Everybody went to high school with Matt Gaetz, in some form. You know the type. Contrarian, but well-argued. Obnoxious, but not a bully. An okay baseball player, but a much better debater: loud, fast and fearsome. Not boastful of family money, but not stealth about it either. You pictured him becoming a litigator, flashing cuff links like a sidearm, or becoming a congressman by 34 and then drafting legislation to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), 35, doesn’t wear cuff links. At least he is not on Valentine’s Day last week, while he’s waiting for the tiny elevator to his office in the Cannon House Office Building.
“You’ve got ‘Fox and Friends’ at 8:15 a.m. tomorrow,” his chief of staff says.
“Eight fifteen?” Gaetz says, disappointed. “I usually prefer the 5 a.m. hour.”
Why on Earth would anyone — even a congressman — want to be on camera before dawn?
“Because the president is watching,” Gaetz says.
The congressman who is always on television grew up in a house that was used in “The Truman Show,” a film about a man who is always on television. His parents still live there, in Seaside, Fla., 500 feet from the gulf. A sign on their white picket fence says THE TRUMAN HOUSE.
The walls of Gaetz’s office are painted pasta-sauce red, a color picked out by his mom. Behind Gaetz’s desk is a big photo of a F-35 fighter jet, perhaps the costliest weapon in human history, which is headquartered at the giant Air Force base in his district. On the opposite wall is a TV muted on Fox News, which is covering the latest school shooting.
Another Wednesday in America. Matt Gaetz is 13 months and 11 days into his first term. He’s still on Step 1 of Operation: Disrupt Congress.
“Well, the first thing is people gotta know who you are,” he says. “If you are anonymous, you are a less capable disrupter. So, Step 1: Get known.”
What’s Step 2?
“I’ll let you know when I’m done with Step 1.”
He’s scheduled to be on Lou Dobbs that night. He has interviews the next day with the New Yorker and GQ. Everyone wants to know what his deal is, but in a superficial way, a way that feeds a news cycle. Why did he give a ticket for the State of the Union to an alt-right Internet troll? Why did a staff member crowdsource legislation from the anti-Clinton sewers on Reddit? Why did Gaetz sit for a long interview on Infowars with Alex Jones, the clownish conspiracy theorist?
“I have to say, I have never watched Infowars,” says Gaetz, whose sartorial flourish is a stable of two-toned wingtip shoes (today: black and tan). “I know that they say zany things that are patently untrue. But I also think that MSNBC says zany things that are patently untrue.”
Sometimes the president calls after he appears on TV, he says, and here lies the answer to any question about his motives. You’re a rookie but you’re hitting like Mickey Mantle, Trump says, according to Gaetz. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the president’s view of Gaetz.
“In my 13 months, I’ve assessed that nothing in this town actually happens in the absence of presidential leadership,” Gaetz says, sipping on one of many Diet Pepsis that sustain him through the day. “So a relationship with the president seems to be important if you want to impact outcomes.”
Gaetz comes from a line of politicians. His grandfather was a mayor and state senator in North Dakota. His father, Don Gaetz, the former president of the Florida state Senate, made his money running a for-profit hospice company. His mother, Vicky Gaetz, suffered severe complications while pregnant with her second child — she’s in a wheelchair to this day — and was advised to terminate the pregnancy. She didn’t. Matt’s younger sister Erin is now 32 years old, and the reason he believes abortion should be illegal.
When Matt was 10, the family relocated from southern Florida to the Panhandle and into the house that would become Jim Carrey’s in “The Truman Show.” Dinner with the Gaetzes was intellectual combat; Don was a champion debater in college, and Matt was an imposing and memorable presence on the debate team at Niceville High School, according to classmates.
From 2010 to 2016, after Matt got a law degree, both he and his father were Florida legislators and roommates in Tallahassee.
“We call them Papa Gaetz and Baby Gaetz,” says Evalyn Narramore, chair of the Democratic Party of Escambia County, on the border with Alabama. “Even amongst Republican circles, Matt’s not super popular. He only won his primary by about 35 or 36 percent of the vote, and he had six Republican opponents. He just got in there, and of course now he’s trying to out-Trump Trump.”
“They are workers,” says Pensacola real estate developer Collier Merrill, a friend of the family. “Even when Don didn’t have an opponent, he was walking every day to knock on doors. He rose pretty fast, into Senate president. That trickled down to Matt now. All of a sudden he’s rising quickly in the ranks.”
Matt Gaetz is not rising in the ranks. At least formally. He’s still a rookie congressman in the attic of Cannon, and his mug shot from a 2008 DUI arrest is still front and center on a Google search. (Charges were dropped.) But by introducing a resolution calling for the resignation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, by going on television and demanding an investigation of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton affiliates, and by hitching a ride on Air Force One to a Trump rally in Pensacola in December, Gaetz is casting himself as a counterweight to people who outrank him in power and experience.
Who needs to wait 10 years for a committee chairmanship when you can amass your own clout and cozy up to the president through nontraditional means?
In the 1990s it was nearly impossible to get rank-and-file members on television, says Doug Heye, who worked in communications for the House, Senate and Republican National Committee. Over the past 20 years, the rise of cable news and social media changed the incentive: Now a TV hit can be captured, shared with a targeted base, and injected into the public discourse, and suddenly the lowly can be high.
“I remember having a conversation 10 years ago with a friend who was convinced Michelle Bachmann was as powerful a member of Congress as there was,” Heye says. “Certainly, we can confuse prominence and power.”
(“By the way,” Heye emails after hanging up, “I’d add that a Washington Post profile of a first-term member would have been unheard of 10 years ago!”)
Gaetz made sure, at last month’s State of the Union address, to lean into the aisle and snag a selfie with Trump, whom he thinks is innocent of any wrongdoing related to Russia.
“We are now more than a year into this presidency, and there are people in his own government who hate him,” Gaetz says, seated behind his desk near a packet of paper titled “FBI & DNC messages: Obamagate.” In the reception area is a screen showing three Twitter feeds, a cascade of news and bile in real time.
“And there are people in this town — in both parties, in the establishment — who want to see him gone,” Gaetz continues. “If they had the nuts, we’d know it by now.”
The thing about Matt Gaetz is that he’s not solely a grandstander. He knows policy. He’s big on animal welfare and — despite slinging a one-line bill that would eliminate the EPA — joined a climate-solutions caucus in the House. He wants the Affordable Care Act gone; he wants marijuana rescheduled. He doesn’t think it’s conservative to hate gay people. He says that term limits and a balanced-budget amendment would deliver us from the debt and gridlock that have caused some of his party elders to flee Congress.
“I don’t even think the biggest divide is between Republicans and Democrats,” Gaetz says, deriving some conclusions from his year on the Hill. “I think it’s between institutionalists and reformers.” Perhaps he’ll be ready for Step 2 if he’s reelected in the fall — he already has two Republican challengers — but right now he’s distracted by the televised tragedy in Broward County, his first home. At one point his eyes lock on a particular headline: MANY DEATHS IN HIGH SCHOOL SHOOTING.
“God,” he mutters. “That’s horrible.”
He’s pro-gun. So is his district. Within the hour, he tweets “thoughts and prayers,” a rather institutionalist tweet for an avowed reformer.
A stranger’s reply flickers across the Twitter screen in the reception area: “F--- your prayers.”