Just as the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the country and Donald Trump transformed his body into a Carl’s Jr. grease trap, Trump himself has all but Brundlefly’d the Republican Party—to the point where I don’t know what the fuck it is anymore.
What are the GOP’s principles? Well, four years of Trump showed us what they aren’t. They don’t stand for fiscal responsibility or family values anymore. Small government? We spent much of the last year watching small-government principles at work. Only they weren’t small-government principles so much as incompetent-government principles. And Americans were not impressed.
Is the party a sturdy bulwark against socialism? Well, that kind of went out the window when the government started sending free money to people with no questions asked. People liked that, and so now Republicans have to explain why blowing up the deficit was a good thing when the benefits went to the already wealthy but a disaster when they flowed to we the people.
Are they about standing up to cancel culture and “woke” politics? Yeah, that’s closer, even though they show their hypocrisy every damn day by advocating for the cancelation of entities, like Major League Baseball, that they’ve deemed insufficiently—er, what’s the word?—woke?
So who—and what—is the future of the Republican Party? One is tempted to say Donald Trump, but come on. Look at the guy. He’s basically an ill-tempered braunschweiger with a glitchy Play-Doh Fun Factory for a heart. Seeing him shamble through life is like watching an old Mr. Magoo cartoon. It’s only a matter of time before he falls down a manhole and we forget about him forever.
So what’s left? Matt Gaetz, essentially.
This occurred to me as I read Abigail Tracy’s recent Vanity Fair profile of Gaetz. The piece makes clear that Gaetz isn’t as interested in doing the job of a House member as he is in pretending and performing. Which, it occurs to me, is all the Republican Party as a whole is interested in anymore.
Gaetz’s recent sex scandal may end up being his Waterloo, but until The New York Times reported that he’s being investigated for the alleged trafficking of a 17-year-old girl, he was, for all intents and purposes, the giant, frat-boy face of the GOP. And he seemed to come out of nowhere, like black mold in your basement.
Like Trump, Gaetz’s milieu is the media. A regular refrain from him is “stagecraft is statecraft.” And his book Firebrand lays out a view that a prominent profile is more powerful than a leadership position. “It’s impossible to get canceled if you’re on every channel,” he wrote, dismissing criticism from former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan that he appeared on television too much. “Politics, they say, is show business for ugly people. The real question is who writes the scripts and produces the acts. You are governed by the theater geeks from high school, who went on to make it big booking guests on the talk shows,” Gaetz writes. “Ignore them and they’ll ignore you, and you’ll go nowhere fast.”
Yup, it’s all theater. Never mind working on behalf of your constituents.
Gaetz is a natural showman. And with a reality-television star in the Oval Office, the Trump-era—defined by performative politics—was made for him. His focus on appearance was present throughout the day I spent with him. My first in-person glimpse of the congressman was him applying concealer in front of a large mirror in his office. Later, in a greenroom at CPAC, he would express glee at a Dyson hairdryer, which he told his chief of staff, Jillian Lane Wyant, “changed my life.”
“I think that a lot of people who watch Fox News daily were familiar with me last year,” he said. “I think this year, as a consequence of impeachment…a few more folks seemed to recognize me.”
Yes, they did. And now even more people recognize him.
As Tracy notes in her Vanity Fair piece, Gaetz originally entered Congress a nobody who felt a little intimidated by the accomplishments of his veteran colleagues. He was so run-of-the-mill, in fact, he initially supported Jeb! Bush in 2016. But, as he tells Tracy, “We have managed to get it right since then.”
”It,” of course, means being a showboating, self-aggrandizing asshole.
And while there may still be a few GOP fossils who are more interested in governing than blowing shit up and blaming Democrats for the pile of cinders, Gaetz isn’t one of these, and there are plenty of folks ready, willing, and able to step into his role when he’s gone.
They know they have nothing left but distraction, so get ready for more Gaetzes. He and Donald Trump have shown this vicious hallelujah chorus of gas bags the way.
Gaetz himself might not be the future of the party, but his clones are hatching as we speak. Many are already here. And the further off the rails the party goes, the more they’ll want to punish the rest of us with their performative perfidy.
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