The last time an “America First” MAGA rally was held in Georgia, Republicans lost two U.S. Senate seats, and America lost what might end up being around $6 trillion. The Matt Gaetz–Marjorie Taylor-Greene show on Thursday night probably won’t cost us as much. Just some time with our family—and our dignity.
The event opened with Rep. Jody Hice, who is running a primary against Republican Brad Rafensperger for Georgia Secretary of State. The crowd changed “Lock Him Up,” which was directed at Raffensperger, whose decision to follow the rule of law (though he’s wobbling now while running for reelection) obviously put him on the wrong side of the mob. With a warm up act like that, there’s no need for an announcer to say, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” The sentiment is implicit.
Gaetz hit the stage first, throwing out a bunch of populist, demagogic rhetoric (“forever wars,” “socialism,” “rebuild America,” “world’s policeman,” “deep state”) and pandering (“gun control just means we have a steady aim!”). He took shots at the Bushes and the McCains and the Romneys and James Comey and Anthony Faucci. He observed that “Paul Ryan was giving a speech” in California, and added that after Ryan ran for vice president, the party “literally needed an autopsy.” The upshot? “This is Donald Trump’s party and I’m a Donald Trump Republican,” Gaetz declared. One thing he didn’t talk about was his wingman Joel Greenberg’s guilty pleas for crime including paying a 17-year-old to have sex with both of them (which Gaetz has previously denied).
Not to be upstaged, Greene entered the room in a humvee, before making her way on stage, grinning from ear to ear. But her smile belied the populist anger apparently bubbling up inside her. She called out the Democrats who tear down monuments. “You better bet we’re gonna protect Stone Mountain’s monument,” she said of America’s largest monument to the Confederacy. She feigned the Mexican accent of a supposed cartel leader talking about how much he loved Joe Biden, who she said wants a “woke” military. She also called the Squad “the Jihad Squad” and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “O’Crazyo-Cortez.” Really classy stuff. You see, she’s not a politician. She’s just like you. If you’re a jerk like that, at least.
So why is this happening? First, of course, for attention. I’m writing about this, and so are lots of others and, for this crew and especially Greene who’s already been booted from her House committees so has nothing left, but PR like this is its own reward. Indeed, Gaetz referred to Thursday’s rally as “the greatest political show on earth.”
Even during the good old days, conservative politics was probably half Bill Buckley and half P.T. Barnum. We were business up front and party in the back (okay, maybe we didn’t party quite as hardy as Gaetz—who my Beast colleagues report snorted coke with a model with a no-show government job at a GOP Trump Defender gala in Orlando—and Greene, but you get the point). Today, the entertainment wing has almost completely supplanted the governing wing.
As Gaetz told Vanity Fair a while back, “If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” And Gaetz is ok right now with any news that isn’t about allegations involving sex trafficking a minor. He’s flooding the zone (also with headlines about how he’s flirting with a 2024 presidential bid if Trump doesn’t run) which is a great PR strategy, assuming, you know, he doesn’t get indicted.
There are other reasons, including the theory that, in today’s world, hunkering down and laying low is seen as either a tacit admission of guilt—or proof you take the whole thing seriously. I’m not sure which one would be more detrimental to Gaetz’s brand, but he’s avoiding both like the plague.
You’ve heard of “the big lie,” well this is “the big tour.” Gaetz’s frantic activity is either a sign of innocence or shamelessness. My money’s on the latter, but who knows? And that’s the point. He may also reason that the fact that he’s on stage with a prominent female may also, psychologically, lend some cover.
Speaking of Greene, she has been embroiled in something of her own scandal, having compared the wearing of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to Jews being forced to wear golden stars in Nazi, Germany. Once upon a time, these sort of Holocaust comparisons would have spelled the end of a political career, but in today’s Republican Party, it’s a feature, not a bug. Greene, having embraced other crazy theories, was able to haul in over $3 million during the first quarter of the year, after all. Sure, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned it in a tweet, but that is probably as severe as the punishment gets. Greene doesn’t need to hit the hustings to change the subject from her scandal, she’s doing it for the fun of it. To revel in it.
That’s not to say there isn’t some danger to this. Gaetz and Greene might not intend this and Trump may not realize it but this is the first salvo of what could be a threat to his death grip on the party. That’s because this tour is evidence that anyone—even two lowly House members—can co-opt Trump’s message, steal his delivery mechanism, and take their show on the road. (Sure, they have played some home games in Florida and Georgia, but they also took their horse and pony show to Arizona—and don’t forget Gaetz’s trip to troll Liz Cheney in Wyoming).
Now, this crowd was minuscule—even compared to the sparsely attended rally Trump held a year ago in Oklahoma. Still, the event encroaches on an innovation that Trump had essentially monopolized for the last five or so years. Trump didn’t invent the idea of holding rallies, of course, but he took them to a new level. They weren’t just for campaigns, they were for governing. Moreover, you didn’t need an invitation to speak; you could just throw your own event.
Not everyone can pack a stadium, of course, but that’s the beauty of teaming up. Gaetz and Greene might not be the Rolling Stones packing stadiums, but maybe they are Styx and Collective Soul doing an arena joint tour.
What I’m saying is that, over time, Trump is in danger of having what happened to Sarah Palin happen to him. At one point, Palin was the only game in town. She was the hot commodity. But once she left her position as governor of Alaska, she became irrelevant. It took a couple of years, but a generation of younger, more relevant, imitators supplanted her. Now, Trump is a better marketer than Palin and he was, after all, the president. Still, you can see why he has to at least feign a 2024 run—and why he has already announced he will be doing more of his own rallies.
Gaetz and Greene clearly aren’t there yet, as the livestream I was watching actually cut off just before the duo came back out to perform a sort of curtain call. The livestream instead switched to something called (I’m not making this up), “The Right View With Lara Trump.”
In a more healthy Republican Party, Gaetz would be drummed out of power because of his indiscretions, and Greene would never get within a mile of Capitol Hill. Trump helped create the circumstances where they would flourish. Even if he is ultimately replaced, he has succeeded in creating a generation of Republicans who share his penchant for self-promotion, his preference for populist politics, and, well, his family values.
The Matt Gaetz-Marjorie Taylor Greene event was one-third tent revival, one-third rock concert, and one-third circus—and it was all a freak show. This is all to say it was a rollicking success in today’s Republican Party. Expect other MAGA-types to start replicating this idea. The devil(‘s) went down to Georgia.