Matt Gaetz, the ‘built-for-battle’ Trumpist who plunged the Capitol into chaos

The Florida representative, part of the most hard-line wing of the Republican Party, has shown a keen desire for the spotlight in his six years in Washington

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Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz on the steps of the Capitol on October 2, 2023.SHAWN THEW (EFE)
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During the tense session on Tuesday that ended with the ouster of Kevin McCarthy, the first speaker in the 234-year history of the House of Representatives to lose the confidence of Congress, the 210 members of the Republican Party loyal to the Californian congressman blocked the way three times in a bid to stop Matt Gaetz, the traitor who forced the motion to vacate that took down their leader.

His Republican colleagues did not want him to use any of the microphones on the bench located to the right of the chamber, packed to the brim on a historic day. So Gaetz, a congressman for the first district of Florida, the easternmost corner of the state, a piece of land around Pensacola that is almost Alabama, had to use the Democrats’ podium to defend himself for an hour from the attacks of his own party and to justify a motion that has caused the GOP to lose, until further notice, the ability to carry the legislative initiative in Washington.

The Democrats sitting around Gaetz, who soon confirmed that they were thinking of letting McCarthy fall, attended the show, perhaps regretting the ban on eating in such a solemn place: more than one would have happily taken out the popcorn to watch their rivals being torn apart live, despite the fact that they only enjoy a slim majority in the lower house following the legislative elections of November. In his last address, Gaetz turned towards the Democratic lawmakers and told them: “I’ll make this argument at any desk in this building from the well, from the chair. I’ll make it on every street corner in this country that Washington must change. We have to break the cycle.”

Built for the Battle

His attacks on the “lobbies and special interests” that have “appropriated” American politics, as well as the rhetoric, lying somewhere between populist and anti-establishment, were surely familiar to observers of American politics since, at least, the times of the Tea Party, a movement that emerged at the beginning of the last decade and which today could be viewed as the canary in the mine of radicalization of a portion of the Republican Party, before Donald Trump arrived and did the rest. That Gaetz, a faithful follower of the former president, feels comfortable in this provocative speech is already clear from his biography on X, formerly Twitter. On that modern business card he defines himself as a “Florida Man. Built for the Battle.”

Gaetz is 41 years old and has been a congressman since 2017. The son of a politician, he was a state lawmaker in the capital of Florida, Tallahassee, before landing in Washington, where he has been characterized by seeking the spotlight with the same eagerness as the fight. He received criticism for inviting a Holocaust denier to Congress; has defended the baseless theories about the so-called stolen election of 2020 that Trump continues to insist on; and he has faced an investigation by the House Ethics Committee over allegations that he had sexual relations with a minor — accusations that have not led to criminal prosecution. Also, for having consumed illegal drugs, for allegedly sharing inappropiate images or videos inside the House of Representatives, and for converting campaign funds to personal use and accepting impermissible gifts under House rules.

McCarthy declared Tuesday after being ousted that Gaetz’s personal crusade against him is motivated not by quixotic aspirations to clean up Washington (alluding to the Trumpist rallying cry of “drain the swamp”), but rather by the fact that he himself did not do enough as speaker to block those inquiries. That same night, Gaetz denied the accusations on Fox News.

When, following the narrow electoral victory in the last legislative elections, McCarthy ran as a candidate to succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, he faced a rebellion from the hardest wing of his party, led, among others, by Gaetz. This group of far-right rebels, associated around the so-called Freedom Caucus (which in Washington is also known by the nickname the Dysfunctional Caucus), forced the House to vote up to 15 times to elect McCarthy.

Along the way, the extremists also made commitments like the one that ended McCarthy’s long-cherished dream of becoming the third authority in the country, a position from which they removed him on Tuesday. Among other concessions, he accepted that a motion to vacate could be pushed by a single congressman, which has allowed Gaetz to end his mandate at the first opportunity. He did so in protest of last Saturday’s deal with Democrats to avoid a partial shutdown of the US government until November 17.

Gaetz’s initiative has not only set a precedent and definitively pitted him against his party. A ghost has also been resurrected. When Democratic President Harry Truman (1945-1953) lost control of Congress in the 1946 midterm elections, that defeat allowed him to at least win the presidential election two years later, supported by the fact that his rivals, busy with their internal feuding, were unable to achieve great things. He baptized them in the campaign as those “Do-Nothing-Republicans.”

The conservative party has given the impression of being consumed by infighting since McCarthy was elected speaker nine months ago. He is a truly tragic character: perhaps no one in recent American memory has so longed to hold the position, and certainly very few (in fact: only two, the last one 147 years ago) lasted less than him. The Republicans not only remain incapable of shaking off Trump’s shadow, but also of taking advantage of the opportunity to govern and, in the process, oppose Biden with the narrow margin that the voters granted them in the House (but not in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats).

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