When Florida Representative Matt Gaetz was elected to the House in 2016, he arrived with controversies at his back. As Florida legislators moved to raise speed limits around the state, Scripps Florida compiled several local lawmakers’ driving records. Among the list of traffic offenders was a then 32-year-old Gaetz, who had been hit with 16 tickets between 1999 and 2014. This would be an omen of more serious accusations to come, as Gaetz’s time representing his state on the national level has been marred by near constant controversy and backlash. At seemingly every turn, his actions and behavior have left a dark trail of questions and concerns that have only built-in severity. In the most recent development, it’s been revealed that an investigation began under Bill Barr’s Department of Justice to determine whether or not Gaetz had paid for the cross-state travel of a 17-year-old girl to pursue a sexual relationship. Initially uncovered due to an investigation into ally Joel Greenberg, the accusations against Gaetz continue to mount. On top of the allegations already mentioned, Gaetz has allegedly shown nude pictures, taken non-consensually, of various partners while on the House floor. One time friend and associate, former California Representative Katie Hill (who was the victim of nude photos being released without her knowledge), penned an article for Vanity Fair calling for Gaetz’s resignation if “there is even a fraction of truth to these reports.” In one of the harshest reports to come out since the DOJ’s investigation was made public, The New York Times reported that Gaetz had asked Donald Trump for a sweeping pre-emptive pardon for himself and “unidentified congressional allies” in the closing months of the Trump presidency. As the walls seem to close in on Gaetz, two questions must be asked. How did things get to this point, and where is Gaetz’s defense squad?
Over the years, Matt Gaetz has cultivated a specific image. Like Trump, who he was undyingly loyal to, Gaetz has built a career off his unapologetic, brash persona. During the George Floyd protests last summer, Gaetz tweeted, “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?” a post that was flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence.” It’s been partially on the back of sentiments like this, aggressive and unrepentantly hostile towards those who he considers his foes, that led to the meteoric rise of Gaetz through the ranks of the Republican party. As he’s developed this reputation, he’s built himself up as a sort of renegade hero, sometimes literally leading the charge of House Republicans from the front. During the first impeachment against then-President Trump, Gaetz, with a band of Trump allies from the House behind him, crashed a House Intelligence Committee hearing over concerns that it was occurring behind closed doors. The intrusion caused a roughly 5-hour delay due to safety concerns. Entertaining a line of questions from a TMZ reporter, a grinning Gaetz likened the actions of himself and his colleagues to those of the 300 Spartans, claiming that they were shielding democracy from the “radical left.” It’s been this pattern of reckless, shameless behavior that has turned Gaetz into a conservative lightning rod. At all turns, Gaetz has pinned his triumphs on those of Donald Trump and helped himself to a share of the glory when Trump has succeeded.
It’s precisely this status as a fiercely loyal defender of the party and ex-President that makes the lack of defense for Gaetz among his colleagues so confusing. In a world where allegations of sexual misconduct are levied at politicians at an alarming rate, there is an equally unsettling partisan line of defense. As party leaders from both major American factions face troubling allegations, their colleagues have a noticeable tendency to immediately rush to their defense. Recently, it was seen with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Donald Trump during the early days of his presidency. While these figures had assumptions of innocence and questioned their political opposites over double standards, Matt Gaetz has had difficulty finding such defense among his colleagues. Appearing on typically sympathetic Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight, Gaetz was shut down multiple times by Carlson, who quipped that it was “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.” Weeks after news of the investigation first broke, Gaetz finally received the statement of support he had searched for in the form of a message from Donald Trump. But rather than the righteous indignation and bluster of typical Trumpian statements, Gaetz was given a mere 2 sentences that denied reports of Gaetz having sought a pardon and provided a limp deferral to Gaetz’s denial of the charges. The Florida congressman has received a sparse defense even from those who would be considered close allies. Marjorie Taylor Greene dismissed the investigation as a “deep state” conspiracy and Jim Jordan, talking to CNN, said simply, “I believe Matt Gaetz.” Despite getting a hint of the public support he was looking for from some of those closest to him politically, Gaetz has lost 2 longtime staffers in the wake of the investigation, with the most notable of these being his communications director. Pressure and criticism have also crept in from inner-party critics, with Liz Cheney calling the accusations “sickening” and Representative Adam Kinzinger outright calling for resignation. As the Gaetz saga continues to unfold, it’s been made clear that his enemies steadily outnumber his friends. Rather than a party-wide coalition covering for him, Gaetz finds scant aid from only his closest defenders and a new level of criticism from those he had already run afoul of.
With the weeks since the public learned of the investigation into Matt Gaetz’s potentially sordid affairs passing quickly, the pressure on him only seems to be intensifying. Though the accusations against him are somewhat shocking, they don’t seem to be surprising to many. The image that he’s cultivated has been one of a general disregard for procedural norms and formalities. Be it a combative Twitter history like that of the Administration he assumed office under or brazen actions like storming closed-door hearings, Gaetz has drawn attention far above his actual influence in the halls of Congress. While these actions seemed to peeve some of his colleagues over the years, he was seen as a valuable asset by many and thusly ignored, if not rewarded, for some of his more unsavory actions. But with the severity of the charges he now faces, the same people who cheered on his flamboyant, self-proclaimed “Florida man” style are now turning their back on him. What’s quickly become apparent is that Gaetz has expended his usefulness to his party. The distaste for him that was once suppressed deep within the hearts and minds of Republican politicians has become too much to ignore. Though Gaetz’s guilt has yet to be determined, this saga has provided an important lesson. The vocal defenders who will constantly plead the innocence of party leaders such as Donald Trump for Republicans and Andrew Cumo for Democrats, will lose their zeal for the politicians who have expended their utility. Matt Gaetz has found himself at odds with Republican leadership, which has left him stranded in his defense. The same vigor he offered to others, missing from his side, offering a cautionary tale to a generation of politicians whose tactics have in many cases been shaped by Gaetz and those around him.