When we first meet Matt Gaetz, he is waking up in the “work closet” of his House office, where he stays while in Washington, to prepare for a long day of cable news appearances. But first, makeup.
The 38-year-old, two-term Florida congressman wants to look fresh for the millions of viewers watching at home and the users online who share, like and retweet the viral videos distributed by his communications staff. So that means dabbing a little product on his face.
He selects his shoes, a pair of black and white wingtips, that are “Ivanka’s favorite,” according to Gaetz, referring to the president’s daughter and adviser. He keeps a chart to carefully track his weight. After all, television is a visual medium, and Gaetz is on TV a lot.
These rituals, captured in the forthcoming HBO documentary “The Swamp,” may seem like mere vanity. But they’re part of a much larger strategy to deal with a problem in Congress that the documentary unmasks: the punishing, nonstop pressure to raise money.
You can’t knock the hustle, but by the end of the nearly two-hour documentary, a different kind of fatigue sets in, after watching the young Republican upstart generate click-worthy moments fueled by outrage and partisan bomb-throwing.
By saturating television screens and Twitter feeds, Gaetz gets exposure. The more exposure he gets, the more people recognize him. The more they recognize him, the more influence he has and the more money he can potentially raise without having to hold high-dollar fundraisers hosted by special interest groups. Gaetz likes to say he’s tired of the old way of fundraising. He doesn’t want to be beholden to lobbyists, so that’s why he does it the way that he does.
“The Swamp” makes a strong argument that there’s too much money in politics and the never-ending hunt for it makes it difficult for lawmakers to do their actual jobs. Those who claim to have found a new route may have just discovered another way to corrupt the political process.
The directors, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme (“Get Me Roger Stone”), said everyone “knows Congress is broken,” but they themselves were unfamiliar with the structure and built-in incentives that make it so. “When we got there and started studying it from the inside, it was so much worse than we could have even imagined,” DiMauro told me in an interview this month.
Describing themselves as “left-leaning,” the directors were a bit surprised by how many Republican lawmakers were willing to speak candidly about what they consider corruption in Washington. They also didn’t expect to find common cause with strident conservatives.
“We read the first six or seven chapters of [Colorado Rep. Ken Buck’s] book ‘Drain the Swamp,’ and we’re like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that we’re on the same page as this Freedom Caucus member as to how corrupt the system is,’” said Pehme. “‘And then I think in chapter eight he was like, ‘We need to get rid of the Endangered Species Act.’ That was, for us, when the record skipped. Oh right, we actually have radically disparate worldviews.”
Viewers at home may be familiar with the constant fundraising emails clogging up their inboxes (or maybe that’s just journalists?). But they may not know how much time their representatives have to devote to “dialing for dollars” or that lawmakers are expected to pay party dues.
The film has plenty to offer congressional insiders too, including glimpses of Capitol Hill haunts and people dating back to a not-so-distant time before the pandemic. After a year of following its GOP subjects through a haze of idealism, the filmmakers seem to have arrived at the unspoken conclusion that however unwavering in your ideals you may want to be, hypocrisy is still the one great constant in Washington.
Rep. Thomas Massie, an environmentally conscious Republican from Kentucky who outfits his home with solar panels, has so much disdain for Congress he calls the Capitol the “Death Star,” which is an interesting metaphor when you consider how two of the “Star Wars” movies end. Despite Massie’s love of the environment, he doesn’t think carbon dioxide is a problem. (This is where I mention Kentucky is a big coal-producing state.)
As for Gaetz, he spends much of his screen time railing against the excesses of the so-called swamp, but has no unkind word to say about Donald Trump, a politician whose transactional nature has since led to a controversial commutation for associate Roger Stone, who promised not to “roll” on the president.
Trump casts his giant shadow over the Republican Party, this town and ultimately the country, and Gaetz couldn’t be happier about it. Eager to show off his presidential access to the filmmakers and the audience, he gets off the phone with Trump after the Mueller testimony gushing like a schoolkid who finally gets acknowledged by his crush. (Gaetz did not warn Trump in advance that their conversation was being filmed, the directors told me.) “You’re tough, you’re smart, you have the look,” Trump tells Gaetz.
Who wouldn’t blush?
Sometimes people don’t want to replace “elites”; they just want a different set who will be more responsive to their wants or needs. For the figures profiled by “The Swamp,” that alternate path to elitism collides with a conviction that no matter how high you rise, you can always stay an underdog.
In a scene that brings memories of last year rushing back, Gaetz has dinner with former Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned from Congress amid an ethics investigation over an improper relationship. Gaetz, who has been a staunch defender of Hill despite their ideological differences, describes himself as “partisan-bipartisan fluid.”
The film starts during the January 2019 government shutdown and the swearing-in of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and encompasses events like the Mueller report and the impeachment of Trump.
Of course, all of that happened before the coronavirus pandemic. As legislators face the latest crisis, the directors haven’t seen much to inspire confidence so far.
“This has been boom time for K Street,” said Pehme. “Where the rest of America is suffering with double-digit unemployment, lobbying shops are doing great. And that says everything about the inequities of our system. Unemployed Americans get $250 billion, and the Republicans in Congress are saying, ‘We gotta get rid of that because that’s the incentive for Americans to go back to work.’ And yet you can have tax giveaways and special interest giveaways.”
“That both sides would applaud themselves on passing a bill like that ... really speaks volumes about the way that Congress operates and who Congress is operating for.”
“The Swamp” debuts Aug. 4 on HBO.