MESA, Ariz. — On Friday, Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene brought their “America First” road show to Maricopa County, the place that has become ground zero in the Republican effort to keep alive former President Donald Trump’s false claims about his 2020 election loss.
“So, let me just check and make sure with all of you: Who do you think won in Arizona on Nov. 3?” Greene, R-Ga., asked a crowd of roughly 800 people gathered at a hotel ballroom in Mesa.
The question prompted loud cheers and chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump!”
“You know that’s how we feel in Georgia too,” Greene, who wore a blue dress, said of another formerly red state turned blue in last year’s presidential election. “As a matter of fact, that’s how Michigan feels, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. I think that’s how at least 74-plus million people feel.”
Honoring how people feel, it turned out, was the theme of the night. And no one’s feelings factored more importantly than those of the former president.
“We are here in solidarity with the Arizona election audit,” Gaetz, R-Fla., said of the latest review of the ballots ordered by Arizona Senate Republicans, ignoring the fact that two previous recounts concluded that Trump lost to President Biden in Maricopa County fair and square. Whipping up hopes among audience members that the election still may not have been correctly decided — a perpetuation of Trump’s false claims about election fraud his foes have dubbed ‘the big lie’ — Gaetz also promised that “Arizona will be the launchpad” for other election audits.
The attire of many of those in attendance attested to why such meritless suggestions could prove dangerous. As at the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, a not-insignificant portion of the audience sported T-shirts prominently featuring the letter Q, menacing swords, as well as references to 1776 — all symbols prominent among those who believe that a violent revolution will soon be at hand to reinstall Trump in the White House.
In another nod to Trump, Gaetz, wearing his own sharp blue suit, assured the crowd that the movement started by “the best president in my lifetime” was still strong and would take down all Republicans who did not fully embrace it.
“Thousands of miles away, in the swamp of Washington, they kind of hoped that this was all over, that our populist little revolt would run away and no longer be a part of our national identity,” Gaetz said, adding, “Oh, we are just starting.”
Yet the spectacle of Gaetz and Greene taking on the de facto role of color guard for the America First banner was, depending on one’s political persuasion, either cause for celebration or proof that Trump’s GOP is bent on self-destruction.
“I follow them because they’re trying to help us after this administration is just totally destroying our country right now,” Nancy Winters, 50, of Gilbert, Ariz., told Yahoo News. “I don’t think anything is going right. I’m not happy with them ending all these people’s jobs in the [Keystone XL] pipeline. I don’t believe that this hack of the recent [Colonial] pipeline that’s causing the higher taxes and running out of gas on the East Coast would have happened under Trump. All this going on in Israel, but he [Trump] doesn’t have any control.”
One of the first protesters to show up at the venue, Brad, a 50-year-old who declined to provide his last name, took the dimmer view. “They’re the rightest of the right,” he said of Gaetz and Greene. “The Republican Party is allowing itself to be defined by that the same way that the Republicans have attempted to define the Democrats by AOC, the Squad, etc. I think the Republicans are walking themselves into it by defining themselves by the furthest of the right.”
On a night when Gaetz and Greene exalted in the adoration of their out-of-state supporters, both politicians find themselves under investigation. Gaetz is the subject of a Justice Department inquiry into whether he had sex with a 17-year-old girl, transported her across state lines in violation of sex trafficking laws and other possible crimes.
“Thank you for having my back,” Gaetz told the Arizona crowd, without referencing his mounting legal troubles.
While his associate Joel Greenberg reached a plea deal last week with federal prosecutors, the Florida congressman kept his remarks about the Justice Department limited to its recent statements that the Arizona recount may not comply with federal law.
“One group that I’m inclined to stand up to, one group that I wouldn’t mind having a little oversight over, is the Biden Justice Department,” Gaetz said.
Meanwhile, the Georgia congresswoman who was stripped of her committee assignments in February for her violent rhetoric against Democrats and her promotion of QAnon conspiracy theories, has her own potential legal troubles. She has drawn the attention of Georgia officials amid allegations that she broke the law by claiming homestead tax exemptions on two properties. In the House, calls for her resignation have grown with the discovery of videos showing her accosting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who Greene repeatedly hammered throughout her remarks Friday.
“She talks like a 14-year-old,” Greene said of her interactions with Ocasio-Cortez. “She says, ‘Like whatever.’”
Accusing Ocasio-Cortez of lending support to terrorists in Gaza as well as those Greene says participate in Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., she reveled in portraying her as not smart or patriotic enough to hold elected office, and her audience ate it up.
“You shouldn’t be a member of Congress if you’re going to support terrorists abroad and at home,” Greene said in one of her biggest applause lines of the night.
The bombast from Gaetz and Greene was matched in speeches by Arizona Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs and Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward, all of whom lent credence to the idea that the Maricopa County audit was warranted. That group seemed far removed from the Beltway Republicans who fear that drawing out challenges to the election will come back to haunt the party in the midterms. But judging from Friday’s rally, the second stop so far on what promises to be a growing national tour, the never-say-die strategy has also resonated with some voters.
Between the two politicians at the top of the bill, Greene seemed to generate more excitement from the crowd, perhaps because Gaetz may yet be indicted for crimes that seem a lot more off-brand than allegedly cheating the government out of tax income.
“I love Marjorie,” a woman wearing an American flag hat told me, before checking herself. “Wait, you’re with the media?” When I showed her my press badge, she turned and walked off.
In short, Friday’s event was a Trump rally sans Trump, including Trump-esque swipes at the media covering it. The question remains, however, whether the former president will seek the 2024 nomination or be content to let the next generation of firebrands like Greene and Gaetz step into his shoes.
“The media like to act as though there’s this big civil war brewing in the Republican Party. Is it going to be the establishment or is it going to be the Trump populists,” Gaetz said. “Well, you know what? The civil war is over. We’ve won. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.”
Never mind the warnings from Republicans on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who warned this week that the ongoing audit taking place at Phoenix’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum — with its search for nonexistent watermarks and bamboo fibers that yet might suggest Chinese interference in the election — was turning the state into a “laughingstock.” Cast aside the polls that show that even a relatively minor dissolution from the America First platform could spell another defeat for Republicans in 2024. On Friday, Greene was all in, making clear she didn’t care about unifying her party, let alone the nation.
“You know you’re a Democrat if your name is Liz Cheney,” she said. “You know you might be a Democrat if your name is Adam Kinzinger. You know you might be a Democrat and have a serious problem in your primary election if you’re one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach President Trump.”
“I think they might be here to figure out how much support Trump will get and they’ll tell Trump about it,” Jim Sharvat, 71, of Gilbert, Ariz., told Yahoo News. “I think he’s searching out to see how many people are interested in voting for him.”
It’s also possible that Gaetz and Greene were scouting on their own behalf.
“This is a crowd that I don’t think anyone not named Donald Trump running for president in 2024 could get,” Gaetz boasted at one point.
Either way, the impressive showing made clear that there’s a hunger among many Republicans for the agenda Trump popularized. Reading their audience, the two headliners drilled down and vented over illegal immigration at the southern border, the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, COVID restrictions and Dr. Anthony Fauci, and RINO members of their own party.
Only occasionally did it slip that the highly partisan Maricopa County audit would not swiftly usher Trump back behind the Resolute desk to restore everything Biden has spent the past four months overturning.
“What’s it going to take to make Arizona a red state again?” Gaetz asked Rep. Gosar during a roundtable following his speech.
“It’s placing America first,” Gosar responded. “And that’s what’s going to get it done.”
For most Democrats, and a notable minority of Republicans, Gaetz and Greene are simply perpetuating an insurrection that won’t quite die, pushing discredited conspiracy theories about voter fraud, defending those who violently attacked the Capitol and exalting in the glory of the man behind it all.
“We really feel strongly that we will not forget Jan. 6,” Heather, a 46-year-old protester from Mesa told Yahoo News. “Greene was there. Gaetz was there. They were laughing, they were having a good time … that’s not all right.”
On Wednesday, before the House voted to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters, Greene portrayed the insurrectionists as the victims, saying “the people who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 are being abused.”
“When will the witch hunt of Donald J. Trump come to an end and all of those who support him,” Greene added before joining the majority of her Republican colleagues in voting against creating the commission.
And when 35 House Republicans voted in favor of establishing the commission, Trump made sure to attack them. “See, 35 wayward Republicans—they just can’t help themselves,” Trump said in a statement, adding, “Democrats stick together, the Republicans don’t. They don’t have the Romney’s, Little Ben Sasse’s, and Cheney’s of the world. Unfortunately, we do. Sometimes there are consequences to being ineffective and weak. The voters understand!”
Indeed, Greene and Gaetz may not be the outliers in the Republican Party that Democrats imagine them to be. A Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found that both were more popular among GOP voters than Rep. Liz Cheney, who was ousted from her leadership role over her continued criticism of Trump and his effort to spread lies about the 2020 presidential election. Just 15 percent of GOP voters surveyed said they had a favorable view of Cheney, while 23 percent said the same for Gaetz and 27 percent for Greene.
If they can continue to ride the America First tour to even higher favorable ratings with members of their party, Gaetz and Greene may be poised to seek higher office, even the presidency itself. On the other hand, should the rallies continue to lay the groundwork for Trump’s return to the campaign trail and victory in 2024, the two Republicans will no doubt have positioned themselves well, and all but guaranteed the prospect of a federal pardon or two.
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