In his 2019 book, Firebrand: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the MAGA Revolution, (a document that one day will likely go by the name of “Exhibit A”), Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz made the case that the secret to a lasting political career was going on television as much as you possibly can. “It’s impossible to get canceled if you’re on every channel,” Gaetz wrote. “Why raise money to advertise on the news channels when I can make the news? And if you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.”
Gaetz has certainly lived by that credo. Since he entered Congress in January 2017, he has clocked nearly 50 hours of airtime on Fox News alone. Writing in The Washington Post, Philip Bump noted that, over the last 12 months, Gaetz has averaged 87 minutes of screen time a month. “If each appearance were three minutes long, that would be an average of an appearance a day,” Bump observed. When Axios reported last month that Gaetz was considering bailing from the House to join Newsmax, many shrugged at the news. He wasn’t interested in legislating and only cared about going on television anyway.
But Gaetz wasn’t actually contemplating a change in careers—he was trying to get ahead of a scandal that has enveloped him over the last two weeks. It is a convoluted, only-in-Florida story involving sex trafficking, drug use, incredibly stupid Venmo payments, and an investigation into whether the congressman slept with a 17-year-old. Gaetz has rebutted the charges, but his very Gaetz-y denial—“I, as an adult man, have not slept with a 17-year-old”—seemed more intent on letting people know he was getting busy as a teenager than on defending himself.
The resulting scandal is a test of the power of Gaetz’s celebrity now that his erstwhile ally Fox News appears to have dropped him. But it’s also a test of the right-wing echo chamber that practically birthed Gaetz and specializes on coddling ghouls like him.
All Gaetz seemingly wanted was to go on Fox News. “Nothing beat out going on Fox,” a former Gaetz staffer told New York. Gaetz was very committed to talking policy on TV, but wasn’t interested in actually making it. This tendency broadly tracks with the evolution of the Republican Party over the last few years, but Gaetz was a cut above almost everyone else, with the exception of Donald Trump. When Madison Cawthorn informed his colleagues that “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation,” he was channeling Gaetz.
This focus on the media has made some of the post-scandal resignations from Gaetz’s office a little embarrassing. When Gaetz’s legislative director Devin Murphy quit last week amid his boss’s worsening legal woes, he “told associates that he was interested in writing bills, not working at TMZ,” according to The New York Times. If that’s what Murphy was interested in, it’s not clear why he was working with Matt Gaetz in the first place.
Gaetz has conjured a kind of philosophy to explain the importance of going on television. “The hairdressers and makeup ladies and cameramen pick our presidents. As well they should. They are closer to the viewers and therefore the voters,” he wrote in Firebrand. But his television mania was certainly formed by closely watching Donald Trump’s political career. He learned that television can swing elections, maybe even presidential ones. And like Trump, Gaetz was less interested in advancing a political vision than advancing himself. When he installed a TV studio in his father’s home, taxpayers footed the bill.
Desperate for their own Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who Gaetz is creepily obsessed with), right-wing outlets were happy to go along. Gaetz filled another hole for the network: He was a post-Trump Republican who remained loyal to Trump, a dogged supporter of the former president without any of his colleagues’ baggage (i.e., a record of criticizing him). His popularity was built on a willingness to follow Trump wherever he led, no matter how indefensible his actions were. If you needed someone to defend Trump, you gave Matt Gaetz a call.
But Fox News has lost Gaetz’s number since the scandal dropped. On March 31, shortly after it was first reported that the FBI was investigating the congressman, Gaetz appeared for a short interview on Tucker Carlson Tonight. In that interview, which Carlson later dubbed “one of the weirdest” of his career, Gaetz appeared to try to bring the host into the scandal. “You and I went to dinner about two years ago, your wife was there, and I brought a friend of mine, you’ll remember her,” he said. That woman, Gaetz said, had been “threatened” by the FBI to implicate him in a “pay-for-play scheme.”
Gaetz hasn’t appeared on Fox News since, and the network has barely covered the scandal at all. Media Matters’ Rob Savillo found that the network had only devoted 45 minutes of airtime to the story as of Wednesday—over the same period, it had covered Ocasio-Cortez twice as often. When Gaetz suggested he might leave Congress for a job in cable news, a spokesperson for the network said, “No one with any level of authority has had conversations with Matt Gaetz for any of our platforms, and we have no interest in hiring him.”
Gaetz is still holding on, though with an associate pleading guilty—and expected to flip—an indictment may be coming. And without Fox in his corner and with Trump himself keeping his distance, he’s no longer invincible. But if consequences may finally arrive for Gaetz, they certainly won’t for Fox News. Fox is ready to move on without any reflection at all. It hosted Gaetz more than 300 times since the summer of 2017—only the scandal-plagued Jim Jordan appeared more often—and made him a star. Fox News will memory-hole Gaetz. Then it will find the next monster to replace him.