‘D-Lister’ fraud or Maga hero? How Matt Gaetz split the Republican Party

Matt Gaetz, left, eventually voted ‘present’ to allow Kevin McCarthy to be elected House Speaker (AFP via Getty Images)
Matt Gaetz, left, eventually voted ‘present’ to allow Kevin McCarthy to be elected House Speaker (AFP via Getty Images)

Not so long ago, Matt Gaetz and Majorie Taylor Greene would have considered themselves rebels-in-arms.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat, the pair of election deniers claimed they were being cancelled, not just by the political mainstream, but their own party.

They even embarked on a political roadshow and spoke at venues such as The Villages retirement community north of Orlando. Their audience, in theory, was the glad-to-have-them residents, who have long leaned conservative.

In truth, the speeches they delivered were aimed at one Florida retiree in particular – Trump himself, then still nursing his wounds at Mar-a-Lago.

“I’m a marked man in Congress,” Gaetz said at one appearance in May 2021. Greene, who had been kicked off a congressional committee for her promotion of QAnon conspiracies, similarly pitched herself as a hated disruptor. “They don’t like me much.”

Yet, that was then. Last week, in scenes not seen in the House of Representatives in our lifetimes, Greene emerged in the avatar of a voice of reason, as Kevin McCarthy sought to secure enough votes to become Speaker. Gaetz, meanwhile, played the role of provocateur-in-chief, he has long sought to occupy.

Time and time again, McCarthy’s supporters rose to their feet to propose the 57-year-old for the position, only to see their efforts blocked by up to 20 members of the caucus who claimed they did not want the ideologically-elastic McCarthy to fill that role.

One of the most outspoken members of the “never-Kevin” hold-outs was Gaetz, who attacked McCarthy in unsparing terms. He called him an “alligator” and sent a letter to the House architect, asking why McCarthy had been assigned the Speaker’s office before securing the vote and suggesting he was a “squatter”.

“Maybe the right person for the speaker of the House isn’t someone who has sold shares of himself for more than a decade to get it,” Gaetz had said. He claimed the California congressman was “beholden to the lobbyists and special interest that have corrupted this place and corrupted this nation”.

Eventually, so late into the night that many people barely noticed it was technically the morning, McCarthy was elected Speaker on the 15th round of voting, an event so dragged out that to find a parallel, historians had to search back before the Civil War.

Even at the very end, it did not come easily.

A sufficient number of those previously opposed to McCarthy were persuaded to change their vote to “present” and enable him to gather a majority of votes, only after he agreed to a series of concessions to the hardliners, including the establishment of a rule that will allow a single disgruntled member of the House GOP to trigger a vote of confidence.

McCarthy also had to agree to give a number of slots to the hardliners on the committee that oversees the House’s business, and which wields considerable power.

Finally, it required the intervention of Trump, phoning the final unbroken kernel of McCarthy opponents - Gaetz among them - to put an end to their antics. He suggested, correctly, the drama had dragged on long enough, and the Republican Party was looking very silly indeed.

And had it not been for the intervention of more of the more sober-minded Republicans on the floor that night, the cream may have been wiped off Gaetz’s smiling face by a colleague, who appeared to want to punch him.

People watched aghast as Alabama Representative Mike Rogers lunged towards Gaetz and had to be pulled back in what amounted to an old-school wrestling move by Richard Hudson, a representative from North Carolina.

“We’re going to remember this. We won’t forget this,” Rogers told the 40-year-old Gaetz.

It was 1am in the nation’s capital by the time McCarthy got his hands on the Speakers gavel.

“I hope one thing is clear after this week,” McCarthy said, as much to himself as anyone else. “I never give up.”

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The election of McCarthy, and the chaos that led up to it, at once did several things.

It emboldened the right-wing Freedom Caucus faction that has been handed committee seats.

It also further empowered Greene, the representative from Georgia’s 14th congressional district, who now expects her vocal support for an already weakened McCarthy to be repaid in full.

“If my friends in the Freedom Caucus, Matt Gaetz and others, will not take the win when they have it, they’re proving to the country that they don’t care about doing the right thing for America,” she had told reporters last week, after Gaetz’s attack on McCarthy

“They’re proving to the country that they are just destructionists and that’s not what we need to do as a party. That’s why Republicans fail and I’m really tired of it.”

It also showed how Gaetz, in his actions, had his eye on the hardline faction within the Republican base, rather than his colleagues in the lower chamber.

Indeed, many elected Republicans turned on Gaetz, who represents Florida’s first congressional district, and accused him of hypocrisy.

“Matt Gaetz is a fraud. Every time he voted against Kevin McCarthy last week he sent out a fundraising email,” Congresswoman Nancy Mace, a Republican who represents a competitive district in South Carolina, told CBS News, having previously termed him a “D-lister” in a tweet.

“What you saw last week was a constitutional process diminished by those kinds of political actions.”

Rolling Stone magazine pointed out that Gaetz, and another hold-out, Andy Biggs of Arizona, had been sending out emails to supporters asking for donations, after publicly putting McCarthy through the ringer.

Bloomberg News said Gaetz wanted to lead a sub-panel of the House Armed Services Committee in return for his support.

Mace was critical of the deals that McCarthy made, arrangements that were come to behind closed doors.

“We don’t know what they got or didn’t get. We haven’t seen it. We don’t have any idea what promises were made,” she said. “I don’t support that kind of behaviour.”

McCarthy finally got his hands on the gavel (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
McCarthy finally got his hands on the gavel (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Fellow California Republican David Valadao was also critical of what happened.

“While I’m glad we were able to come together as Republicans to elect Speaker McCarthy, I am deeply disappointed in the handful of my colleagues who have treated this process like a game,” he said in a statement.

He added: “It’s clear this small group of members are more interested in their personal political stardom than governing in the best interest of their constituents.”

Yet among a number of Republicans, Gaetz, who was selected in by the November midterms by a 36 point margin, was considered nothing less than a hero.

“They’re listening and not ignoring!!! Freedom isnt dead ... there are still people in WASHINGTON that will still listen. Matt Gaetz is one of those people,” was typical of many tweets that followed the drama on Capitol Hill

Matt Dallek, a professor and political historian at George Washington University tells The Independent he believes there is some truth to the claims that Gaetz used the event to raise funds.

But he said while McCarthy and others close to him may hate Gaetz, his popularity among a strain of the party will have grown.

“He sees himself as a kind of mini-Trump,” he says.

“And is one of the more extreme examples of this anti-establishment, apocalyptic, and rhetorically violent mode of politics that Trump also embodies.”

He adds: “I think to someone like Gaetz, like Trump, their whole approach to politics has to be rooted in provocation.”

This is not the first time that Gaetz has attracted controversy.

The author of a 2020 book, Firebrand, he blasted former Speaker Paul Ryan for joining the board of Fox News’s parent company.

He loudly backed Florida’s controversial stand-your-ground gun laws, and in March 2020, mockingly wore a gas mask on the House floor while voting on a bill that sent billions of dollars to combat the coronavirus.

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In Jan 2021, he was among those Republicans who voted not to certify the election victory of Joe Bien, even after the day of violence and chaos that had beset the US Capitol the very day of the vote.  In 2020,  the Department of Justice began an investigation into allegations that Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl in exchange for money. He denied the claims and prosecutors argued against charging him with any offence.

Patricia Crouse, a professor and political scientist at the University of New Haven, says Gaetz is far more interested in keeping close to the likes of Trump and Florida Ron DeSantis, than people such as McCarthy.

“He is an attention seeker,” she says. “He thrives on media attention, no matter good or bad. And he seems to be able to work that to his favor. I think he got the attention that he was seeking.”

Gaetz did not respond to enquiries from The Independent.

Since the election of McCarthy, Gaetz has been busy defending his actions, in appearances on places such as Fox News.

“This was a matter of timing,” Gaetz said. “Those of us who had withheld our support for Speaker McCarthy wanted to move as a group. We thought it should be a unifying moment.”

And on Tuesday, he introduced an amendment to the House rules to allow the cameras of non-profit C-SPAN, beloved by US political junkies, on the House floor during normal proceedings.

He told Fox he came up with the idea after receiving positive feedback from members of the public who tuned in to last week’s drama,

“I’ve received a lot of feedback from constituents about how interesting it was,” he said. “You were able to see in real time how our government is functioning, what alliances are being created, what discussions are being had, what animated moments drive the action.”

What does that mean as the 118th Congress under Speaker McCarthy gets underway, vowing to dig into everything from Biden’s border policy to his son’s businesss dealings?

That we are likely to see a lot more drama, and a lot more of Matt Gaetz.