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Matt Gaetz and the tyranny of the backbencher

The lurid scandal rapidly enveloping well-known Trump ally and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is obviously embarrassing for the GOP. No party leader wants to see one of their members accused of paying very young women, and possibly underage girls, for sex. But Gaetz is hardly the first politician to flame out in scandal and he won’t be the last. The urgent task facing Republican leadership should be to ask how or why a man like Matt Gaetz became a prominent face of the party to begin with.

The details of Gaetzgate are disturbingly sordid even by the bog standards of Washington, D.C. The 38-year-old representative, now in his third term, allegedly recruited women to pay for sex along with another Florida politician who has already been indicted for sex trafficking, Joel Greenberg. The Department of Justice reportedly began an investigation last year into whether the payments made to these women violated federal sex trafficking and prostitution laws. Gaetz and Greenberg are also reportedly under investigation for targeting a 17-year-old girl with this scheme, committing statutory rape and trafficking by traveling with her across state lines.

The congressman claims this is all part of a bizarre extortion plot. Last week he went on Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show and unspooled a humdinger of a story, in which a former federal prosecutor named David McGee demanded $25 million from Gaetz and his father, to fund the rescue of (almost certainly dead) former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in 2007 at an Iranian resort. Gaetz claimed that McGee promised, in exchange, to scuttle a DOJ investigation into whether Gaetz had an orgy with underage prostitutes. It is not clear how any of this makes Gaetz look any better, nor does the extortion tale, even if it’s true, explain why he was under investigation in the first place. Even Carlson was not having it.

Gaetz, who really is one of the sleazier and more reckless creatures to ooze out of the swamp in recent years, is also said to have bragged about his escapades on the House floor, reportedly showing colleagues nude pictures and videos of women he claimed to have slept with. His conduct in the Florida state legislature, where he and a group of young male colleagues reportedly used a points system for their sexual adventures, was, according to Fox News, “an open secret” in Tallahassee. In other words, there is no plausible deniability here for Republican leaders. Either they knew the truth about this guy and didn’t care, or they had their heads buried so far in the sand that their eyebrows were halfway to the Earth’s core.

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So, big shocker: Matt Gaetz is slime. As Andrew Cuomo proves, the Republican Party is not the country’s exclusive home for gross, power-abusing lotharios. But there is definitely something about the generalized seediness of MAGAworld that seems to attract a disproportionate share of the country’s unprincipled, exploitative grifters, fundamentally immoral people who feed off of group dynamics in which transgressors normalize antisocial behavior and create a permission structure for others to follow them into the muck. The takeover of the Republican Party by Donald Trump, a man accused of rape or other sexual misconduct by dozens of women, and who has yet to pay any kind of price for it and probably never will, surely communicated a message of impunity to aspiring creeps up and down the ballot.

But Gaetz is also a symptom of a much larger problem for the GOP. There’s now a bonkers squad of media-thirsty political exhibitionists in the House that includes Gaetz, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Col.), Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.), Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), and Rep. Paul Goser (R-Ariz.), among others. This handful of aggressively strange Republican elected officials have driven the news cycle so often in 2021 that you might mistake them for party leaders. They combine an almost cartoonishly over-the-top political style with a near-total lack of interest in governing the country, and they are very talented at getting their daily outrage laundered through the nearest reporter. The lot of them seem more interested in working for Twitter than for the people they represent.

Given the unfolding details of Gaetz’s smarmy sex ring, he is not likely to remain a member of Congress much longer. But Taylor-Green, Boebert, and Cawthorn (this is hardly an exhaustive list) are also obviously unstable, exuding, like Gaetz, an off-putting and dangerous kind of manic energy that they devote either to promulgating outlandish policies or, more often, becoming the social media villain of the day with publicity stunts like Gaetz’s donning of a gas mask on the House floor early in the pandemic, or Taylor-Greene’s weird exercise video in which she claims intense training is all she needs to protect herself from the coronavirus, or Boebert’s tweet on Insurrection Day proclaiming that “Today is 1776.” If you’re wondering how one day can be a whole year, you’re obviously putting more thought into the meaning of words than she ever has.

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Perhaps Gaetz has the filthiest past, but these are all deeply unserious people who frequently seem not to understand the constitutional framework they toil under, and their presence in the Republican Party is evidence of a massive, party-wide failure of quality control, candidate vetting, and vision. Unsurprisingly, they all have baggage that should have dragged their primary campaigns to the ocean floor long before they got within a hundred miles of the Capitol — Greene’s alleged polyamorous adventures at her gym (not illegal, but hypocritical) and endorsement of a variety of crackpot conspiracy theories, Cawthorn’s easily debunked fabulism about his past, Boebert’s lengthy rap sheet, Goser’s family hating him so much that they cut an ad against him in 2018. And so on.

Let’s be honest — if your child brought a person like this to dinner, it would be grounds for a full-scale intervention. Sensible people should be immediately repelled by the poorly-hidden con artistry, bad faith, and desperate need for attention that wafts off of this bunch like bad odors from the beloved Peanuts character Pig-Pen. Alas, sense and sensibility seem to be in very short supply these days in the corridors of Republican power.

Allowing such people to lead them around by the nose has had more than just bad news cycle consequences for the GOP. It means that the circus atmosphere and gonzo aesthetic of Donald Trump’s ignominious presidency have become the default settings for Republican elected officials. The party’s base voters not only expect it, but they seem to lap it up and prefer it to any kind of serious legislative program or strategy to get back into power. It is how they ended up as the party of alleged murderer Kyle Rittenhouse and the arms-wide-open home of the racist Proud Boys. It’s why party elites like Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel now spend their time culture warring with Major League Baseball rather than leading the party out of the wilderness.

A healthy, functioning political party would be doing everything in its power to cast such cranks out of the fold as quickly as possible. Instead, 200 House Republicans voted to keep Marjorie Taylor-Greene on her committees, and senior Republicans have either been silent about the Gaetz scandal or are still playing wait-and-see. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has demonstrated not one ounce of gravitas in confronting any of these demonstrably repulsive and unpopular figures. Like everyone in the party, he is still cowering in fear of former President Trump and anyone who raises the banner of hyper-partisan lunacy in his disgraced name. And for what? A House minority minus these five goobers is still a House minority. Have some dignity.

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But that’s the Republican Party in 2021. It’s not a collection of people anyone would associate with dignity of any kind. It is, instead, an organization that has lost any sense of what politics is for, led by shady backbenchers and crackpot provocateurs who are angling for a primetime slot on Newsmax rather than meaningful achievements in public life. Matt Gaetz will not be the last of this group to come unglued. If he manages to stay out of prison, he is as likely a future leader of his pitiful party as anyone else.

Is this what Kevin McCarthy and the young guns came to D.C. to do? If it isn’t, he and his allies need a better strategy than capitulation to madness.