Most Americans believe that politicians say stupid shit all the time. But that’s not exactly true. Most of what politicians say is banal. It’s just that the stupid things they say more often make news.
Even the most successful and experienced politicians have embarrassed themselves at some point, whether it was then-Senator Joe Biden adopting a slight Indian accent while making a quip about walking into a 7-Eleven, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid commenting on Barack Obama’s pronunciation, or Rep. Hank Johnson worrying that population growth might cause the island of Guam to “tip over and capsize.”
But the myriad gaffes by Republicans trying to run interference for Trumpism in recent years are starting to distort the average. In the alternative reality of Trump’s defenders, statements backed up by evidence and experts are verboten while completely nutbars lunacy is the norm. You’re not permitted to admit things like “there was not widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.” But you can stay in Trump’s good graces if you draw stuff like this:
This is a full view of the board behind Michael Flynn and Mike Lindell. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/SYw5wqSE8e
— PatriotTakes 🇺🇸 (@patriottakes) July 6, 2021
Enter Rep. Matt Gaetz, who seems to be on a mission to set a new record for dumbest pronouncement by a federal official. There’s no point at which the natural reaction to a Gaetz statement is “No way, no member of Congress would ever say that,” because Gaetz has probably said that and worse multiple times. He recently told a crowd that the purpose of the Second Amendment isn’t self-defense, but “armed rebellion against the government.” (As President Biden remarked, the government has tanks, bombers, and nukes—but good luck.) In the run-up to January 6, Gaetz bellowed, “more bad behavior is what we need!”
Gaetz has become so controversial that his latest controversy doesn’t even actually involve him. It started on Gettr, yet another of the new Twitter alternatives for right-wingers—in this case, run by alleged serial philanderer and Trump sycophant Jason Miller. This post, from an account named after Gaetz, sounded just crazy enough to be him:
As the screenshot of the post circulated on Twitter, many people clearly believed it was the congressman himself. The fake Gaetz account, before it was suspended on Tuesday, had nearly a thousand more followers than Gaetz’s verified Gettr account.
One of the biggest problems resulting from the GOP grift of creating new social networks—Gab, Parler, TheDonald.win, etc.—is figuring out whether the batshit crazy posts on these platforms are real. Even for other users of these platforms, who can see all of the previous posts by a given account and tell which ones are verified, it can sometimes be hard to tell real from fake because the real statements from the real Gaetz don’t sound much crazier than the imitations.
But it gets better—or worse, depending on your perspective.
I tried to call Gaetz to get a statement about the Gettr controversy. And what I found was . . . nothing. Let me explain.
In pre-Trump times, congressional offices would sometimes ignore reporters, but mostly not. If you called a senator’s or representative’s D.C. office or emailed their press staffer, they would usually get back to you. (I saw this firsthand as both a journalist and a former Hill staffer.)
Gaetz is a different story. If you go to his website, only a single phone number is listed for his three congressional offices (his D.C. office and his district offices in Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach). That one number has the Florida Panhandle’s 850 area code rather than Washington’s 202:
You have to do some googling to find the actual direct phone number for Gaetz’s D.C. office. And when you call either that 202 number or the 850 number, no one answers. You just get a recording that tells you Gaetz’s staff is teleworking due to COVID-19—and we all know that if there’s a Republican who takes the coronavirus seriously, it’s Matt Gaetz, who in the early days of the pandemic wore a gas mask on the House floor to make a point.
Digging through the Internet Archive, it looks like Gaetz removed his D.C. office’s 202 phone number from his website sometime early last year. While I can’t say that he is the only member of Congress to do so, since I didn’t check the websites of all 435 House members, I did check a random sample of 10 percent (44 representatives, evenly divided between the parties), and the websites of every one of those members listed their 202 numbers. Every one.
It appears that Gaetz’s office is just refusing to answer the phone, choosing instead to screen all calls by handling them as voicemails—whether they be calls from constituents requesting casework, inquiries from the press, or praise or complaints from the public.
Most politicians at least give the appearance of wanting to hear you out. But for Gaetz maybe it makes sense to screen calls. After all, what is he going to do for callers, other than some constituent casework and some CYA? And since Gaetz is facing allegations of sex trafficking, he and his staff may be extra eager to avoid phone calls.
So, I tried some other avenues. I called every office phone number of Gaetz’s I could find. I called cell phones and landlines tied to his name in the public record. Then I tried his district director, Dawn McArdle, and his press secretary, Joel Valdez. I emailed them, too.
A few hours after leaving a voicemail, Jason Boatwright from Gaetz’s office texted me. I asked him about the Gettr post. Boatwright said that, since he handles veterans’ issues, he would refer my inquiry to Valdez, whom I had already emailed.
I also called Gaetz’s political consultant, 30-year-old Harlan Z. Hill, whom I secretly suspect is Lou Dobbs pretending to be 120 years younger. I asked Hill: Could we confirm that the Gettr post was actually from Gaetz?
After taking another half hour to check, Hill called back and confirmed that the “Pardons for Patriots!” account on Gettr was not legitimate.
Normally, members of Congress don’t take kindly to imposters who say outrageous and incendiary things while pretending to be them. Three former members of Congress I spoke to while trying to reach Gaetz confirmed that if they knew of accounts impersonating them, they would ask their staff to do everything possible to get those accounts taken down. At the very least, most members of Congress would renounce the kind of mimicry the fake Gaetz posted. (Unless he agrees with it.)
Gaetz, for his part, has remained silent. After all, considering the kind of people who hang out on Gettr, what does Gaetz have to gain from distancing himself from the idea of pardoning the “patriots” of January 6?
Given the proliferation of new social media networks on the right, perhaps congressional offices are simply unequipped to monitor these sorts of faux accounts. Or maybe they don’t care, because it gets them free press. And when you’re under fire for scandal, maybe any sort of distraction is a good thing.
It used to be that controlling the message was paramount in politics. Now, when surfing on political chaos seems like a better strategy, trying to achieve message control may prove a liability.