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Florida GOP Media Perception Management

The Right-Wing Media Capital of America (CJR)

By Bob Norman
Columbia Journalism Review, JULY 20, 2021

BEFORE THE TROUBLE STARTED, Fox News host Sean Hannity likened Matt Gaetz to a “young Mickey Mantle” of the right. The Florida Republican reciprocated by calling Hannity a “transformational figure of the media.” Together they became a virtual tag-team act on Hannity’s show, where Gaetz appeared on a near-nightly basis to tout Donald Trump, cry Marxism, and bolster Hannity’s talking point of the day. 

Then came reports of a federal investigation into whether Gaetz violated sex-trafficking laws. Screech. Their budding political romance was over like that. Gaetz has been a Hannity pariah ever since, bereft of perhaps the most powerful perch in the increasingly insular Trumpverse. 

Where was an aspiring demagogue to turn for media exposure? Gaetz found a lifeboat in Newsmax, the far-right cable station best known for zealously pushing the ex-president’s baseless election-fraud claims. In a May 5 interview with Gaetz, Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield opined that his guest might be the innocent victim of a “lock ’em up politics assault” by Democrats. 

“They always come for the fighters, Grant,” Gaetz agreed. “Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, Matt Gaetz—it’s never the meek that they come for. It’s always those who are fighting hard for the America First agenda.”

Gaetz was apparently such a fan of Newsmax that, at about the time the scandal broke, he inquired about leaving his elected office behind to join the cable station full-time—a proposition a station spokesman told Reuters was rejected. 

Little wonder he asked. The move could have provided a smooth transition for the imperiled Gaetz, not just dogmatically but also geographically: Newsmax is headquartered in Boca Raton, just south of one of the Panhandle representative’s favorite haunts, Mar-a-Lago. 

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Gaetz has often been seen at Trump’s place, which is located on the island of Palm Beach. In late December he proposed to his girlfriend at Mar-a-Lago, which has become the central locus of the entire Republican sphere, especially among right-wing media figures. From there Gaetz can easily visit his old pal Lou Dobbs, the ex-Fox News host who lives eight miles away in West Palm Beach. Closer is Ann Coulter, who lives just down the road from Trump and last year remarked that Gaetz was becoming her “favorite Republican.” 

Half an hour north on Interstate 95 he’ll find Dan Bongino, a right-wing podcaster and Fox News contributor whom Trump has opined should win a Pulitzer Prize. A quick jaunt south, back to Boca Raton, is syndicated columnist and podcaster Ben Shapiro, a major player among the younger arch-conservative set. 

Fort Lauderdale lands Gaetz on the doorstep of Trump’s own snarling cur, Roger Stone, the longtime Trump confidante and noted Proud Boy whisperer who figures into the investigations of both Gaetz and the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Campaign finance reports show that Gaetz recently paid Stone’s political consulting company $20,000 in four payments. No word on whether the checks were hand-delivered.” 

Further south, in a sprawling Miami-Dade home on the edge of the Everglades, lives Matt Drudge, though he abandoned his support for Trump a couple years ago. Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, has a home in the relative hinterlands of the Gulf Coast of Florida, on the exclusive island of Boca Grande. And—coming full circle—Hannity himself purchased a $5.3-million home on Palm Beach in late April, just after Fox aired his exclusive sit-down interview with Trump. Hannity’s beachfront townhouse is just three miles from Mar-a-Lago, where he might just bump into his old pal Gaetz. (Awkward.

Considering that roster, it seems impossible that Gaetz could find a more hospitable place to create an alternative reality in the eyes of the MAGA faithful. In Florida, Gaetz has what is perhaps his last shot at some strange form of salvation.

WE TEND TO CRAVE a poetic, Florida Man-esque explanation for exactly why the Sunshine State has become the undisputed capital of MAGAstan. The always perverse Stone likes to apply a Somerset Maugham quote—a “sunny place for shady people”—to explain his own attraction to it. Politico’s Michael Kruse recently dubbed Trump’s land of exile a “sandy, sweaty Shangri-La of second chances,” which certainly rings true. But local Republican activist Bob Sutton posits a much more mundane explanation. 

“It’s the good weather and low taxes,” says Sutton, who is the Broward County chair of a pro-Trump group called the Liberty Caucus.

South Florida isn’t called New York City’s “Sixth Borough” for nothing, and it’s not a coincidence that the only splash of color in Ratso’s miserable apartment in the film Midnight Cowboy is a Florida tourist ad (or—major spoiler alert incoming—that he died while living his fantasy of moving to Miami). The state has been a dream tourist and retirement destination for the eastern half of the country for roughly a century. 

In some ways, it would have been surprising had Trump not become a Floridian at some point. As for those right-wing media figures, the move is a two-fer—they get to say goodbye to winter and hello to their political godfather in one fell swoop. 

Sutton, who counts Trump as just that, is one who has enjoyed the MAGA migration. He’s become a member of the ex-president’s extended coterie and routinely posts photos on social media of his regular Mar-a-Lago visits, which he says include occasional political strategy sessions (the substance of which remain secret). He has dined with Gaetz there, and is very clear about where he stands on that scandal. 

“It’s politics,” says Sutton, also a former county GOP chairman. “How do you take down a formidable opponent? You distract them and you make up shit about them.” 

It doesn’t matter to Sutton that the allegations against Gaetz are coming from the congressman’s Republican pal, Joel Greenberg, who is pleading guilty to federal crimes after his brief stint as a local tax collector proved a veritable orgy of corruption and vice.

“Nails that stand up get hammered down,” Sutton avers. 

William Scherer, a prominent attorney and GOP fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale, may welcome Republican domination of the state, but he doesn’t count himself among the crowd of the ex-president’s loyalists. In fact, he considers Trump a “deadbeat and clown”—particularly after, Scherer claims, the former reality TV star stiffed him on some legal work back in the ’90s. But Scherer, who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 recount, finds it curious that the Trumpian migration has specifically landed in a blue part of the state. He notes that while the Trump faithful may tout rural America, they don’t seem to want to actually live in it. 

“They’re moving to South Florida because it’s the nicest place to live, which is interesting,” Scherer says. “It’s a lot more cosmopolitan, and there are things to do here.”

Sutton says conservative émigrés also feel “safe” in South Florida, as opposed to other more liberal metropolitan areas, because of the political makeup of the state. While Florida is generally a purple state, it’s blood red in terms of raw power, with a Trump-loving governor in Ron DeSantis, a pair of Republican senators, and a decades-long GOP-controlled legislature ruling its largely dysfunctional roost. DeSantis in particular has become a MAGA darling and much-hyped 2024 presidential hopeful with an unofficial campaign slogan of “Make America Florida” based on a much-propagated myth that the state was kept “open” during the pandemic. 

But the Gold Coast can be as tough on recognizable right-wingers as anywhere. Just ask Coulter. After buying her $1.8-million Palm Beach home in 2005, she had some extremely unpleasant interactions with her neighbors, prompting her at one point to contact the authorities. One unknown heckler near her home allegedly yelled out, “Ann Coulter is a big asshole!” An anonymous note left at her door labeled her a “self-aggrandizing sociopath”; on another, with a heart drawn on it, was writ simply, “Go fuck yourself.”

More recently, it’s been Coulter’s turn to call one of her own neighbors names—“moron” and “blithering idiot” among them. The neighbor in question: Donald Trump, who lives just two miles from her doorstep.

Trump should be used to such derision, however, as he’s long had a contentious history with the blueblood society on the island (which itself is predominantly Republican). 

“Nobody wants Trump here,” bluntly states Palm Beach resident and author Laurence Leamer. 

Leamer wrote extensively about Trump’s South Florida origin story in his recent book, Mar-A-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace. In it, he recounts the island elites’ early snubbing of Trump. Even post-presidency, when Trump endeavored to make Mar-a-Lago his permanent residence, a group of Palm Beach folk banded together to try to evict him based on a town rule that bans non-employees from residing at the private club. The rather secretive organization, which calls itself Preserve Palm Beach, had its attorney warn the town council that Trump’s presence could turn the place “into a permanent beacon for his more rabid lawless supporters.” 

Trump’s attorney, John Marion, countered that Trump is “always present” at the private resort and that he “wanders the property … like the mayor of the town of Mar-a-Lago.” The council sided with Trump. 

Leamer says one thing about Marion’s statement is certainly true: While in Florida, Trump has never been a man about town. “He lives in his little cave and never ventures out of it,” says Leamer. 

A KEY SOURCE for Leamer’s book was none other than Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy, with whom the author says his years-long friendship came to an end with the publishing of his book. He says Ruddy confided in him prior to the 2016 election that he believed Trump was too “delusional” and “psychologically unbalanced” to be president. (Ruddy didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Leamer paints Ruddy as a horrifically compromised figure. After beginning his career as an attack dog for right-wing publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, Ruddy publicly moderated his right-wing views a bit after founding the Newsmax website in 1998, even forging a friendship with a former tormentee, Bill Clinton. Leamer says Ruddy initially had dreams of creating a Rupert Murdoch-like media empire that, while conservative, would also be classically journalistic; according to Leamer, Ruddy shifted hard right when it became clear that model wouldn’t pay the Newsmax bills.

With Trump’s election, Newsmax devoted itself to praising the new president, and Ruddy at times acted as a sort of unofficial POTUS spokesman in appearances on CNN and MSNBC. When Trump refused to concede his loss to Biden, Newsmax parroted his bogus election-fraud conspiracies, with Ruddy claiming on CNN that Trump’s efforts to overturn the result were not an assault on democracy but rather a “celebration” of it. When the New York Times’ Ben Smith asked Ruddy about his station’s pumping of Trump’s election conspiracies, he seemed to admit the station’s disgraceful coverage was a business decision. 

“In this day and age, people want something that tends to affirm their views and opinions,” Ruddy told Smith. 

Newsmax remains singularly devoted to the Trump cult. Its broadcasts are loaded with perceived right-wing victimization, race baiting, gratuitous complaints of Christian persecution, and continuous rationalization for the January 6 insurrection. 

Gaetz found solace in Newsmax and immersed himself in all other things Florida, as if swaddling himself in its swampy strangeness would somehow make his big troubles go away. It was in Miami on April 10 where he made his first speech after the scandal broke, before a “Women For America First” audience at Trump’s golf club in Doral. There, he gave thanks not only to the ex-president for his “encouragement,” but also to “the MAGA nation that shares so much love.” 

“They aren’t really coming for me, they’re coming for you,” he told the crowd. 

More recently Gaetz teamed up with the equally pernicious Marjorie Taylor Greene on a so-called “America First Tour.” Their first stop was, of course, in Florida—specifically, inside a MAGA-dominated retirement community called The Villages, which made news last year when a Trump supporter yelled “white power” during a political rally there.

There Gaetz again claimed he was a “wanted man by the deep state.” In a voice that at times cracked in the manner of an overheated cheerleader, he alleged that the same dark forces that were after him were also trying to stop Trump from “telling the truth.” 

“But I am a Florida man,” he said in a room with an average age of just about life expectancy, “and it is good to be home!” In a speech littered with false claims and cynical misrepresentations, Gaetz, in that moment, was almost surely himself telling the truth.

 

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