‘The Swamp’ Exposes Just How Much Republican Matt Gaetz Kisses Trump’s Butt
HBO’s “The Swamp,” premiering Aug. 4, trails a trio of Republican congressman—and captures just how much Matt Gaetz takes marching orders from Trump.
Spoiler alert: Contrary to his stated intentions, President Donald Trump has not “drained the swamp,” but has in fact amplified D.C. corruption and special-interest power—currently, more than 300 lobbyists have seats in his administration—unseen in modern times. The Swamp understands and exposes this fact, and yet Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme’s HBO documentary (premiering August 4) nonetheless tackles the issue of politics and money via a decidedly wishy-washy look at three of Trump’s staunchest faux-“renegade” GOP congressional acolytes: Colorado’s Ken Buck, Kentucky’s Thomas Massie and Florida’s perpetually sycophantic Matt Gaetz.
It’s Gaetz who’ll likely be best known to viewers, thanks to a series of headline-making (and social media-inflaming) stunts, including tweeting out a not-so-veiled threat to congressional witness (and former Trump attorney) Michael Cohen, and leading a group of rabble-rousing Republicans on a raid of a closed-door impeachment hearing deposition. A perpetual fixture on Fox News, where he parrots Trump talking points in the most extremist fashion imaginable, he’s a young, eager go-getter who’s hitched his post to the current commander-in-chief. That’s certainly the figure depicted by DiMauro and Pehme’s film, which captures him articulating his staunch support in personal phone calls to the president (and is told, in return, “You’re doing fantastic…you’re tough and smart and you have the look”), as well as stating outright “I love him so much.” Throughout the film, Gaetz is repeatedly seen fawning all over Trump, receiving marching orders from the president and delivering near-daily progress reports. When Trump calls him “handsome,” the congressman acts like he’s won the lottery.
Given his fawning admiration for the president, it’s predictable that Gaetz spends a lot of time in The Swamp criticizing D.C. venality at the hands of wealthy special interest groups, whose checkbooks are coveted by politicians wanting to maintain their membership in the party, and their position in committees. Gaetz, Massie and Buck’s dismay over this flawed paradigm is voiced at regular intervals throughout the film (set in 2018-2019), as is a greater desire for bipartisanship, which Gaetz himself partakes in alongside California’s Ro Khanna with their Khanna-Gaetz amendment designed to take unilateral war powers (specifically with regards to Iran) away from the president and return them to Congress. In this effort, as in their many censures of super PAC influence, the three come across as principled outliers committed to upending the “new normal” of donor-driven governance ushered in by Newt Gingrich in 1994.
Like an introductory scene of Gaetz dressing and putting on makeup in the office work closet he calls home—the better to maximize his daily productivity, he says—such commentary is the trio’s (and film’s) means of casting them as hard-working against-the-grain mavericks. At the same time, though, directors DiMauro and Pehme fully recognize that these supposed rebels—and Gaetz in particular—are bald-faced hypocrites who don’t walk their own talk. While it’s true that, in 2020, Gaetz became the first Republican to swear off any campaign donations from super PACs (a worthwhile stand, to be sure), he otherwise comes across as a guy who doesn’t care that his beloved president is far from the reformer he claimed he would be on the campaign trail. First during the Mueller hearings and again throughout the impeachment process, Gaetz readily takes to his Fox News pulpit to rail against the “witch hunt” and Democrats, as well as to vilify immigrants as “criminals, thugs, special-interest aliens…jihadists,” habitually using the president’s very own polarizing language. He’s akin to a Trump ventriloquist dummy.
The discrepancy between Gaetz’s anti-“swamp” pronouncements and his adulation of a leader whose entire Oval Office tenure has been designed to enrich himself is hard to ignore, and The Swamp certainly takes pains to underline it, as it does the dissonance between Buck and Massie’s avowed disgust for special interests and yet dubious connections to the NRA and the coal industry. Massie himself likens his congressional pin to The Lord of the Rings’ ring (because its limitless power is corrupting), and equates himself to Star Wars’ rebel fighters and Congress to the Death Star, and the nerdiness of the latter point is only outweighed by the silliness of the analogy, especially since Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale recently associated the president’s re-election as a villainous Death Star juggernaut ready to wipe out its enemies.
Despite routinely pricking Gaetz and company for behaving in ways that are diametrically opposed to their declared values, The Swamp still spends considerable energy lavishing fond attention on them. Slow-motion shots of Gaetz strutting down D.C. streets, sunglasses on and the sun shining from behind him, contribute to puffing up his media-friendly persona as rock star-ish upstart contrarian driven to shake up the status quo. Since the film knows this isn’t really the case—at its conclusion, Gaetz votes along party lines for a military bill even though his beloved war powers amendment was cut out of it—the effect is to make one feel as if the directors want to have it both ways, obligated to critique their subject but not too harshly because, after all, Gaetz has granted them intimate access to his life in the first place.
Only in interviews with Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig does The Swamp make a truly passionate case for the need for wide-scale lobbying reform—which came, most recently, in the form of Democrats’ H.R. 1 bill, which found few receptive Republican friends in the Senate. From climate change to military funding to gun control (to name only a few pressing national concerns), “none of these issues can be addressed sensibly until we address the deep corruption inside of our government,” he says. Without that, we’re doomed to deal with a system that turns politicians into fundraisers, and because “politics of hate is the most productive technique for fundraising we have,” that in turn leads to the hyper-polarization we see today.
When it’s providing an insider’s view of the ways elected representatives are compelled—often willingly—to sell themselves to the highest bidder in order to maintain their sliver of power, The Swamp is a revealing and timely survey of our broken government. Where it stumbles, however, is in its choice of tour guides through that greedy bog—a collection of pretenders whose corruption-friendly actions speak far louder than their crusading words.