump’s first impeachment, the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee worked together to stall, disrupt and discredit the Democrats probing Mr Trump’s alleged crimes, as well as the witnesses they had called to testify.
While certain other Republicans on the committee focused on bemoaning the premise of the impeachment, Mr Gaetz took a more belligerent approach, demanding that witnesses declare their history of personal political donations and shouting “you don’t get to interrupt me” at one who tried to explain her answer to one of his questions.
On one occasion, he tried to have Joe Biden’s name stricken from one of the articles of impeachment and replaced with that of his son, Hunter; presaging the grisly Republican campaign against the younger Biden that coloured the later stages of the 2020 election, Mr Gaetz claimed that it was suspicious that Hunter Biden would be appointed to the board of a Ukrainian company despite his history of substance abuse issues.
One of his Democratic colleagues, Hank Johnson, drew attention to Mr Gaetz’s own arrest on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, pointedly remarking that “the pot calling the kettle black is not something that we should do.”
In his most outrageous moment, Mr Gaetz led a phalanx of Republicans to barge into a secure room where a key witness, Defence Department Ukraine specialist Laura Cooper, was being interviewed. “Behind those doors they intend to overturn the results of an American presidential election,” he raged to the assembled cameras. “We want to know what’s going on.”
And at one point in the process, Mr Gaetz even suggested that the House should instead be investigating Barack Obama, insisting all too presciently that “you actually can impeach a former president, FWIW”.
Beyond the fringe
As the ideological tone of the Trump years grew ever more extreme, Mr Gaetz began winking and nodding to the far right, and to elements of the former president’s base who see mainstream politics as an incubator for the darkest of conspiracies.
He was roundly criticised last summer for claiming that the US was witnessing an “attempted cultural genocide”, claiming in a Fox News interview that “the Left wants us to be ashamed of America so that they can replace America”. Those words are all too reminiscent of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, a far-right notion that white people and their culture are under threat of “replacement” by non-white groups with higher birth rates.
There is an attempted cultural genocide going on in America right now.
It calls for patriots to stand up and say that America is a great country worthy of our pride and our defense. pic.twitter.com/Zhzic8c5qL
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) July 12, 2020
And among his more controversial decisions was the hiring of speechwriter Darren Beattie, a former White House staffer who was fired from the Trump administration after he spoke at a conference routinely attended by well-known white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Mr Beattie appeared on Fox News to push the idea that the Democrats and the “deep state” were conspiring to overthrow Mr Trump in a so-called “colour revolution” – a longtime trope of Kremlin-propagated conspiracy theories that frame democratic uprisings in post-Soviet states as NATO-backed coups.
At around the same time, Mr Gaetz deployed the “colour revolution” line on the floor of the House when he joined just four other members (all of them Republicans) in voting against the resolution backing a peaceful transfer of power.
Passed on the same day as Mr Trump’s first debate with Joe Biden – in which the then-president notoriously told the extremist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” – the resolution had only symbolic force. But Mr Gaetz took exception nonetheless.
“This resolution is a way for Democrats to attack the president and disguise the fact that they will refuse to accept the election results unless they win,” he said.
A few months later, Mr Trump was still claiming to have won the election despite having lost, and was whipping his more hardcore supporters into a violent frenzy in an attempt to disrupt the passage of power to Mr Biden – and just hours after they trashed the Capitol and erected a makeshift gallows outside, Mr Gaetz was on the floor defending him.