It’s been an odd summer in Washington.
For as much chatter as there is over election 2020—make no mistake, friends, we’re already in full swing—there is an unusual amount of noise about elections in the more distant future. Perhaps it’s because the Trump moment is as yet undefined—will his insurrection be a permanent revolution or be looked back on in 10 years as a really weird celebrity spasm that we all went through in the late 2010s? Will America’s Right be a movement in favor of foreign policy restraint, economic nationalism, and immigration control, or revert back, more or less, to the sloppy old Reaganism?
Closing out the decade, this debate takes on a proxy angle. Come 2024, whether Donald Trump is reelected or resoundingly rejected, the president will have an heir. Will it be one of the Mike P’s—Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Perhaps former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, the neocon eminence grise.
If the Republicans would like to again capture the White House, it’s likely to be someone more exotic. Successive presidential ascensions have been quasi-revolutionary moments. It’s not been Hillary Clinton, she of academic meritocracy, nor Mitt Romney, he of finance capital, that have triumphed in recent years. No, America now has real politics, as the post-War World II consensus has collapsed on itself.
The victories have gone to the rowdy, relative outsiders. First, Barack Obama, the least experienced elected president in a century, then Donald Trump, who outdid him. But who’s next? Pompeo, Pence, and Haley represent the trio with administration experience. But there’s an outside trio emerging: Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host and Trump foreign policy whisperer; Josh Hawley, the poised, polished, and populist freshman senator from Missouri; and Representative Matt Gaetz, the telephilic troublemaker who I recently spoke to at his offices for The American Conservative.
“Had any other of the major candidates won, on the Republican or Democrat side” in 2016, says Gaetz, a Florida Republican who originally backed Jeb Bush, “I believe that we’d be in two—or three—new wars: Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran. And it is the leadership of the president [Trump] that has prevailed.”
Matt Gaetz will not be president, Matt Gaetz tells me, because Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is going to be. Also, Gaetz “doesn’t want the step-down in power.” Gaetz is frequently cast as a showboat—with the old Washington adage, that the most dangerous place in the city is between x politician and a camera, now applying to him. I think this misses the mark. What is less understood about this boisterous backbencher is that he’s as much a backroom kingmaker as he is a TV troubadour.
His buddy DeSantis is among the most popular and intriguing Republican officials in the country, winning a mega swing state in 2018 on a campaign most pundits, yours truly included, wrote off as a lost cause. DeSantis shocked Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum and he did so by embracing Trumpist populism—and taking a hard line on immigration. He’s governed, to acclaim, in the same way. DeSantis is the polar opposite of Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker—Republicans soaring by offering essentially decaf liberalism in blue states. DeSantis is showing that critics of Trumpism are once again wrong. Love it or hate it, it’s working.
What’s less understood is that Gaetz helped make the DeSantis governorship happen, say his associates, and if you ply him enough, Gaetz will admit as much. Gaetz may be a cable news star, but he is also a wonk. He has an intricate knowledge of politics on the granular level. He knows Florida’s map like the back of his hand, and a congressional district map even better. He delivered Florida’s North—a Republican power base—for DeSantis, and helped staff his administration after last fall’s victory.
Gaetz is compared to Trump, with whom he chats frequently on the phone, but I’m not sure that’s right either. The president who made a career firing people on television has himself admitted that personnel is the weak spot of his presidency. The early August dismissal of Kiron Skinner, the policy planning director at the State Department, the job George Kennan once held, is the example of this problem. Personnel-wise, the administration has been a disaster. If Gaetz ever does summit American politics, that’s less likely to be the case. But his eye for talent includes some maverick personnel choices.
His hiring of Darren J. Beattie as a speechwriter earlier this year was a political risk. Beattie was fired from the White House last summer to the consternation of many Trump loyalists. His transgression? Beattie spoke on the same panel as Peter Brimelow, an immigration restrictionist writer with deep ties to the American elite from his days as a financial journalist. Brimelow, who is most notably friends with Lawrence Kudlow, the White House economic pointman and former CNBC anchor, has been frequently described as a white nationalist (Brimelow denies the charge). Beattie says he had never met Brimelow before that day. By hiring Beattie, Gaetz drew a line in the sand. Games of guilt by association have to stop. “Darren Beattie did nothing wrong,” Gaetz told me.
Behind the scenes, Beattie is becoming a power player in policy, including his work on war and peace. “What initially attracted me to candidate Trump was not his partisan identification as Republican, but his out of the box thinking and willingness to challenge orthodoxies on both sides—especially on foreign policy,” Beattie told me.
Indeed, Gaetz gave a spirited speech earlier this year to a bipartisan assembly of veterans’ groups. It got noticed. While other politicians and policy veterans like to describe their worldview as tough-minded and intricate, Gaetz thinks it’s simpler. The last 20 years have been disastrous. “It is not hazy,” said Gaetz. “We see the impact of war every day among the people we love who shape our lives…it is our solemn duty and highest responsibility to make sure that this sacred currency is spent only when absolutely necessary.” Others think this, of course, but most people don’t have the ear of an always unpredictable president of the United States.
Gaetz is carving out the same kind of space Senator Hawley, also under 40, has on the Right. Take a marquee issue of the president’s base—in Hawley’s case, Big Tech, in Gaetz’s, foreign policy restraint—and become an authority on it. And then one never knows what the future looks like.
Veterans of the intel community worry that the president has essentially stopped reading his Presidential Daily Briefing, though if Russiagate has any lessons, it’s that old spook kvetching about Trump should be taken with many grains of salt. Regardless, it’s safe to say Gaetz is not Trump. Gaetz does his homework. He does the reading.
Like Elizabeth Warren—the Massachusetts Democratic senator who the congressman thinks will be the Deomcratic nominee and lose to President Trump—Gaetz is a veteran of high school debate. Gaetz says this shaped his views on foreign policy, with the topic one year being engagement or confrontation with Russia. His policy chops come in handy. He may hate lobbying, but Gaetz is the de facto chief lobbyist to get the U.S. to pull its support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
Unlike other foreign policy realists, he is a Trump fan rather than Trump skeptic. What that affords him: he gets to tell the president when his administration should cut bait. Trump continually flirts with ending the country’s various endless wars—in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in Syria. So far, it’s generally failed to materialize. But there are rumblings that an Afghanistan exit might actually happen, and if a Yemen pullback occurs, you can thank Congressman Gaetz.
Gaetz also has not feared checking the administration on Iran, a more controversial stance in the Republican ranks. Gaetz told me he did so because he knew the president would not be offended, as the occupant of the Oval Office is out of step on this matter with even many of the people he hired.
Gaetz calls himself a “libertarian populist,” a description some would say is a contradiction in terms. Some elements of his philosophy need to be ironed out. “It’s the lobbyist culture here,” Gaetz says. “Lobbyists will identify members that they want to have a relationship with, and seek to spend time with you, and then they’ll repeatedly explain to you the way they believe you ought to move up in D.C.” I asked him if he would support stricter rules on the practice—Warren or Bernie Sanders style—and he seemed hesitant but said yes. What then of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the ultimate triumph of the libertarian perspective on money in politics? Perhaps Gaetz is just the latest example of the growing libertarian-to-nationalist pipeline. Hardly a day goes by now without reading that Tucker Carlson or Peter Thiel, two of last decade’s leading libertarians, argue for new powers for the state in an increasingly horrifying 21st century.
Gaetz has his haters. Most prominent among them is probably former House speaker Paul Ryan, the man not for this moment. “Gaetz had discovered a new path to power and influence for a freshman member of Congress. It was good for him but terrible for the institution of Congress—and for the Republican Party,” Politico’s Tim Alberta writes in his new book, American Carnage. Ryan told Alberta: “Matt Gaetz is not a legislator. …He’s an entertainer.”
I disagree, personally. In a way, Gaetz is a product of a shipwrecked system, not the cause. Observers make the same mistake with Gaetz that they do with the president. The status quo ante was no panacea—especially in Congress, a now basically inert institution. Gaetz freely admitted to me that he did not intend to operate in Washington the Ryan way. Considering Ryan’s legacy is a failed vice presidential bid, a failed budget proposal, a failed healthcare reform effort, a ceded House majority, and charmlessly plutocratic tax reform, I think we can deal with a fresh approach.
It’s not clear, yet, if that’s Gaetz. But it’s not clear that it’s not.
Curt Mills is Washington editor of Spectator USA.