In the hours before news broke of an ongoing investigation into potential child sex trafficking involving Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Trump-loving congressman was quietly telling confidants he was ready to leave Capitol Hill behind. His safety net of choice? A lucrative job as a pro-MAGA pundit on far-right cable network Newsmax. That thirst for celebrity from Gaetz, who has empathically denied any wrongdoing and says he is being blackmailed by a former federal prosecutor, would be scandalous if the GOP hadn’t already become the political equivalent of a TikTok house for publicity-hungry conspiracy theorists and sex pests.
A grudging few years of public service is the entry fee for young Republicans aiming for the real prize of celebrity within the right-wing media. Freshman Reps. Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene are bumbling their way through ineffectual careers in Congress while burnishing their media bona fides. Benghazi conspiracist and former Rep. Trey Gowdy walked the same path to his wildly profitable new life at Fox News.
The Republican Party’s twisted cinematic universe doesn’t care about legislating—in fact, its new role as a pundit-printing machine survives only if our government is kept artificially gridlocked by ever-escalating GOP political stunts. That behavior earns prized bookings on Sean Hannity, but it’s also putting the most corrosive elements of American politics in charge of public discourse. That’s a terrifying prospect for democracy.
The GOP has always had its share of fame-hungry politicos who couldn’t wait to translate their minor political notoriety into a kaleidoscope of humiliating media ventures, from Sarah Palin’s flop of a reality television series to Mike Huckabee’s not-quite-canceled God-and-guns-heavy chat show. And try as one might, who can forget disgraced Texas pol Tom DeLay’s horrifying turn on Dancing With the Stars?
What a difference a decade and a reality television star president made. In the late 2000s, even Republicans recoiled at Palin’s transparent efforts to parlay her brush with political fame into a TV revenue stream for her assorted family members. Huckabee’s ratings-fueled right turn on Fox occasionally led to GOP lawmakers condemning his more extreme outbursts. Now an eagerness to debase oneself across the conservative media landscape is practically essential for any conservative Twitter grifter hoping to crowdfund a run for Congress in the hopes of eventually flipping that seat into a sweet gig as a talking head.
All of this might be worth a laugh if the right’s all-outrage, no-ideas approach wasn’t elevating obstructionist cranks like Greene and Cawthorn into positions of power they couldn’t care less about except as a bigger platform from which to hawk their branded merch.
“I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation,” Cawthorn wrote to fellow Republicans in a Jan. 19 email extolling the value of abandoning lawmaking in favor of publicity. That’s made clear by Cawthorn’s constant stream of Twitter and Instagram posts, which consist largely of political memes mocking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—always a great way to get the attention of guest bookers at OAN—and touting a heavy schedule of Fox News bookings. Cawthorn’s admission is also correct: Republicans have lost the ability to govern, but boy can they whine.
Take Ted Cruz. You likely won’t find Cruz in the Senate, where he’s missed nearly 10 times as many votes as most of his colleagues. Instead, you’ll find Cruz shooting much-mocked dispatches from the southern border designed to worldbuild a fictional immigration crisis of Joe Biden’s making. The video was bogus, but it had the intended effect: Fox News snapped up the videos and spun Cruz’s fantasy into breathless, panicked reality.
Left unsaid is the fact that Cruz spent nearly a decade blocking Senate efforts to build a better and more effective immigration system. That’s legislating, and it doesn’t drive the Twitter clicks and Newsmax coverage hours that now determine who qualifies as a serious Republican presidential frontrunner. Instead, Cruz, Cawthorn, Gaetz and their ilk choose to sit outside the arena offering cable news play-by-play as if they were not also elected officials chosen to serve a public most Republicans now divide into “our audience” and “not our problem.”
Making the transition into the cushioned world of elite right-wing media isn’t just a play for cash, though that’s a real consideration in an industry where even mediocre personalities like Huckabee have made millions recycling Hillary Clinton jokes and playfully skirting explicit racism. And as Gaetz may soon learn, nothing sells on cable news quite like a conservative targeted by an FBI witch hunt. Running away to the circus offers Gaetz an attempted escape from accountability.
And while Republican legislators plot futures free from the hard work of actually governing, work in Congress remains at a crawl. That’s thanks in large part to clout-chasers like Greene, who has built a media mini-empire of her own through a network of Twitter, Facebook, and media appearances so tightly branded that she has become the GOP’s new viral star. That Greene doesn’t understand or care about governing is irrelevant when her constant digital drumbeat of imagined victimhood rakes in cash for her campaign and GOP-aligned groups.
Trump helped Republicans perfect their message-over-results approach, and in doing so created a powerful world of alternate facts and negotiable reality. But that devil’s bargain also saddled Republicans with an addiction to disinformation. Enabling that dependency means turning a blind eye to outrages like Greene’s conspiracy theories and Gaetz’s alleged misconduct. What remains is a party where accountability means nothing and Twitter virality is the only standard for success.
This survival of this sad Trumpian party depends on loyalist media personalities portraying Cawthorn’s inadequacy or Cruz’s self-aggrandizement as bold protests against unnamed leftist “elites.” The constantly flowing river of right-wing media reinforcement shouted out nightly by Carlson and Hannity and a host of lesser ghouls like Dan Bongino is the lifeblood keeping the post-Trump Republican Party alive.
For do-nothing grifters like Gaetz, ascending into the firmament of Newsmax klieg lights, if that offer remains on the table after this newly revealed investigation, may be the best possible career move. But it comes at a terrible cost to our politics and our public discourse.