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Trump’s Loyal Apprentice in Congress

Matt Gaetz has all the cocksure swagger of a reality television contestant.

Samuel Corum/Getty; (Gaetz) NBC/Photofest (Trump)

On October 23, a gaggle of House Republicans, led by Matt Gaetz of Florida, stormed the Capitol’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. Gaetz had hoped to expose the supposedly secretive nature of the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump. “Stormed” was his own overly dramatic word (though Gaetz soon topped it by comparing his crew to the 300 glorious, nearly naked Spartans who, as you may recall, lost to a numerically superior force during the Battle of Thermopylae). A more accurate description would be to say they barged into a committee room like a bunch of entitled fussbudgets, argued with the committee chairman, took selfies, and then trundled off to hold a press conference.

Contemporary Washington is full of drama queens who pitch their operatic outrage to the farthest seats in the house, but few would stage a mock invasion of a secure facility. Even before he, ahem, “stormed” the SCIF, though, Gaetz was a regular on Fox News, confidently regurgitating conservative talking points and jumping at every opportunity to trash the Green New Deal with his own half-baked legislative riposte, a.k.a. the Green Real Deal. In recent months, he has become one of the president’s most prominent defenders, a reliable interlocutor always willing to accuse the Democrats—“an angry pack of rabid hyenas”—of being the real criminals and traitors in the impeachment drama. The moment a camera starts rolling, Gaetz hits his mark, dutifully repeating the president’s arguments and evasions to the media with, frankly, far more fluency than the president himself.

If Donald Trump owes his fame to saying, “You’re fired!” to a crew of fake businesspeople, then Gaetz is perfectly positioned to assume the role of cocksure reality TV contestant: confident in his own inevitable status as a finalist on the biggest soundstage of all.

Gaetz, who is only 37, has the air of a guy you might run into at a 10-year reunion, bragging about babes and brewskis while droning on about a vast luxury SUV he’d only been able to afford because he’d inherited an auto dealership or pizza chain from his dad. Gaetz very nearly did just that: His father, Don Gaetz, was a state legislator who was president of Florida’s state Senate from 2012 until 2014. He’d made a fortune off a nonprofit-turned-for-profit hospice care scheme. The Gaetzes lived in a picturesque suburban house that was used as a set in The Truman Show, the 1998 Jim Carrey flick about a man who has spent his entire life, unknowingly, in a television program.

Today, Matt Gaetz describes himself on Twitter as a “Florida man proudly serving the First District in Congress,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to a meme in which a generically identified “Florida Man” is forever blowing something up, failing at some inept yet violent crime, or doing something untoward to a gator. The joke is rooted in the popular image of Florida as the slightly sinister underbelly of America. But Gaetz has a Trumpian penchant for turning the worst things one might say about him into a point of pride. He, like Florida Man, has had brushes with the law. In 2008, he was arrested for a suspected DUI on the way home from a club called, in a hilariously ironic bit of prognostication, the Swamp. While serving in the state House between 2010 and 2016, he campaigned for medical marijuana legalization. (In 2017, he even appeared alongside none other than the now-convicted, Trump-advising dirty trickster Roger Stone at a conference of the American Medical Marijua­na Physicians Association.)

Earlier this fall, Mother Jones reported on how Gaetz’s father funded his son’s Washington ambitions through a series of questionable property sales. Buoyed by family money—and the solidly Republican politics of Florida’s western panhandle—Gaetz arrived in the nation’s capital in 2017 eager to attract the notice of the biggest Republican daddy of all by going on TV.

Trump has called Gaetz “a machine ... handsome and going places.”* The congressman is perhaps handsome by the standards of Washington; he is certainly handsome by the standards expressed by Trump, who seems to equate it mostly with bigness. Large and square, intense, a bit bug-eyed when he is feigning incredulity, he is unquestionably good on TV: fluent, even slightly sardonic at times. Compared to the president’s many strange and ineffectual stand-ins, Gaetz seems, even in his wildest flights and absurdist accusations, remarkably sane.

The Trump era has given rise to any number of half-baked theories about reality TV bleeding into politics. Critics have posited that the president is staging a grander and more deranged version of The Apprentice from the Oval Office. But nothing about the shambolic Rex Tillerson, the martinet generals John Kelly and Jim Mattis, or the courtly Jefferson Beauregard Sessions suggests the casting of a competition: While all of them abased themselves in misguided efforts to contain or use the president, none of them craved his approval once they realized he was more likely to hinder their agendas. In Gaetz, however, we do, at last, have some semblance of a contestant willing to perform any trick to win. He has internalized the most elemental truth of the reality show: Each season is defined not by its winners, but by its villains—the scoundrels who don’t “come to make friends.” He is a ball of contradictory impulses, bringing a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union one minute and in the next defending Democrat Katie Hill from a revenge porn scandal.

Like, say, Steve Bannon or Stephen Miller, Gaetz has roots in the alt-right. But unlike those figures, he seems to view provocation as an instrument of power rather than as an ideology in and of itself. In that sense, he is perhaps the more dangerous, because he suggests Trumpism will last long after Trump leaves office. Gaetz combines Trump’s showmanship with Bannon’s and Miller’s frighteningly perennial strain of hate.

A selfie-seeking frat boy is perhaps not the most obvious inheritor of the conservative movement. But Gaetz embraces Trump’s powerful instinct for never caring what people think of him. At an impeachment hearing on Thursday, Gaetz questioned why a Ukrainian energy company would hire Joe Biden’s son, given his history of substance abuse: “It’s a little hard to believe that Burisma hired Hunter Biden to resolve their international disputes when he could not resolve his own dispute with Hertz rental car over leaving cocaine and a crack pipe in the car.” He did this without apparent irony, all in service of a Republican conspiracy theory. Florida has never given us a president, but I would not bet against Matt ­Gaetz.