The Party’s Over: Gaetz, Trump, and the future of conservatism in America

Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks on the steps of Wyoming State Capitol to decry Liz Cheney, a fellow Republican and the state’s solely elected congressional representative. Photo: Michael Ciaglo

On Thursday, January 28th, 2021, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida traveled to Cheyenne, Wyoming. It would be Gaetz’s first-ever visit to the Cowboy State, and in only about an hour of his arrival he would find himself speaking on the steps of the state’s capitol building.

“I love Wyoming!” announced Gaetz, his first words to a crowd of roughly 700 spectators. It would seem, then, that even for his short time being there, Big Wyoming had made one heck of an impression on the 38-year-old lawmaker.

If that all seems a bit rushed to you, then you wouldn’t be alone. But, then again, things moving all a bit too fast is exactly in the nature of a man who is quick to redirect the blame of a terrorist attack made against him and his colleagues, and not even a full day after they survive it. These accusations, by the way, are based on particularly shoddy evidence.

To his credit, Gaetz just simply isn’t a man who likes to waste any time. He’s passionate, he’s zealous, and he likes to get to the point. He spares not a second to breathe, and immediately following his high praise of Wyoming, he says this:

“I think if Liz Cheney had a rally with all of her supporters, they could likely meet inside one of the elevators in the capitol, and still have plenty of room for social distancing.”

It’s a good enough joke. Our typically hasty Congressman Gaetz does bungle his cadence on a few useless words, but still the crowd goes wild. 

Gaetz smiles. This is why he has come to the great state of Wyoming: to deride and ultimately urge Wyomingites to unseat their solely elected congresswoman.

“Traitor!” one woman can be heard shouting, describing Cheney, not as one to her state or to her nationbut to her party. Liz Cheney is Gaetz’s fellow Republican and, earlier in the year on January 13th, she had voted, along with nine of her other Republican colleagues, to impeach President Donald Trump for the second time.

These ten Republican lawmakers voted to impeach Trump for the second time. Their decision has been met with various political consequences. Photo: CNN

Gaetz’s rally against Cheney is at this time the most recent in a series of political fallouts for her and the other nine Republicans who voted for impeachment. Censure is being considered among state political leaders against Representative Kinzinger of Illinois, and in some way it has already been the fate of Upton of Michigan, and Beutler and Newhouse, both of Washington.  Newhouse, additionally, is facing challenges for the 2022 primary, along with representatives Valadao of California, Meijer of Michigan, and Rice of South Carolina.

All undoubtedly because they voted to impeach the former president, their fellow Republican.

But Cheney’s case is different, especially considering Gaetz’s involvement. Now it isn’t just about local rivalries against her incumbency – now she has sparked the ire of a fellow elected official, one from over a thousand miles out of state. Gaetz has escalated the situation to a national ordeal – a struggle for the very scope and future of the Republican party going forward.

America is a big country. There are, by recent counts, over 330-million people living across this land of nearly 4 million square-miles. Utopian thinking aside, differences should just be expected as a natural consequence of our ethnography.

But these differences are exacerbated into oftentimes serious disagreement, due in part to our reliance on a two-party system (by an old UN standard, we were the only democratic “developed” nation that functioned this way). Famously, some of our most revered founding fathers “dreaded” the two-party system, and warned of its “baneful effects.” How can we expect to effectively depend on a simple binary framework to express what is ultimately an ever-expanding spectrum of political beliefs?

Answers to that question have manifested in different forms throughout our history. The modern Republican Party was formed out of a coalition between, among other groups, anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats, who broke from their parties (in an era famous for its factionalism) to halt the westward expansion of slavery.

Perhaps most notedly in 1912, after former president Theodore Roosevelt became disillusioned with the administration of his successor and protégé William Howard Taft, Roosevelt had decided to run against the incumbent. When he failed to secure the nomination at that year’s Republican National Convention, old T.R. decided to form a new party: the Progressive Party.

But it has been well over a century since any similar schisms have emerged within America’s Big Two. It has been, up to this point, a time of compromise and outward signs of respectability among peers.

The Gaetz-Cheney feud changes all of that, pushing the Republican Party to a threshold that we know not yet how it will cross. At the current moment, Gaetz and others like him are seeking to purge the party from within, hoping to reorganize with the “energy of the Trump movement,” in order to topple “antiquated Republicanism.”

But Gaetz’s campaign against Cheney has been met with some intra-party reprimand, most notably from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). In a January 27th phone call to his Republican colleagues, McCarthy demanded an end to the in-fighting. A day later, Gaetz went ahead with his rally.

There is a chance that these instances of disunity will actually not devolve into any major political splinterings, à la 1912. Not because the GOP will discard Trumpism, but rather champion it for their political longevity. Just one day after McCarthy expressed his disapproval of the Republican squabbling, the Minority Leader met with the former president to discuss the party’s future, the same day as Gaetz’s visit to Cheyenne.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) meets with Trump. The meeting comes one day after McCarthy urged his colleagues to stop squabbling, and on the same day as Gaetz’s anti-Cheney rally. Photo: Fox News

Should the party come to break, it seems more likely that, given the current data available, it will be those Republicans who have disavowed Trump that will abandon the GOP, not those who support him. An anomalously high (but politically meaningless) number of conservative voters have changed their registrations in the wake of the Capitol riot, and recent polls among Republicans indicate an over 80 percent positive opinion of Trump.

Anything can happen, but it seems to be that America, and the Republican Party, are far from done with Donald Trumphe is not just some “aberration.” The GOP may very well undertake a Trump-transformation. It is, after all, no stranger to radically redefining itself. But there is serious potential that, for whatever American conservatism has been in the past, its extremes will now dominate mainstream discourse, and the Republican Party will end as some of us have known it.

But at his anti-Cheney rally, Gaetz spoke of his vision of a better, populist Americaan America which would rid itself of “old dogmas” like political parties.

“Populism is a lot more effective when we join together,” he said, again to great cheer.

At the January 28th rally, Gaetz urged his audience to abide by what he called “prairie populism,” a movement, which, is eerily similar to far more extreme right-wing frameworks. Photo: Dan Cepeda

In praxis, however, having no parties is suspiciously similar to having just one party. And, defined further by Gaetz’s rejection of globalism, and contempt for immigrants and the Chinese, this potential, one-party, populist America sounds eerily fascist, or at the very least proto-fascist.

I would like to refer you all to Umberto Eco’s seminal essay “Ur-Fascism,” which, in addition to detailing Eco’s life under fascist Italy, describes the core tenants of this particular far-right movement. There are a few striking parallels between the work and Gaetz’s speech:

“They’ve suppressed American wages by allowing unchecked illegal immigration,” he says, referring to a vague group of Washington elites which includes Cheney among them.

“They’ve hollowed out the towns and villages in our country with trade deals that enrich China at the expense of our people.”

These comments are well within Eco’s eighth feature of fascism: humiliation by the ostentatious wealth and force of its apparent enemies. Followers must be convinced that they can still overcome these great odds, which, by rallying them to defeat Liz Cheney, Gaetz hopes to do exactly that. Funnily enough, removing Cheney for the sake of a unified Trump movement would abide by Eco’s fourth feature: the rejection of disagreement.

We already know what “Re-Trump-licanism” can look like. We have just endured four years of it as a nation. It is marked with wanton disregard for the environment, civil rights erasure, and, among plenty else, blatant xenophobia.

But, cute neologisms aside, it may be in our best interest to call it out by its more traditional name, should we have any hope of shutting it out of our future.

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