Unpacking the GOP’s red October

Matt Gaetz is content to watch the world burn — and he’ll keep all the rubies he can gather along the way


From our December 2023 issue

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The Florida Man had a plan. It was obvious from the beginning, but this being Washington, despite all the bizarre outcomes of the post-Cold War political scene — interns, scandals, impeachments, Donald Trump in the White House and out of it, the Cheneys surrounded by cheering Democrats — normalcy remains the assumed status quo. Normalcy does not encompass a plan to vacate the speaker’s chair with the unanimous help of the other party. In fact, prior to 2019, anyone could have used the same tool the Florida Man would deploy to unseat a speaker. They…

The Florida Man had a plan. It was obvious from the beginning, but this being Washington, despite all the bizarre outcomes of the post-Cold War political scene — interns, scandals, impeachments, Donald Trump in the White House and out of it, the Cheneys surrounded by cheering Democrats — normalcy remains the assumed status quo. Normalcy does not encompass a plan to vacate the speaker’s chair with the unanimous help of the other party. In fact, prior to 2019, anyone could have used the same tool the Florida Man would deploy to unseat a speaker. They just never tried it officially, because to do so would be crazy, risking handing control of the House to the minority. And it was that audacity which kept the Florida Man’s plan alive. So long as no one expected he would really pull the trigger, they wouldn’t be ready for it when, inevitably and purposefully, he did.

In this case, the surprising effectiveness of the speaker contributed to his downfall. Having needed fifteen ballots to get the job in January with his narrow hold on the House, Kevin McCarthy was initially framed by the media as a weak speaker, unlikely to deliver on any policy priorities and beholden to his right flank in a way that hampered his ability to compromise. But the feeble speakership they expected turned out to be nothing of the sort. McCarthy won an early fiscal showdown with the Senate, pushed through major legislation, cleared a path for Republican oversight and investigations and blocked the White House’s policy attempts on several occasions. The general assessment in Washington: McCarthy was playing a weak hand very well. And as the party’s chief fundraiser, he thrived — building off half a billion dollars raised in the 2022 midterms to stack more resources for the highly competitive 2024 cycle. Moderate and conservative critics alike stuck with McCarthy and came to approve of his glad-handing leadership style. Perhaps the boy from Bakersfield, who literally won the lottery when he was just starting out, was proving it was better to be lucky than good.

Given that McCarthy had threaded the needle so many times over his first nine months, the idea that one flat bipartisan vote to keep the government open rather than falling into budgetary shutdown would spell his doom seemed to many members, and even more reporters, highly unlikely. But it was on this basis of this shutdown-saving move that the Florida Man chose his moment. His stated reasons for rising to call for McCarthy’s removal were scattershot and numerous. The Florida Man claimed that it was due to the failure to bring up individual spending bills for up or down votes — but his own allies had voted numerous times to block such measures. He claimed a side deal had been struck to advance funding for Ukraine — despite no evidence existing to support such a claim. And he claimed that McCarthy had failed to live up to his promises — an odd claim indeed, given that the Florida Man wasn’t part of any of the January agreements that led to McCarthy taking the speakership in the first place (in fact, promises or no, he never cast a vote for McCarthy in all fifteen rounds).

So when Matt Gaetz took the floor on the first Tuesday in October to make his play, there was still a sense of doubt that it would amount to anything. House Republicans simply could not fathom a scenario where Gaetz and a handful of crazed fellow right-wingers would be so angry at McCarthy, so personally opposed to his approach to the speakership, that they would effectively hand control over to the Democrats. But Gaetz proceeded to do exactly that. His rambling, often incoherent argument for McCarthy’s removal came from the Democratic side of the chamber, under Squad member Ilhan Omar’s enraptured gaze. Democrats chortled and trolled, mocking the incompetence of the other side in even allowing this act of rebellion to proceed. But then they unanimously voted with Gaetz, calculating that the resulting chaos stood to benefit them politically. In a 216 to 210 vote, McCarthy was removed. The nattily attired Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, considered one of the smartest members of the House and named speaker pro tempore in the aftermath, gaveled the chamber out with such frustration and force that he might as well have been the bow-tied wielder of Thor’s hammer.

Then came chaos. It rapidly became clear that absolutely everyone in the conference, from the far right to the moderates, was furious at Gaetz and his accomplices — but that beyond the general consensus that they needed to move quickly to embrace a new speaker, there was no clear plan for this eventuality. The logical choice was to elevate Steve Scalise, the Louisiana representative who had occupied the steadying role of majority leader without offending most of the conference. But there were many people with gripes toward Scalise, and a general feeling that his recent diagnosis of cancer might prevent him from fulfilling the stressful, travel-heavy schedule a speaker must adopt. Then there was Tom Emmer, third in line as GOP whip, a Minnesota centrist who had been an ambitious behind-the-scenes worker with his eye on a future speakership. But he too had his detractors — his candidacy lasted just a few hours. A more permanent McHenry speakership was also teased as a practical fallback plan. That plan may have been popular with the body, but not with at least one member: McHenry himself, who had to be cajoled into the idea. Then the conference promptly rejected it.

The true option that Gaetz wanted to pursue, along with many of his allies, was putting Judiciary chairman Jim Jordan in the speaker’s chair. Jordan is ubiquitous on Fox News; his brand of bulldog Ohio political warfare plays very well on camera. He loathes wearing a suit jacket — his shirt-sleeve populism belies the fact that he is less MAGA than a pre-Trump fiscal populist of the Tea Party variety. Jordan, though, is a man uniquely unsuited to the speakership. The opposite of a glad-hander, legislator, fundraiser or coalition-builder, Jordan is known for expertise in oversight. He knows how to ask the right questions and find the hidden secrets the other side doesn’t want him to know — and he’s been very effective at it. Elevating Jordan to the speakership would have been a threefold gift to Democrats: putting someone far more conservative, without the bankrolling and coalition skills into a job he doesn’t really want and taking him off the trail of Biden family corruption and administrative rot.

Jordan’s speakership run failed, rapidly and spectacularly — perhaps to the degree that it prevents him from ever pursuing the job in the future. In a desperate move, the eight Republicans who had crossed over to shiv McCarthy released a letter before the last vote on Jordan’s nomination, offering themselves up in exchange for supporting Jordan. They would submit to being stripped of their privileges, denied their committee memberships and suffer “censure, suspension or removal from the conference” if only their fellow Republicans would vote Jordan in as speaker. The letter had to be retracted, because it turned out Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado had never actually agreed to sign it.

But the letter was in the light long enough to be met with laughter from the rest of the Republican conference. California Rep. Tom McClintock responded with a missive dripping in acid: “I do not understand why a handful of our fellow Republicans couldn’t see the simple fairness of the principle to which you have been so unswerving in your devotion: ‘heads-I-win-tails-you-lose,’” he wrote. “We truly don’t deserve you. But your sacrifice is not in vain. You have succeeded in replacing the outdated concept of majority rule with an exciting new standard that a speaker must be elected by 98.2 percent of the Republican conference. Someday, a messiah will be born unto us who can achieve this miraculous threshold, and on that day your judgment will be vindicated and you will be hailed as the geniuses that you are.”

For the Florida Man, the odd sequence of events — the behind-the-scenes agreement to work with Democrats to assassinate McCarthy, the media victory lap that followed, then the revelation there was no clear plan for what came next — created a raft of enemies. From the most libertarian member of the House, Thomas Massie, to the most moderate, Mike Lawler of New York, the animosity was equally strong. Denunciations poured in from the same conservative radio hosts who have frequently called Gaetz to weigh in on the news of the day. He was compared to Heath Ledger’s Joker — “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” But this is too complimentary: Joker really did have a plan, involving a lot more sophistication than Gaetz’s gasoline-and-match combo pack.

Underlying all this noise were suspicions about what had really motivated Gaetz. It wasn’t conservative principle. Behind the scenes, Gaetz is known as a pragmatist, rarely engaging on issues of policy and typically of a mind to pull things leftward. As a fledgling Florida legislator backed by his well-moneyed father Don, the former president of Florida’s Senate, Gaetz was viewed as a mainstream Republican. He endorsed Jeb Bush in the 2016 primary and backed him loudly on social media, describing him as the nation’s most successful and conservative governor. Why the sudden switch? It seemed particularly odd given that McCarthy, above and beyond other members of Republican leadership, had maintained such close ties to Donald Trump.

The most widely believed explanation was that the attack was personal, and aggressively so. Gaetz has been facing a House Ethics Committee investigation on multiple counts for several years, going back to an incident where he was accused of sexual trafficking for transportation of a seventeen-year-old minor across state lines. In February the Department of Justice informed Gaetz he wouldn’t be charged in that case, but that hasn’t stopped investigations into other allegations, including accusations of misappropriation of campaign funds, illegal lobbying and sharing pornographic images with others on the floor of the House.

In response to questions from Fox host Laura Ingraham, Gaetz insisted that he is “the most investigated man in the entire United States Congress.” He has denied all the allegations, or that the continued investigations motivated his attack on McCarthy. When Ingraham pointed out that Gaetz was blasting out fundraising emails touting his efforts to decapitate leadership, he got angry. “I’m the only Republican in the entire United States Congress who takes no lobbyist money and no PAC money. So absolutely, I communicate daily, vigorously with regular Americans because the only way I’m able to advance my political goals is just regular folks give me ten, twenty, thirty dollars. And so I will take no lecture from the likes of people who do three lobbyist fundraisers a day and trade favors in order to get cash from special interests on how I raise money. And I take deep offense to anyone who wants to criticize the mailman, the active-duty service member, the grandmother who believes in me and goes to mattgaetz.com to donate.” (You always have to remember to hit them with the URL — that’s the mark of a professional televangelist.)

Yet the Florida Man’s story doesn’t line up with what most of his colleagues think. Gaetz’s former House colleague Markwayne Mullin, now a senator from Oklahoma, related in an interview that the very first thing Gaetz ever said to him was that South Dakota governor Kristi Noem was “a fine bitch.” According to Mullin, Gaetz regularly showed lawmakers on the House floor images of young women he was sleeping with, and “bragged about how he would crush [erectile dysfunction] medicine and chase it with an energy drink so he could go all night.

“He was being accused of sleeping with underage girls. Honestly, there were no colleagues who came out and defended him because, quite frankly, the stuff he would show on the floor and brag about before he was married, we thought [the allegations] were reasonable, and we would always have to walk away from him,” Mullin told CNN. Gaetz responded by denying he’d ever said even twenty words to Mullin on the House floor — a claim easily disproved by C-SPAN camera archives.

Behind the scenes the Gaetz family drama offers one more unexplained twist. One of the biggest California donors to the effort to take back the House for Republicans under McCarthy was billionaire Palmer Luckey, the Long Beach virtual-reality genius behind the Oculus Rift. Luckey has two younger sisters. One of them, Roxanne, posts frequently on TikTok about her hatred of Matt Gaetz, describing multiple confrontations with him during her time interning in the Trump White House, accusing him of ephebophilia and the sexual pursuit of teenage girls. The other sister, Ginger, is married to Matt Gaetz. Thanksgiving dinner should be interesting.

In the world Gaetz created with his act of regicide, the Republican House floundered. Their inability to decide between Scalise, Emmer, Jordan or “someone else” led to a series of quixotic efforts to coalesce around an alternative. From afar, Trump attempted to play a role in the decision, even teasing a surprise visit to the conference meeting after some members suggested he should be speaker. (Some members, misunderstanding the Constitution, maintain that you don’t have to be a member of the House to be speaker.) But at the end of the day, none of the more fanciful approaches came to be. Instead, Republicans chose a random, bespectacled, socially conservative Southern Baptist with the highly unmemorable name of Mike Johnson.

Johnson was named speaker with the unanimous support of the Republican conference more out of exhaustion than anything else. He is inoffensive, having only been in Washington since 2016, barely long enough to create any real enemies. His primary identifying attribute in Washington is that he is marked by a deep, serious personal Christian faith. How far does this go? Well, his office is known for being dry in a House that runs on beer and wine, as a place where swearing is looked down upon, and one where “I’ll be praying for you” is more than just lip service. His background as a litigator on hot-button cultural issues like gay marriage has already proven ripe for Democrats’ assault. Johnson’s description of the Bible as the guide to his personal worldview was met with immediate scorn from former White House spokesperson turned MSNBC lightweight Jen Psaki: “The Bible doesn’t just inform his worldview, it is his worldview!” she shrieked in horror. Expect America to shrug — there are worse things, after all, than a man who prays a lot.

For the Republican Party, October in Washington marked the end of a certain kind of détente. The post-2016 Trump takeover of the GOP left many befuddled about what would come next. As it turned out, the shuffling that followed created a new Republican coalition that was both more working class and diverse in its voting base and cast aside many of the upper-class, college-educated voters who had kept the party competitive in blue-city suburbs. The media’s frame frequently focuses on a split GOP that exists only in their imagination — in fact, its relative unity has been remarkable considering how split the party was just six years ago.

What the Florida Man’s plan accomplished was an end to this unifying effort, where the old Republican guard made an uncertain peace with the bomb-throwing populists. It’s telling that it’s a former Jeb Bush ally that pulled the trigger, not one of the new rabblerousers like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had ultimately become one of McCarthy’s closest allies. That’s because unlike Gaetz and his fellow misfit toys, Greene — and Massie and Chip Roy and the rest of the populist hardcore conservatives — actually want to win. They’re not into the terrorist game of just pouring the gas and lighting the match. They want to get their priorities done, too, but understand Republicans winning is essential to that project.

The Florida Man, though, is content to watch the world burn — and he’ll keep all the rubies he can gather along the way. So long as he can plug the website. That’s what matters.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2023 World edition. 

Ben Domenech is an editor-at-large of The Spectator World. He is also a Fox News contributor and writes the Transom newsletter on Substack.

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