Representative Matt Gaetz, a brash Trump loyalist, was apparently proud of his reputation as “the most despicable member of Congress.” He presented it as a badge of honor that his electorate would appreciate thanks to the low esteem in which the general population holds Congress. But now with documented reasons for finding him despicable, not just in the eyes of fellow legislators, but of the law itself, his pride is likely to be tempered.
The Gaetz scandal combines several key features of the best hyperreal political narratives prized by the media. Gaetz’s rare talent for obsessively associating a taste for power, money and alleged underage sex has catapulted him into the equivalent of a political version of Jeffrey Epstein, though with fewer friends among the wealthy and famous.
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Back in 2016, many people assumed that Donald Trump’s brashness, impudence, narcissism and specific sins revolving around money and sex would turn the Republican Party against him. The party stalwarts not only despised Trump for his personality but saw him as a threat to the moral integrity of the GOP. To everyone’s surprise, Trump’s ability to draw crowds and votes endowed him with an authority his character, political ignorance and insufferable manners seemed to preclude. The old guard did its damnedest to marginalize him, but he ended up marginalizing them when he waltzed through the presidential primaries and then defeated Hillary Clinton in the November election.
Gaetz was undoubtedly inspired by Trump’s example. Alas, he lacked the presence, charisma and showmanship to do what Trump does best: humiliate his opponents and critics to the point of earning their grudging respect. As a result, Gaetz finds himself in no man’s land. The Guardian describes his plight in these terms: “The Florida Republican congressman Matt Gaetz appears increasingly politically isolated amid a spiralling scandal over a federal sex-trafficking investigation.”
Giovanni Russonello at The New York Times underlines the point, calling Gaetz “increasingly isolated.” He cites the fact that few “Republicans have spoken up in support of him, and today his own communications director, Luke Ball, resigned.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Excluded from the company of those who share the same interests, profit from the same situation, adhere to the same general values and who, in normal times, have no difficulty accepting and even encouraging egregiously antisocial behavior until such time as that behavior becomes known to the public
Gaetz’s colleagues in Congress were well aware of his proclivities. Russonello reports that “Gaetz had a history of showing off nude photos and videos of women that he said he’d slept with to colleagues on the House floor.” In all likelihood, they suspected that he would be skillful enough to avoid crossing the red line that lies between ostentatiously flaunting his sexual prowess and, according to reports, engaging in sex trafficking. But ordinary political prudence wasn’t among Gaetz’s skills. He “had a reputation among colleagues for aberrant behavior, including a fondness for illicit drugs and younger women — and members of his own party had learned to keep their distance.”
What the idea of keeping their distance entails is unclear. Is it embarrassed tolerance or a form of envious complicity? Does it mean they politely giggled and applauded him for his prowess when he showed them pornographic videos? Or did they shied away from contact with him for fear of being contaminated by his obsessions?
All politicians are attracted to power, but most are just happy to be part of the power structure. In the quest for power, those who participate in the game as members of the club without seeking to exercise real power themselves learn to accept and tolerate the obvious foibles of those whose assertiveness establishes the kind of reputation Gaetz had as “a rising star” in his party. Of course, the notion of rising star means little more than showing a capacity to generate earned media.
In a curious parallel, a New York Times article on Noah Green, the suspect behind the recent attack on police on Capitol Hill, recounts that “by late March, after a bruising pandemic year that friends and family said left him isolated and mentally unmoored, Green’s life appeared increasingly to revolve around the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan, who has repeatedly promoted anti-Semitism.” The idea of being isolated has become inseparable from the idea of being “mentally unmoored.”
During the 20th century, the US created the world’s first national culture focused almost exclusively on the idea of the atomistic individual self. It traces its origins back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s moral concept of self-reliance. It stresses belief in the authenticity of a pure ego whose vocation is to assert itself in a competitive world. This became the key to developing the consumer society. It implied that each of us projects a unique self into the world through the choices we make. Some are consumer choices, items we buy. Some are identity choices, the characteristics of personality we want people to notice. In the end, all our choices coalesce to assert an individual presence that seeks to secure power and territory in competition with others. This self thrives with the permanent risk of becoming isolated by its uniqueness.
With the ever-increasing role of the media, the trend of the self applied to politics has produced personalities like Trump and Gaetz and, in a different vein, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They all believe they are authorized to do anything that fits with the image they have created for themselves as wielders of power, from approving kill lists, like Obama, to variations on sexual predation. Their individual ambitions may be very different and the acts they engage in highly contrasted. The most disciplined avoid the obvious traits of narcissism. Others, like Trump, cultivate it. They all seek specific ways of projecting to the public the reality of their personal power.
History tells us that banal sexual indiscretions and even extravagant high jinks among political leaders — from emperors and kings to presidents and prime ministers — are the norm rather than the exception. This is true even in nations that call themselves a “city on the hill” and proclaim their adherence to puritanical values. Some are more inclined than others to put their proclivities on display. Donald Trump demonstrated that for a significant cross-section of the US population, the fantasized ideal of the dominant, conquering male complemented by the symbolism of the submissive female has remained a stable fixture of the culture. Its persistence across the culture helps to explain the extreme virulence of some feminist voices, who see all males as an enemy to their gender.
Contrary to what extreme feminists claim, the problem is not men in general or even individuals — like Jeffrey Epstein or Matt Gaetz, or even John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton — who have bought into the ideology of competitive sexual conquest. They are themselves products of a culture that equates power with success in a struggle for domination. The distinction between political and social power or influence, on one hand, and an archaic sense of sexual privilege, on the other, easily breaks down in a culture that requires the self to focus at all times on competitive success. Money, property and sexual conquest appear as complementary signs of the attainment of one’s ultimate goal of self-actualization.
Gaetz obviously failed to understand the subtler rules of the symbolic game that managing the attributes of power requires. The pundits are now left wondering whether Gaetz can save his career, though nobody really seems to care one way or the other. Gaetz has become an object of ridicule because he sought the attributes of power before achieving power and because he failed to cultivate friends in power. But like so many people who have managed to push their fabricated identities into the willing hands of the ever-eager media, he believes he belongs among the powerful.
Gaetz is of course not an isolated case. But his isolation — unlike that of, say, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is undergoing a similar drama — is more extreme since he foolishly focused his project on reportedly buying underage sex partners when he should have been working on buying the friendship that Cuomo and even Epstein knew how to purchase.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.