Trump's defense of Matt Gaetz just made life way harder for Republicans and the religious right

In the days since it's been revealed that Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is currently under investigation for sex trafficking of a minor, it seemed like most Republicans were throwing him under the bus. As Politico reported, even though Gaetz was among the most loyal and outspoken Donald Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, "neither Trump nor anyone in the ex-president's orbit is rushing to Gaetz's defense." Trump insiders appear to have gone out of their way to humiliate Gaetz further, leaking reports to the New York Times about Gaetz begging Trump for a pre-emptive pardon in Trump's last days in office. Gaetz's Republican colleagues were crawling all over each other to tell embarrassing or damning stories about him, from the time he reportedly showed them nude photos of women on the House floor to his fight against efforts to ban "revenge porn" in Florida. As an analysis from Media Matters shows, Fox News, which used to never get enough of Gaetz, has barely mentioned the congressman in recent days. Even professional troll Jacob Wohl has turned on Gaetz.

This article was originally published at Salon

But then, like a devil rising up to collect his dues from Faustus, Trump decided to go ahead and personally defend Gaetz. In a statement released on Wednesday, Trump denied that Gaetz had asked him for a pardon, adding: "he has totally denied the accusations against him."

The entire scandal represents the larger conundrum for Republicans, one that isn't going away just because Trump is no longer president. Politicians like Gaetz, and like Trump before him, hold the promise of broadening the GOP base to pick up a lot of voters that more traditional conservative politics, especially the kind peddled by the religious right, weren't appealing to. But while dirtbags like Gaetz and Trump hold a special appeal to previously ungettable voters, their very presence invites scandal.

As I noted in last week's newsletter, Trump and his "grab 'em by the pussy" aesthetic clearly had a secularized appeal to creeps and pigs — with the Proud Boys being a shining example — who find the religious right's approach to politicized sexism too constraining. Trump may have done his time letting evangelical ministers pray over him or holding a Bible like he was afraid it would bite him, but no one was fooled. On the contrary, understanding that Trump didn't really believe all that crap was a big part of the Trump's appeal, which brought him an eye-popping 15 million more voters in 2020 than Mitt Romney got in 2012.

The religious right that was once a backbone of the party's voting base is shrinking by the day, as older religious conservatives die and fail to be replaced by younger people, who are turning away from religion. By appealing to America's trolls and creeps — the people who Hillary Clinton famously, and accurately, described as a "basket of deplorables" — Trump held the promise of expanding the base, converting people who were often otherwise uninterested in electoral politics into Republican voters. And, as unpopular as he was among his colleagues, Gaetz held a similar promise of a GOP that was less dependent on a shrinking religious right by shoring up its appeal with dirtbags.

Until recently, it was reasonable — savvy, even — to imagine Gaetz had a good shot at making himself into the face of the Republican Party post-Trump. Gaetz seemed like just the man to pick up a specific strain of Trump voters, those who were open to a racist, misogynist message, but had no interest in the traditional showy religiosity of the GOP. Gaetz brought a Rush Limbaugh-esque "triggering the liberals" justification to his antics, replacing the traditional feigned piety of Republicans with a trollish delight in being the worst. And it was working for Gaetz, who was a rising star on Fox News, averaging a whopping 87 minutes a month of airtime on the network.

The problem with pandering to dirtbags, it turns out, is that they are, well, dirtbags. The qualities that made Gaetz so appealing as a Fox News figurehead are the qualities that also led to this scandal. Misogyny dressed up as religious conviction is a drag, but when misogyny is just men gleefully asserting their right to treat women however they like without consequence, terms like "sex trafficking," "revenge porn," and "sex with minors" are rarely far behind. And yes, the religious right has those problems, as well, but the trappings of faith make it easier to ditch the men — like Jerry Falwell Jr. — who get caught up in scandal, while still claiming, however falsely, to have the moral high ground.

No doubt many of the more traditional Republicans were excited throwing Gaetz out with the trash. There's a reason the religious right — as smarmy, hypocritcal, and dishonest as they are — survived for so many decades as the backbone of the Republican Party. Claiming to act out of "faith", no matter how much you're lying, puts a moralistic veneer on the deeply immoral beliefs that actually drive conservatives. Gaetz — like Trump — threatens to topple the whole enterprise by exposing how sleazy and opportunistic 21st American conservatism actually is.

Unfortunately for them, by coming out to defend Gaetz, Trump just made life way harder for the religious right.

With Trump out of the picture, there was a fighting chance that evangelical leaders could reclaim the GOP, and go right back to selling themselves as a party of "faith" and "family values," instead of a bunch of power-hungry hypocrites who happily throw in with shamelessly hedonistic unbelievers like Trump clearly is. Getting rid of Gaetz could have been the first step in the restoration of the old power structures of the Republican Party. But Trump is popular with Republican voters and nearly every Republican leader still clearly feels the need to kiss the ring. By defending Gaetz, Trump made it clear that Republicans aren't going to be able to just walk away and pretend this whole appealing-to-dirtbags thing never happened. Instead, he's tying the deplorables around their neck like an albatross and making it clear they can't go forward without them.