The Florida swamp comes to Washington: Rep. Matt Gaetz's unlikely rise

A favorite of Infowars and Fox News, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz has become a rising star of the Trumpian right

By Jeremy Binckes
Published February 3, 2018 10:00AM (EST)
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (Getty/Alex Wong)
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (Getty/Alex Wong)

On Friday, roughly an hour after the Devin Nunes memo dropped, one of the first politicians that Fox News turned to was Rep. Matt Gaetz. With seemingly pitch-perfect tone and tenor, the Florida Republican showed why he's such a favorite of the network and the pro-Trump media universe, delivering a 94-second soliloquy on the Nunes memo that sounded like it could have come from an anchor reading off a script.

It was part of a grand tour that took Gaetz through the major cable news players — while making overtures to the darkest corners of the political landscape.

If Nunes is the playwright behind the latest wrinkle in a slowly unfolding constitutional drama, then Gaetz may be one of the best actors on stage. It's a surprising turn for a political heir who, up until now, seemingly had nothing to lose. His tale is of a first-term Republican backbencher who's trying to make a name for himself as the city seemingly burns around him.

In figuring out who Matt Gaetz is, you have to start with the observation that he's really rich. His family was worth close to $27 million as of 2015 and Gaetz acted the part, according to Florida Republicans who spoke to Salon on background. He has been called a trust-fund baby who never needed to work for a living, and likely never will. His adult life took him from college to law school, followed by a two-year stint in law before jumping into politics.

The second thing to understand about Gaetz is that he's the ultimate political insider. His father, Don Gaetz, held a Florida state senate seat for 10 years and was that body's president from 2012 to 2014. That's one big reason why, as a 28-year-old political neophyte a few years out of law school, Matt Gaetz was able to win an open seat in the Florida House on his first try — beating out a crowded Republican field. In 2016, the younger Gaetz saw an opening on Capitol Hill. Instead of running for his dad's state senate seat, as some anticipated, he won a tight Republican primary in the 1st congressional district on the Florida panhandle, a safe GOP seat.

Gaetz is someone with significant political capital and financial wealth. And, partly because of this, he has faced few consequences for his actions. Take a look at his driving record. It was low-hanging fruit to opposition researchers and political opponents, but still — the guy racked up 16 moving violations between 1999 and 2014, according to a Naples News report at the time.

Insiders say Gaetz indeed has a consequence-free mentality, as well as an appetite for bomb-throwing. In 2015, he faced backlash after sending out a tweet suggesting that a pair of black state legislators were ignorant or illiterate. Gaetz described the tweet as a joke, but not many people were laughing.

The tweet, as the Miami Herald noted in its report on the incident, helped solidify Gaetz's "reputation in the Capitol for his firebrand personality, put on full display on both the House floor and Twitter."

Gaetz "represents one of the most conservative districts in the country," Republican strategist Rick Wilson — a Florida resident himself — told Salon. "It is the home of Trump supporters so passionate that they would set themselves on fire for the president."

Perhaps that's one reason Gaetz has been so eager to defend Trump — he's merely representing Trump country. Then again, playing to Trump country hasn't seemed to do him any harm. Despite taking a Holocaust-denying troll to the State of the Union address this week, Gaetz has been in high demand on right-wing media. His appearances on Infowars, where Alex Jones has called him "one of the strongest, most focused, eloquent, on-target voices who we’ve all watched . . . doing battle," may be a tryout for something larger. Gaetz is trying to be Fox's answer to Joe Scarborough, one Republican told Salon — a down-home Panhandle guy taking on politics.

Strangely enough, Gaetz has shown a few inklings of something different. His signature achievement in the Florida House was a medical marijuana bill allowing "near-death patients to use nonsmokable marijuana of all strengths and doses." He championed the bill in the name of children suffering from epilepsy, according to the Associated Press. While he's talking on-camera about the FBI's alleged bias against Trump, behind the scenes he wants to introduce legislation that would allow military veterans to use medical marijuana to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He has criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for rescinding the Cole memorandum, which protected states where marijuana had been legalized from federal prosecution.

Ironically, Gaetz's ambition may undermine his political career, and his good intentions. "People are getting tired of Matt's shenanigans," a Florida political insider told Salon. Though Gaetz is in Trump country, he faces a well-funded primary challenger this year, who may attract moderate Republicans and some Democrats in the district.

In two years, Matt Gaetz may be out of politics, with a job at Fox News, Breitbart or elsewhere in the right-wing mediascape. Even if he holds his seat this fall, Gaetz's name will forever be attached to the cause he embraced in 2018: Defending Donald Trump, and attacking the Department of Justice.

Jeremy Binckes

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