I have been attempting to understand the Matt Gaetz sex trafficking/teen prostitute/deep state/DOJ extortion/Newsmax/Tucker Carlson interview scandal for many hours now. I confess that I am largely lost, beyond the fact that it has vaulted me back to an all-too-familiar recent past: One in which many scandalous things happen all at once, all the time, and one’s job is to Scooby-Doo the way to truth. A time in which the alleged perpetrator responds to serious allegations by flooding the zone with improbable counteraccusations, which in this case include incriminating and deeply specific inadvertent confessions about the lack of photographic evidence of himself with child prostitutes, and then also a predictable flood of bizarre QAnon gibberish claiming that all this proves some larger QAnon gibberish plan for eventual world dominion.
The part of me that must waste brain cells on elected officials who commit alleged criminal acts of grotesque predation, then turn around and throw around deranged counterclaims and distractions was legit hoping for a break in 2021. But while Donald Trump is no longer here to flood the zone with shit, as Steve Bannon famously characterized the totality of the era’s media strategy, it appears that we will be mucking out the stables for the rest of our journalistic lives. (For what it’s worth, and if you feel like braving the rabbit hole, the Washington Post’s Philip Bump explains the Gaetz mayhem here.)
Long after Donald Trump has been banished from the bulk of respectable media discourse, the media will nevertheless be forced to engage in the elaborate choreography he set forth from Day 1 of his presidential bid: report on scandals, then report on the distractions from the scandals. Attempt to unearth truth from pointless, inchoate claptrap, then face criticism for paying attention to bogus stories as if a U.S. congressman credibly accused of preying on minors is somehow a story that shouldn’t be pursued. As Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Madison Cawthorn, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Lindsey Graham prove with every passing week, public scandal and counterpunching by the scandalous are the new governance. And in that sense, the crisis Trump fomented in the GOP has, as Amy Davidson Sorkin put it after the Capitol riot in January, “barely begun.” This is—as was most Trumpist policy for four long years—simply a comms strategy run amok, a comms strategy that ends up overtaking everything else, including important policy discussion about existential crises like a worldwide pandemic and crushing income inequality. It relies on doing nothing, building nothing, fixing nothing, but fomenting distrust in reality, in the media’s reports of reality, in reality-based institutions from government to law enforcement to Fox News personalities who are usually inclined to take your side of things. As we waste another precious day trying to piece together what the hell Matt Gaetz is saying and why it matters, QAnon spikes another Pizzagate football, delighted in their perennially unfalsifiable message that whatever Gaetz stands accused of, it’s all part of the conspiracy. As a poster on one QAnon message board explained Tuesday night, when the scandal broke, “This kind of setup or smear campaign is consistent with evil… The [deep state] will try to destroy all their opponents in any way possible. See ALL the FALSE accusations levied against the GOAT — DJT. Evil accuses good of what they themselves do.”
This choose-your-own-version-of-reality adventure is hardly confined to the purely political this week. A central theme in Derek Chauvin’s defense lawyer Eric Nelson’s opening statement on Monday, as Chauvin went on trial for the murder of George Floyd, was the reliability of the nine-minute video we have all seen, that was played for the jurors. Nelson thus argued that a video that shows Chauvin kneeling on Floyd as he pleads for his life only captures a part of the story. In Nelson’s telling, what the video fails to capture is that the crowd—begging the police to stop—was in fact a threat for Chauvin:
The crowd began to grow angry. But here’s what you will also see and hear; you will see and hear the conversation between the officers behind the squad car. The crowd is not aware of what they are saying and doing. You will learn that several bystanders, including [Donald Williams] and [Genevieve Hansen], they grew more, and more, and more upset with these officers. … As the crowd grew in size, seemingly so too, did their anger. And remember, there’s more to the scene than just what the officers see in front of them. There are people behind them, there are people across the street, there are cars stopping people yelling. There is a growing crowd and what officers perceive to be a threat.
It’s the Trumpiest of deflections: Don’t believe what you see in the video. The crowd—the “angry” crowd threatening the police—were the real perpetrators of the violence. Don’t believe what you see with your eyes, what we have all seen with our eyes. Don’t believe the testimony of multiple witnesses who say they were genuinely imploring the police to stop what they felt to be an act of murder. None of it is credible. Believe what we tell you to believe.
Part of the joy in being free of Donald Trump’s near-hourly reminders that nothing was true unless he sanctioned it, and that everything was a plot to entrap and ensnare him by shadowy enemies who were forever plotting his demise, lay in the hope that things might become concrete again. Science is back. Candor is back. Facts are rallying back. Maybe journalism could return to reporting truth as opposed to adjudicating it. And yet it’s now clear that the morally bankrupt and the legitimately awful will still always find ways to fight truth with derangement, and that the crazier their claims prove, the more likely they will be to find a receptive audience on both right-wing media and the national umbrage industrial complex. As long as such people hold political office, the press will be forced to engage with their farcical fever dreams, and the public will be made to pour out their mornings wondering who Matt Gaetz is, and why he matters, and whether indeed shadowy Justice Department officials are going around extorting the entire Gaetz clan for $25 million.
Don’t shoot the messenger, America. We hate this shit as much as you do. There’s a simple solution—never electing another professional fabricator again—but that train may have left the station. In the meantime, you are not alone. And the best thing to do when prevaricating fraudsters lie to you is not to doubt your sanity or to slide under the torpor of “who can know” hopelessness. Instead, recall that this is the plan, muck out the shit. Reorient, sigh, rinse, and repeat.