Glenn Greenwald
Politics • Writing • Culture
Post-Debate Analysis Live from Milwaukee
Video Transcript
August 24, 2023
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Interview with Rep. Matt Gaetz

Glenn Greenwald: All right, we're ready. This is Glenn Greenwald. We are here with a special edition of System Update following the live Republican presidential debate. We're outside the arena in Milwaukee where it happened. We're going to break it all down. My first guest, though, is Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, of Florida, who confessed before we were on that he is a gigantic fan of System Update, which didn't come as a surprise but thank you for joining us in person. 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: What a weird debate, Glenn. I felt like we were watching open tryouts for like a minor-league baseball team. Like you had your batch of has-beens and then you have your batch of, like, not quite ready yet. 


Glenn Greenwald: But Trump himself said he viewed this as a potential audition for his vice presidential role. And I think that’s… 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: In that respect, look, Trump won the debate by not being here, and probably Kristi Noem won the vice presidential contest – by not being here… 


Glenn Greenwald: [Kristi Noem] not being here as well. I guess, first of all, let me just ask you. Trump's decision not to come obviously makes political sense. He's ahead by 40, 45 points. The argument is, that if you're going to run for president, you have an obligation to communicate with the American people by participating in these debates. What do you make of that decision not to come? 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: I have not ever heard the criticism that President Trump doesn't communicate enough with the American people. Typically, the criticism is he does a little too much of it at times for some people's taste, not mine. But if President Trump were to have been in the debate, I think that people largely would have been tuning in to hear him. And why punish those people with seven or 8 minutes of Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie? You know, and so, I think that the 80 million views that President Trump got in his discussion with Tucker Carlson was probably more politically productive for him. But I still tried to pay attention tonight to the issue matrix and how people thought and talked about these issues and also how some of the campaigns in trouble reacted to the dynamics and the questions. Doug Burgum blew out his Achilles in the hours before the debate, stood there like a boss, didn't wince for a moment, and still appeared to be in less physical pain than Ron DeSantis, like during the entire discussion. So, for what? […] 


Glenn Greenwald: Despite that Ron DeSantis and his bones being in good shape [...] 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: Exactly. Yeah. 


Glenn Greenwald: I want to ask you, one of the clarifying parts of the discussion, to the extent there was one involving policy, was the section on Ukraine. There was one candidate – and one candidate only – emphatically saying we shouldn't be sending our money to Ukraine while we have all kinds of problems here at home, including with our own border, never mind the Ukrainian border. DeSantis, as Vivek kind of mocked him for, had his finger in the air saying, “Let's get the Europeans to pay more,” which isn't really a position. To me, it seemed like a kind of Republican Party debate that could have happened in 2004, 2008, 2012. The kind of Republican Party before Trump changed it. What are these people doing when they look at the polling data, seeing that Republicans overwhelmingly don't want to send money to Ukraine and saying that they don't care, they want that money going anyway? 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: Well, Glenn, maybe I shouldn't be so surprised that there's such a disconnect between the people on that debate stage other than Vivek and the typical Republican voter on the issue of Ukraine, because there's a similar disconnect with the United States Congress. Like when we had a vote on just whether or not you demand that Joe Biden write down a plan for Ukraine, he could just write any word, like a celebrity Jeopardy final answer, any word would qualify, and we only got 100 votes for that to condition future aid on it. Everyone else said don't even demand to play. It's unpatriotic to ask for a plan from the Biden administration just to give all the money that Ukraine demands. And, you know, the chorus for this globalism is really a challenge that the Republican Party has to deal with. President Trump will, I think, help cement the realignment that we've gone through when he's nominated, as we all expect. 


Glenn Greenwald: Just one more question on foreign policy, because you did have this amendment not just on Ukraine, but to withdraw troops from Syria. I doubt most Americans know we have troops in Syria. There's no war going on in Syria, at least a declared one, and all you want to do is bring them home because there's no clear reason. Overwhelmingly, through a bipartisan vote that got rejected. What do you think is the real reason why so many of these people in Congress continue to insist on this foreign policy of putting troops and fighting wars all over the world that so plainly have no benefit for the American people? What is really going on? 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: The neoconservative worldview is well funded in every think tank in Washington, but a few. It buttresses campaign donations. It funds a military-industrial complex. And if you hold that worldview, you really are willing to allow the United States to become the block captain of the world. President Trump had a more thoughtful and, I think, modern approach to interacting with the world, but really what props it up is the neocon money is sweet, man, whether it's for your golden parachute when you leave Congress at a think tank, whether it's for the, you know, a deliverable to the people who fund your campaigns. And I find it all sickening. And that's why I don't participate in it. It's why I hold a different view. 


Glenn Greenwald: But to me at least, it seems like when you put these people in Republican Party politics for decades, the way a lot of them are up there, on some level, the line between self-interest of being funded and true belief starts to kind of blur. There's only so long you can be that cynical, I think, to me… 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: Oh, you're totally wrong. You need to hang out with the people I hang out with… 


Glenn Greenwald: Which are the people in Congress, I'm glad I don't. But you don't think there's any sense of kind of conviction and true belief that we're still in this Cold War, that fighting continues over the war? Is that not part… Am I being incredibly naive? 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: Conviction?! Mike Pence looked like a 1980s avatar of foreign policy. Right? 


Glenn Greenwald: Right. 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: It was so dated and so tired. And frankly, it's been disproven in the world we live in now. Thank goodness, Doug Burgum occasionally tried to focus on the real threat of China. 


Glenn Greenwald: I saw you becoming a Doug Burgum fan! 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: Man, I've got some North Dakota roots and I thought, you know, as he talks about China being the dominant threat, it made a lot of sense in it. It had some contrast with the obsession over a land war in Europe. Did it seem to you like Chris Christie was running in the wrong primary? 


Glenn Greenwald: I think both Nikki Haley and Chris Christie's views on foreign policy would find ample support in the Democratic Party… 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: Sure. 


Glenn Greenwald: … in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party. They don't recognize the transformation in the Republican electorate that Trump first identified and then ushered in. 

Let me ask you one last question. I know you're short on time. You've been very generous. Your wife is waiting. You want to get out of here. So, I appreciate your indulgence. So let me just ask you one last question, which is about the weaponization of the Justice Department. It is an extraordinary reality in the United States that the leading oppositional figure to the current president is being indicted four times now, probably a fifth or maybe even a sixth is coming. The kind of thing, if we looked at any other country or especially an adversary, but even an ally, we would be shocked by how overt it is. I know there are a lot of Republican voters on your side in terms of denouncing it, but I feel like not enough is being done, that not enough hardball is being played by the Republican Party in retaliating and making Democrats live under the same prism. Do you share that frustration and what do you intend to do to kind of amplify the pressure that is kind of a remarkable state of affairs for abusing the Justice Department? 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: Well, first, you have to accept the fact that Congress has equities here, and a lot of my colleagues don't. They just say, well, this is an investigation and so, we have to hold our hands up and leave this to the courts. And that grants the premise that this is a legitimate legal process. Right? The premise that I approached this dynamic with is that this is election interference. And if your underlying belief is that it's election interference, then I think Congress can assert greater equities. Here's how I would assert them. You sent Jack Smith a letter saying that you want him to appear for a transcribed interview in 15 days. If you don't answer, you send a subpoena. If he doesn't comply, then you hold him in contempt of Congress and you force him to try this case while he himself is in criminal contempt. And if Merrick Garland won't enforce that, then you impeach Garland on those grounds. And that could actually unify Republicans because it is a step-by-step process. Instead, what we see from our leadership is a whole lot of handwringing and bedwetting, but not action that will actually have an impact on the election interference that troubles so many. 


Glenn Greenwald: All right. Well, I know you’re being waited for. And so, I don't want to make enemies, but knowing what a huge fan you are of my show – you watch it every single day, from the first minute into the last – we're going to have you back on that in-depth discussion when you have more time. Thanks again for taking this. 


Rep. Matt Gaetz: We've done on-location in Milwaukee. I'm waiting for the on-location in Brazil invite for System Update. 


Glenn Greenwald: I’m going to get you a reason to go to Brazil. Everybody needs one. Thanks. Have a great evening. Thanks a lot. All right. 

So, there you have it. There is Congressman Gaetz. He is off and we really appreciate his time.

So, we're going to try and get a few more guests, although it is pretty late here. I did another show prior to coming on, so I just want to share a couple of my thoughts with you about the debate that I didn't find particularly fascinating. I don't have a lot to say about it, and I certainly don't want to do the kind of punditry that I'm supposed to say which candidate helped himself, and which one did not. 

The thing I found most interesting about the debate was how much attention Vivek Ramaswamy succeeded in bringing to himself. He was clearly the center of the debate. You had politicians on that stage who had been elected governors, the vice president of the United States and senators who have been in politics for a long time, and he continuously provoked them into wanting to pay attention to him. That's in part because he is clearly the closest ideologically to Donald Trump in terms of the positions he's taken. You saw him as the only candidate emphatically saying that we should not be sending any more money to Ukraine, which is the representative of the vast majority of Republican voters at this point. Governor DeSantis kind of said it. He tried to avoid saying it too directly, trying to resort instead to the idea that European countries should be picking up their fair share, which would only continue this dangerous war with no end in sight while destroying Ukraine. It's not really a solution. And you saw Vivek kind of mock him by putting his wet finger up in the air, suggesting that that was what Governor DeSantis was doing. However, I do think Governor DeSantis made a more direct statement about the fact that we shouldn't be sending money to Ukraine. Their argument that resonates in Republican politics is we should be using it to fortify our own border and not caring so much about the Ukrainian border. 

But we saw these politicians Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Tim Scott and Mike Pence, who really sound like they're from the Republican Party of 2004, 2008, 2012. They would fit perfectly within the party of Mitt Romney, John McCain and George Bush when he was running. I don't think they have any conception of the fact that the reason 2016 and Donald Trump's victory was such a cataclysmic moment in American politics, isn't that Trump ushered in changes in how Republican Party voters were thinking about things like militarism and imperialism, and war and priorities and the swamp and their contempt for corporatism and lobbyists and the way that they run Washington. Those sentiments predated Trump. He detected them. He observed them. He was the one who was able best to give voice to them. 

If you go back and look at Ron Paul's campaign in 2008 and 2012, he was sounding exactly those same things going into South Carolina and Iowa and some of the deepest red districts that are in the early part of that Republican presidential campaign and railing against neoconservatives and the evils of the Iraq war and the complete waste of funds that go into constant new regime-change wars in places like Syria and Libya, that not only come at the expense of the American people in terms of the money that is spent not on their interests but on the interests of other people but also the dangers that are brought to the United States as a result of doing that – the reason why there's so much anti-Americanism, the reason why the world is now gathering in this confederation under BRICS, under China, that's expanding because of this narrative. 

And so, I don't think these politicians have any sense at all of the radical changes in the views of the population, of the people who compose their own parties. They sound like Reagan-era militarists when it comes to foreign policy, and that is just radically out of step with the Republican Party voter, which is why you see Vivek rising in the polls while Donald Trump has a 45-point lead, while DeSantis remains a viable candidate while avoiding that sort of thing, and the rest of them who sound like they're from that old Republican establishment era cannot get traction and it's inconceivable that they will because the things they're saying actually resonate now more in the Democratic Party. 

I just wanted to share with you one of the observations I had from being here, which is that the setup of the audience is extremely well coordinated. I'm here as part of Rumble’s coverage. Rumble has exclusive online streaming rights. And so, I was able to sit very, very close to the stage. I was sitting in the row behind Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, his wife, Donald Trump Jr. and his wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle – they were there as part of Rumble as well – but the entire middle section up to the stage, right behind the Fox News microphones, every single seat says “reserved for the RNC.” 

So, the RNC obviously takes its biggest donors. We watched a lot of the big donors from the hotel we're staying at migrate from that hotel to the debate. And so often the reaction that you're hearing to each candidate's position is one that is anything but organic. It is coming from Republican Party donors. They don't want to hear condemnations of Donald Trump because they want the Republican Party to win and they obviously recognize the chance that Donald Trump will be the nominee. So, they don't want to hear from Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie that he's a criminal and beneath the dignity of the office – that's why you heard booing for that sort of thing. But so often when Vivek would speak, you would hear the kind of booing about certain denunciations he made of other Republican Party candidates. There was a gigantic pro-Vivek, young vocal section off on the side. I don't know if they were visible in the air or not, but so much of the audience's reaction shapes how viewers perceive these candidates. And that is all coordinated. That is all very carefully constructed. And that's something that you see only while you're at this debate. It's one of the reasons why I wanted to come. I haven't been to a Republican Party presidential debate before. I very much wanted to see the theater and the circus of it to understand how it's constructed, to get a feel for what the dynamic is here, and clearly, there is a sizable portion of the Republican donor base that is desperate to get somebody, anybody other than Donald Trump. I think they continue to think Governor DeSantis is the most likely alternative. Republican voters like DeSantis, I think he performed perfectly competently tonight in a way that will continue to make them like him. But it's impossible for me to imagine a reconstructed party whose ideology has transformed about the military-industrial complex, regime change wars, wars themselves, the foreign policy in Ukraine, the CIA, the FBI, the weaponization of the Justice Department, abandoning President Trump absent some very unforeseeable event. There was nothing in that room that changed that. The fact that Vivek became the center of attention, to me, illustrates that they understand that what they need to do is not so much attack him. It's not like he has some gigantic surge in the ball, though he is increasing – you saw him at the center of the stage next to Governor DeSantis reflecting his polling increase – but the fact instead the dynamic they need to defeat is Trumpism, is the ideology of Trump of rejuvenating within the Republican Party, the idea that we need to be fighting foreign wars, we need to be supporting proxy wars when it comes to Ukraine. This idea of the kind of glorification of the United States as this great, inspiring country that is still so wonderful for everybody. You saw Vivek explicitly reject that; Trump's politics is all about talking about the forgotten man, about the people who no longer are in any way assigned any value by the political class. They need to wrench the Republican Party back out of the hands of the people who think that because that is an establishment is an ideology that is genuinely threatening to the establishment. Despite all the ways Trump failed to carry through in his first term, despite the way in which the establishment ran circles around him, that ideology itself ever continues to take hold in The Republican Party will be irretrievable. And if you get somebody aggressive, inarticulate, incompetent, and I think someone like Vivek showed how that can be done, then you're going to have a Republican Party that has an ideology that is fundamentally anathema, not just to the police, but to the interests of the Republican Party. That's why there's so much more vibrancy taking place in the Republican Party than there is in the Democratic Party. 

So, I think all the guests wanted are kind of gone. And that's fine. I just wanted to share some thoughts we'll certainly have on guests over the next week or two. I was able to talk to a lot of people about coming on the show and they're interested in doing so, so, we will have them on shortly, but those are my thoughts. I'm also interested, as I know my colleagues are, in getting home. We have an early flight back to Miami tomorrow where I'm going to appear on Patrick Van David's podcast on Friday, so you can look for that. 

I don't think we're going to have a System Update tomorrow because we're going to be flying late to Miami, but we will certainly be resuming that and then, Friday night we're flying back to Brazil. So, you should probably look for the next System Update next Monday at 7 p.m. Eastern. 

I'll be on a couple of podcasts and I'll promote those.

That will conclude our live coverage of the Republican presidential debate. 

I hope you have a great night. I hope you enjoyed watching the debate and the interview with Congressman Gaetz and we will see you shortly next week at our regular, scheduled time. 

Have a great night, everybody.

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