Commentary

U.S. Rep Gaetz epitomizes the present state of the state of FL: cocky, clueless, and in a heap of trouble

April 12, 2021 7:00 am

Congressman Matt Gaetz speaking at an “An Address to Young Americans” event, featuring President Donald Trump, hosted by Students for Trump and Turning Point Action at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, June 2020. Credit: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons.

Matt Gaetz is not a prince among men.

OK, maybe since he’s been accused of having sex with a 17 year-old, you might call him a Prince Andrew. Definitely not a Prince Charming.

But even Prince Andrew didn’t go around showing naked pictures of women (one reportedly deploying a hula hoop) and bragging about bedding them as Congressman Matt Gaetz reportedly did.

Gaetz (R-Animal House) has been an objectionable little bawbag (to use a helpful Scottish expression) ever since he entered politics. In 2015, he was forced to apologize for racist remarks aimed at Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a legendary civil rights activist. Another time he sneered at students protesting Florida’s bloody “Stand Your Ground” law and tweeted, “With all of the lovely flowers in the House Chamber, I can barely smell the Occupy people.”

Sleazy yet obvious, Gaetz was the only “no” vote on the 2017 federal sex trafficking bill. He voted against the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act.

Plus — no shock here — in 2015, he opposed Florida’s revenge porn bill. The sponsor sighed, “He thought that any picture was his to use as he wanted to, as an expression of his rights.”

Now we learn that he sought a blanket pardon from Donald Trump to protect him from the “bloodlust” of his opponents — emphasis on the “lust.”

And that he may have been involved in a “ghost candidate” scheme in Central Florida.

Such a busy fellow. Hope he finds time to explain himself to the House Ethics Panel now looking into his exploits.

Whatever else you say about U.S. Rep. Gaetz — and there’s a lot, although perhaps involving language far too salty for this fine family news site — you must admit he perfectly epitomizes the present state of the state of Florida: cocky, clueless, and in a heap of trouble.

Both Gaetz’s scandal explosion and Florida’s dysfunction are predictable results of radical Trumpification.

The corrupt, racist monster we put in the White House four years ago didn’t create Florida’s problems, but he did magnify our baked-in character flaws: our strange admiration for criminals, our disdain for the poor, our hostility to education, our refusal to learn from history, and our conviction that white people are victims.

As Rick Wilson so perfectly put it, “Everything Trump touches dies.”

Look at us: We’ve got a Trump-worshiping governor who allegedly misrepresented COVID-19 deaths and favored wealthy campaign donors when it came to getting the coronavirus vaccine.

We’ve got two embarrassing mediocrities in the U.S. Senate: Marco Rubio, who piously tweeted out Bible verses while enabling Trump and his criminal presidency every step of the way, and Rick Scott (even dumber than his pal at Mar-a-Lago) who recently exhorted mayors and governors to refuse federal coronavirus relief on the ground that it’s “wasteful” to spend money on fripperies such as clean water, education, health care, and lifting children out of poverty.

As for the Florida Legislature, it’s a toxic hybrid of Matt Gaetz’s bratty viciousness and Donald Trump’s epic spite.

Lawmakers are fast-tracking an anti-protest bill so broadly written that the cops can pretty much round up anyone associated with a demonstration they decide is somehow threatening (i.e. too many people of color walking around).

Rioting, assault, and destroying property are already illegal. It’s just that DeSantis and the Republicans know their voters like them cracking-down on the wrong sort.

Did I mention that we have elections next year?

Many Floridians are still unemployed and struggling while COVID-19 rates climb, so what does the Legislature do? Gives Big Bidness a sweet deal, including a $1 billion tax cut and protection from consumer lawsuits.

But don’t think they’re letting Culture War issues slide: The Florida Senate is considering forcing county school boards to hold hearings on sex education in schools (Florida has no statewide sex ed mandate) and making parents give explicit permission for their little darlings to discover what happens when the boy-bits meet the lady-parts.

Speaking of genitals, the Legislature wants to make sure they torment trans kids (who obviously don’t have enough problems) by not allowing them to play sports with others of their own gender.

Plus, there’s the parental “Bill of Rights,” which could make schools out gay kids (on the ground that mama and daddy ought to know) and allow the grown folks to decide that Brandon and Haley don’t need to learn about, say, evolution (’cause they ain’t kin to no monkey) or Native American genocide (God wanted white folks to have that land!) or astronomy (any fool can see that the sun goes around the earth).

And to make sure they can keep bending reality this way, your Florida lawmakers will make it harder for you to vote by mail or use drop boxes, and charge you with a misdemeanor if you have the temerity to give a bottle of water to somebody standing in line to cast a ballot (although the explicit provision has been removed, such sanctions still may be possible.)

For some, the proof that you are in charge, that you are a big deal, is how many people you can hurt without consequence. Like Matt Gaetz and Donald Trump, the white men who run the Florida Legislature target, ridicule, and diminish the vulnerable, the poor, minorities, immigrants, women, gays, transgender people.

They never go after the rich — never the powerful.

Having a giggle over photos of naked young women with your male colleagues in the U.S. Congress is not “locker room” fun, it’s an assertion that you matter and those girls don’t.

Just as mocking a disabled journalist or a female debate moderator or a teenaged climate activist or the entire island of Puerto Rico says that you run with the top dogs, not the underdogs. Ridiculing distraught children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border or brushing off hundreds of thousands of coronavirus deaths shows that you’re important and they’re not.

For Trump, Gaetz, and Florida’s Republican rulers, punching down is their political program — and evidently a source of pleasure.

As Adam Serwer wrote in the Atlantic in 2018, “The cruelty is the point.”

Serwer links photographs of men at a lynching, smiling delightedly, the laughter of Brett Kavanaugh and his friend laughing at Christine Blasey Ford as the future Supreme Court justice tried to pull off her clothes, and the howls of derision at perceived “enemies” Trump served up at his rallies.

They all come from the same nasty place.

Trump’s “only fundamental belief,” says Serwer, “is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear.”

Sounds like Ron DeSantis and Matt Gaetz, doesn’t it? One’s going to run for president. The other, well, given that his procurer, former Seminole County tax collector and accused sex trafficker Joel Greenberg, is cutting some kind of deal with prosecutors, may well be headed for political oblivion.

Trump made it acceptable to be vile, rude, and brutish.

Unfortunately, while Gaetz may go away, Florida will keep producing a bumper crop of d-bags, year after year.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.

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