U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz started the Republican National Convention with a dark warning.
Moments after the cable broadcast of the first night of the Republican National Convention began, Gaetz cast the opposing party as one dominated by “woketopians” who are to blame for “cops killed” and “children shot.”
“It’s a horror film really,” Gaetz said from the near empty Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington D.C. “They’ll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite (the gang) MS-13 to live next door.”
As the fourth speaker of the night and the first elected official to take the stage, Gaetz set the tone for the next four nights and laid out the blueprint for how President Donald Trump and Republicans hope to tear into Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s lead in the polls over the next 10 weeks. He painted the November election as a choice between “strength or weakness, energy or confusion, success or failure.”
Gaetz filled 3 minutes and 30 seconds with equal parts nationalism and looming threats, attacking familiar touchstones in the culture wars with a sharp turn of phrase.
“America is the greatest country that has ever existed,” Gaetz said. “Don’t let any celebrity, athlete or politician tell you otherwise.”
He later added: “You cannot cancel a culture that loves its heroes.”
It is no wonder that Trump tapped Gaetz over other prominent Florida Republicans like U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio to address his convention. Though just 38 years old, Gaetz has grown into a rising star in Trump’s Republican Party precisely because he’s well versed in the conservative media’s playbook and he leans into partisan battles without fear of consequences.
He opened with a quip about Biden’s light campaign itinerary.
“I’m speaking to you from an auditorium emptier than Joe Biden’s daily schedule,” Gaetz said.
Gaetz’s prime time speaking slot in the nation’s capital was another milepost for Gaetz, who early on recognized Trump’s appeal to the Republican base. In his 2016 congressional race, he promised to “kill Muslim terrorists, and build the wall” in television commercials, echoing Trump’s main talking points from the campaign trail.
When he arrived in Washington alongside Trump in 2017, Gaetz immediately seized the spotlight as one of the president’s fiercest defenders on the Hill. Media savvy and camera forward, Gaetz quickly amassed a sizable Twitter following for a relatively green lawmaker and he became a regular on Fox News. He recently started a podcast and was featured in an HBO documentary “The Swamp.”
Trump called Gaetz a “warrior” for his efforts pushing back against the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In a stunt criticized by national security experts last year, Gaetz led a group of Republicans who stormed a secure House committee room that conducted secret grand jury-like proceedings ahead of the impeachment hearings.
But Gaetz’s bluster in defense of the president has at times created problems for the Panhandle Republican. In February 2019, Gaetz threatened Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen on Twitter the night before the latter was scheduled to testify before Congress.
“Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot,” Gaetz tweeted.
Ethics watchdogs compared the tweets to tampering with a witness. In a report issued Friday, the House Ethics Committee said Gaetz failed to “exercise reasonable judgment and restraint” when he sent the tweets. In its own investigation, the Florida Bar said Gaetz, a licensed lawyer, was “unprofessional, reckless, insensitive, and demonstrated poor judgment” by taunting Cohen on social media.
Neither the House committee or the Florida Bar decided to discipline Gaetz.
Gaetz has also clashed at times with House Republican leadership. He recently called on U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney to resign as chair of the Republican House Conference.
But Gaetz remains popular among Trump’s faithful and proved to be an influential voice in Florida politics in the most recent Republican primary. He backed Lakeland city Commissioner Scott Franklin over U.S. Rep. Ross Spano and endorsed Anna Paulina Luna in a crowded primary for Florida’s 13th Congressional District. Gaetz’s candidates both won, upsetting the party’s picks.
“President Trump sometimes raises his voice and a ruckus,” Gaetz said Monday. “He knows that’s what it takes to raise an army of patriots who love America, and we’ll protect her.”
Gaetz, the son of former State Senate President Don Gaetz, was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2010. He originally planned to succeed his father in the state senate, but instead ran for Congress when U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller announced his retirement. He coasted to re-election in 2018.
Phil Ehr, a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, is running against in Gaetz in the November election.
Florida was briefly slated to host the convention in Jacksonville, but those plans were scrapped in July as the state’s surging coronavirus cases become the focal point of the country’s outbreak. Instead, from Charlotte, Florida Republican Party chairman Joe Gruters had the honor of seconding the nomination for Trump.
“We believe in the great American comeback, and we believe there is one leader who deliver us prosperity once again,” Gruters said of Florida’s most prolific resident.
Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and former Attorney General Pam Bondi will address the convention Tuesday night. Gov. Ron DeSantis will reportedly speak later this week, according to Politico.