For an hour and a half on Friday evening, it was as if the 2020 election had never ended.
“Tell me, who’s your president?” asked Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“Donald Trump!” the crowd shouted.
Did anyone believe that Joe Biden had won the election?
“No!” they roared back.
In a ballroom in central Florida, two embattled Republicans, Reps. Matt Gaetz and Greene, were on a mission to recreate the magic of the Trump era. The elderly crowd in The Villages, a sprawling senior community nestled among billboards for orange juice and baby alligators, came dressed in five years worth of MAGA gear, from well-worn red “Trump 2016” hats to “The 2020 Election Was Rigged” t-shirts. The kickoff of Gaetz and Greene’s “America First” revival tour meticulously followed Trump’s rally playbook, as the largely unmasked retirees—many of whom told TIME it was their first big event since getting the coronavirus vaccine—energetically danced to “We are the Champions,” shouted “Lock her up!” and heckled the media in the back.
The hosts seemed an unlikely duo: a Florida congressman with a political pedigree who is under federal investigation for sex trafficking, and a freshman Republican from Georgia with a track record of promoting far-right conspiracies. But together, Gaetz and Greene have launched a joint effort to position themselves as the inheritors of the former President’s “Make America Great Again” movement—its message, its enthusiasm and its cash.
Gaetz and Greene aired grievances that added to the sense of déjà vu. Their message was rehearsed and persistent: it’s us against them. The “them” covered a long list of right-wing buzzwords: the deep state, Big Tech, the “fake news” media, socialists, Antifa, and so-called RINOs, or “Republicans in Name Only.” The loudest booing was directed at the latter, including at the mention of prominent Republicans like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who not long ago had been enthusiastically welcomed at this conservative retirement community. The “undisputed leader of the Republican Party,” Gaetz declared, was the man three hours south at Mar-a-Lago.
“We send a strong message to the weak establishment in both parties,” he told the crowd. “America First isn’t going away, we’re going on tour!”
The vow to take down Republicans who oppose Trump’s agenda came at the end of a week that illustrated how tight Trump’s grip on the party remains. House Republicans moved towards ousting their third-ranking official, Rep. Liz Cheney, for refusing to accept Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. In Arizona, Republican officials launched a “audit” of Maricopa County ballots in a futile effort to validate a Trump-fanned conspiracy theory. And top Republicans continue to make the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to pose with a defeated leader who has mocked and bullied them.
Gaetz and Greene are among Trump’s staunchest loyalists in the House. But their own controversies have largely relegated them to the fringes of their GOP, limiting their ability to deliver any of the things they promised.
Gaetz, who described himself as a “marked man” and a “canceled man,” was making his first high-profile public appearance since being embroiled in an investigation into whether he paid a 17-year-old for sex, which has grown into a larger probe of alleged public corruption. (Gaetz has denied any wrongdoing.) He is also being investigated by the House Ethics Committee for a variety of related allegations, including that he showed pornographic images to fellow members on the floor of the chamber. Greene, who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy, dismissed mass shootings as “false flag” operations and voiced support for the execution of prominent Democrats, was stripped of her congressional assignments after taking office.
But to the crowd gathered in The Villages, none of that seemed to matter. Reality wasn’t what they were there for. They cheered the pair as they asked for prayers and thanked them for donations, and nodded and shouted “Amen!” when Gaetz dramatically proclaimed, “They don’t come for the meek, they come for the fighters.”
In more than a dozen interviews, attendees shrugged off the hosts’ controversies as more evidence of efforts to silence conservatives. Eddie Johnson, 68, said he supported Gaetz and Greene because “they’re the only ones telling the truth about what’s happening…as Trump used to do it.” Asked what he meant by the “truth,” he repeated several false conspiracies about stolen ballots, the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol and other fictions he said he learned on right-wing media.
At several points during the event, supporters waiting in line to enter got into expletive-laced shouting matches with a handful of protestors on the other side of the street.
“This is the very lunatic fringe, can’t they see that?” asked Bud Hurley, 75, a protester who was standing with a friend holding a blown-up photo of Gaetz with the word “pervert” and lamented having to interrupt his peaceful retirement to demonstrate against the pair. “But how can we let them run our country?”
“It’s really frightening, she’s an extremist,” said Martha Geisler, 57, who had driven two hours from Vero Beach with large signs reading “Republicans against Marjorie Treason Greene” and “MTG is a cancer on the GOP.” Pointing to the line of hundreds of people waiting to get into the rally, Geisler said they were living in a fantasy world. “I just feel like my party has moved so far right that they have to look left to see me standing in the center.”
To Geisler, the whole “America First” tour looks like a scheme to shake down well-meaning supporters for donations. “When Gaetz says he’s like Trump, that’s what he means,” she added. “He’s out to get these people to give them money.” Gaetz and Greene have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to create a joint fundraising committee under the name “Put America First,” allowing the duo to accept donations together.
Although they teased that Trump could be joining them in the future, Gaetz and Greene have yet to announce any further stops on the “America First” tour. But as the crowd filed out on Friday evening, spirits were clearly high. “It was just so exciting – hundreds of people who love our country, all happy and singing, having a blast,” said Carrie Moore, 69, as she walked out with two friends. While they kept their Trump gear, they discarded the “Gaetz for Congress” and “Greene for Congress” signs that staffers had handed them on their way out the door.
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Write to Vera Bergengruen/The Villages, Fla. at email@example.com