Some hot water this week for Rep. Matt Gaetz. The Sunshine State Republican and adroit controversialist stands accused of everything from having sex with a 17-year-old girl to throwing orgies with underage prostitutes to showing his fellow lawmakers pictures of nude women on the House floor. He has yet to be caught chucking an alligator into a drive-thru window or attacking a Disney princess with a flamethrower, but even by Florida Man standards these are serious charges.
The Justice Department has opened an investigation, while Gaetz himself has denied everything, claiming he’s being extorted. And certainly he deserves due process and the benefit of the doubt. Yet the allegations against him raise a thorny question: where do Republicans draw the line on sexual misconduct? How much bad behavior is the party of family values willing to stomach for the sake of exercising power?
Once upon a time, the answer was perhaps a bit more unsparing. The gold standard for Republican sex persecutions is, of course, Bill Clinton, who was impeached but not convicted in 1998 for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. (This was a bit like nabbing Al Capone for tax evasion, but that’s another story for another time.) Yet what’s often forgotten is that the glaring spotlight on Clinton also uncovered several instances of Republican lechery. Newt Gingrich was revealed to have had affairs, his would-be successor Bob Livingston copped to the same, and GOP representatives Dan Burton, Bob Barr and Helen Chenoweth all got snagged in the extramarital dragnet.
Before that, there was Sen. Bob Packwood, dogged by dozens of misconduct accusations and ultimately damned by confessions in his own diary. Afterwards came Rep. Mark Foley, who sent sexually charged emails to congressional pages. And of course, who could ever forget Sen. Larry Craig, arrested for making advances against an undercover male cop in a men’s bathroom by probing his foot into the adjacent stall? Craig later defended himself by claiming he had a wide stance while sitting on the john, which I think is what people mean when they pine for the lost comity of the Senate.
I bring all this up not because it’s funny — though some of it is — but to point out that the accountability dodged by Clinton nevertheless ensnared many of his Republican opponents. Gingrich was ultimately felled by his ethical lapses and Livingston’s affairs ended his bid to become speaker. Packwood, Foley, and Craig are all gone. Throw in former Nevada senator John Ensign, who stepped down after it was revealed he tried to hide an extramarital affair, as well as a host of lascivious House nobodies hauled off via tumbril in the dead of night, and the Republican attitude towards sexual scandal is clearly more complex than the mere hypocrisy often claimed by Democrats.
Some of this reflects American attitudes generally, which are still more puritanical than we like to think. For all our supposed sexual liberation, we’re not the French. We don’t like it when our elites sleep around. All of which bodes poorly for Rep. Gaetz if the charges against him hold up. And right on cue, there was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week, solemnly pledging to remove Gaetz from his congressional committee seats if he’s found to be guilty.
Yet it’s also worth noting that two media-savvy and therefore powerful House Republicans, Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene, have seen fit to defend Gaetz. And while they don’t speak for the GOP, they do hint at an important truth: the tectonics of sexual scandal on the right have shifted. This has come courtesy of two men, Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh, both of whom were accused of misconduct by multiple women, credibly in the former’s case and much less so in the latter’s. Yet conservatives sprang fiercely to their defense. They treated the allegations not as moral failings by the accused, but as smear campaigns by the accusers.
As conservatives have come to feel more existentially threatened by the left, they’ve also become more defensive of their own, going to bat for anyone who’s willing to fight for the team. And as they’ve become more defensive, they’ve likewise become more willing to overlook the shortcomings (if not the apostasies) of those who march under their sigil. Politics has grown more zero-sum and Machiavellian. Trump in particular has taught them that a champion need not be perfect or even good to do battle on their behalf. That isn’t to say conservatives ignored the former president’s failings, but they did balance them against what they saw as his combative advantages. Conversations about Trump inevitably began with: ‘I’m not saying he’s perfect but…’
As with Trump, Matt Gaetz has made a name for himself as a smash-mouth cable news gladiator. And because in our talky, post-Trump media, such theatrics are equated with ‘fighting’, it’s very possible that conservatives might yet form rank around Gaetz. Because don’t we need all hands on deck to stop the Biden agenda? What about Juanita Broaddrick and Lindsey Boylan and Tara Reade? Why should we play by a different set of rules than the left? And why should we ever trust the Biden DOJ?
The irony is that in practice this is actually closer to that more decorous Congress of yore, filled with adulterers and whiskey-for-breakfasters who ignored each other’s sins in favor of political consensus. The lesson is the same as it’s always been: power both corrupts and attracts the corrupted.
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