Every time I see Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., I think about James Spader’s character Steff in the 1986 classic “Pretty in Pink.” Steff is a pitch-perfect ‘80s teen-movie villain: preppy and indignant, talking about “low-grade ass” with his friend, who has just realized that this guy may, in fact, be a huge prick.
Gaetz emanates the same energy, just transported into 2021. He’s square-jawed, with Chiclet-white teeth and slicked-back hair. He wears perfectly starched button-ups and takes selfies with his bros, like former President Donald Trump. Like any archetypal Evil Frat Boy, rumors about unsavory interactions with women have been passed around for years.
But this week, those rumors became explicit. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Gaetz was under investigation by the Department of Justice for potentially violating federal sex trafficking laws, including whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him. (Gaetz dismissed the allegations as lies that are part of an extortion plot, denying to The New York Times that he had romantic relationships with minors and saying, “It is verifiably false that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman.”)
From there, the stories poured out swiftly, painting a picture of a man routinely engaged in gross, predatory behavior.
CNN reported that Gaetz allegedly bragged about his sexual conquests on the House floor, showing other lawmakers photos and videos of nude women he claimed to have slept with. A “Costco-sized box” of Trojan condoms was left on top of a trash bin outside of his congressional office, per The Daily Beast. Gaetz and former Florida tax collector Joel Greenberg — who was indicted last year on a federal sex trafficking charge — allegedly recruited women online for sex and sent them payments using cash apps, according to The New York Times. (“Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex. Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely," Matt Gaetz's office said in a statement to The New York Times.)
And before he was elected to Congress, Gaetz and other young male lawmakers in Florida had “created a ‘game’ to score their female sexual conquests, which granted ‘points’ for various targets such as interns, staffers or other female colleagues in the state House,” including women who they had heard were virgins, ABC News reported. (When asked about a senator's tweet about the game, Gaetz told the Tampa Bay Times he had “no idea" what was being referenced.)
He is, in essence, a Frat Boy without brothers willing to go to bat for him.
Notably, instead of invoking shock, these newer, more disturbing allegations about Gaetz only reinforced an image that the 38-year-old congressman had seemingly intentionally cultivated. In 2019, Jacob Bacharach aptly described Gaetz in The Nation as someone who has “the air of a guy you might run into at a 10-year reunion, bragging about babes and brewskis while droning on about a vast luxury SUV he’d only been able to afford because he’d inherited an auto dealership or pizza chain from his dad.” This is, after all, a man who willingly invokes the unflattering “Florida man” meme in his Twitter bio right alongside the white-nationalist-loved phrase “America First.”
Embracing the Frat Boy persona is something that certainly worked in Gaetz’s favor under Trump. He hitched himself to the MAGA movement and frequently defended the former president and his administration, earning him high praise. At one of Trump’s many MAGA rallies, the then-president described Gaetz as “young, handsome, going places.” Naturally, the congressman then bragged about this on social media.
Gaetz’s Instagram account is still littered with MAGA symbolism. A post from just five days ago included a split screen: On the left, an image of Trump, his fists bared, with the word “WINNING”; on the right, a photo of President Joe Biden kneeling, with the word “WOKENESS.” It’s like Gaetz heard Trump ‘s infamous 2016 invocation of “locker room talk” as an excuse for predatory behavior, then took that logic and ran with it as far as he could go.
But with Trump out and the Republican Party splintering, Gaetz’s projection of power seems more like a mirage. As outlets like The Daily Beast have reported, Gaetz doesn’t actually have all that many friends, even in his own party. He is, in essence, a Frat Boy without brothers willing to go to bat for him.
On Tuesday night, just hours after the first New York Times story broke, Gaetz went on Fox News in search of a fellow bro. This normally wouldn’t have been notable: Gaetz, as one of the more notable sycophants of the Trump era, has been on Tucker Carlson’s show numerous times. At the beginning of the interview, Gaetz seemed to be on script, quickly dismissing the allegations as a lie and painting himself as the victim of an extortion plot.
But as Carlson asked more questions, Gaetz’s performance took a different tack. He began drawing Carlson into his narrative, twice emphasizing their collegial relationship, and trying to paint the two of them as similar figures — just two powerful men smeared by forces beyond their control.
“I’m not the only person on screen right now who’s been falsely accused of a terrible sex act,” Gaetz said. “You were accused of something that you did not do and so you know what this feels like.”
Carlson attempted to distance himself from Gaetz, clarifying that he had faced a false allegation 20 years ago by a mentally ill viewer he had never met. But Gaetz remained undeterred, attempting to bond with Carlson yet again.
“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, looking for his guy — his dude, his compadre — to have his back.
“I don’t remember the woman you’re speaking of or the context at all,” Carlson deadpanned.
It was a bizarre performance, predicated on the idea that Carlson’s show would be a safe space for Gaetz to not only defend himself, but force Carlson to stick up for him as well. (Gaetz also inexplicably brought up another alleged crime involving child prostitutes he was apparently accused of that no one had even mentioned?)
He and Carlson were cut from the same masculine, boldly heterosexual mold, Gaetz seemed to be saying. Therefore, the Justice Department inquiry, which was reportedly launched with the consent of former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr, had to be baseless. Gaetz was essentially invoking the political media equivalent of the “bro code” and hoping that Carlson, as a fellow conservative firebrand, would have his bro’s back.
But Carlson did not, calling it “one of the weirdest interviews” he’d ever conducted after it finished. And so, Gaetz was left there, flailing. Even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has been unwilling to offer full-throated support. Gaetz's communications director also resigned Friday.
Here’s the thing about the Evil Frat Boy, a trope that has steadily lost its grip on our culture in recent years. His power is predicated on the buy-in of his buddies. Only through his ability to drum up shared fervor and/or anger among a privileged (but allegedly aggrieved) group and direct it outward can he prosper. But anyone who’s watched movies that invoke these tropes know that once the Evil Frat Boy’s peer support retreats, he’s exposed for what he really is: a spineless, misogynist weasel.