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A Look At The GOP From Inside A Matt Gaetz-Marjorie Taylor Greene Rally

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., raise their arms after addressing attendees of a rally Friday at The Villages in Florida.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., raise their arms after addressing attendees of a rally Friday at The Villages in Florida.

There's a sort of time warp going on at The Villages, the enormous retirement community in Florida.

On streets made up to look like small-town Main Streets, it's maybe an idealized, slickly varnished version of the 1950s — albeit with legions of golf carts.

At a hotel ballroom on Friday night, it was something like 2017.

"I just got to check something; I just want to make sure I'm in the right place. Tell me, who is your president?" Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled to a packed ballroom of mostly maskless supporters.

"Donald Trump!" they yelled in response.

"That's my president, too," she said, to cheers.

Greene, the freshman congresswoman from Georgia, was there with Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz to kick off what they say will be a series of America First rallies.

The Villages isn't in Gaetz's district or even Greene's state. But it is full of their people, which is to say, Trump's people. The three counties that make up The Villages voted for him last year at rates around 60% or more.

The rally came at a time when a battle for control of the party — and for the party's very identity — is coming to a head. House Republicans are set to vote as early as Wednesday on removing Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, from her leadership role.

"You got to be a party person"

"If Liz Cheney could even find Wyoming on a map and went there, she would find a lot of very angry cowboys who are not happy," Gaetz said during his speech, accusing her of being an establishment figure who doesn't get outside of Washington enough.

"She's sort of for every war: war in Syria — for it," he added, referencing her 2019 disagreement with Trump's decision to remove troops from that country. "War against Trump and his supporters — for it. War against the Republican conference; war against her own voters."

The opposition to Cheney isn't her ideology — she has a deeply conservative voting record. Rather, she voted for Trump's impeachment and has repeatedly repudiated the lie that the 2020 election was rigged or stolen for President Biden.

While many Americans may have no idea who is in congressional leadership, the people who came to see Gaetz and Greene are paying attention, particularly to Cheney.

"Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I cannot stand her," said Ria Amiess after the rally. "Why does she hate Trump? She's supposed to be out of the Republican Party, you know? The Republican Party needs to be united."

Don Perrin put it more succinctly.

"If you're going to be a party person, you got to be a party person. And she went against the party," he said.

But Cheney wasn't the only Republican being targeted. Some of their most fiery attacks were reserved for those fellow Republicans who aren't unfailingly loyal to Trump.

"If Adam Kinzinger wants to be the frontman for the establishment to bring our party back to the days of Mitt Romney and John Kasich ... I'm not going back," Gaetz said, to loud boos from the crowd. "This is Donald Trump's party, and I'm a Donald Trump Republican."

Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican congressman, has emerged as a key critic of Trump alongside Romney, the U.S. senator from Utah, and Kasich, the former Ohio governor who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 2016.

"Trump is the leader of the Republican Party!" Greene added, to cheers.

Reinventing the party

For Gaetz and Greene, a part of being Trump Republicans is adopting Trump's rhetorical strategies.

Much like Trump, they talked a lot about their perceived enemies. And also like Trump, they gave a sense that being more embattled only makes them more defiant.

In short, opposition — no matter how serious — just gives them more opportunities to put a thumb in someone's eye.

Gaetz, for example, winkingly referenced an array of serious allegations against him, including sex with a teenage girl, as a way of slamming the media.

"I already know how CNN is going to report it: 'Matt Gaetz has wild party surrounded by beautiful women in The Villages,' so just get ready for it," he said.

Greene, meanwhile, bragged about being stripped of her committee assignments after social media activity that promoted violence, racism and false conspiracy theories. She wore that punishment as a badge of honor, talking about how she decided to slow down House floor activities.

"If you want to give me some time on my hands, then you better believe I'm going to figure out smart ways to use it," she said.

Even the name of the rally gets at their defiance in the face of scandal. "America First" was floated as an official caucus in the House. After leaked language about launching that caucus invoked white nationalism, many Republicans distanced themselves from it, and Greene decided not to launch it.

People at an America First rally in The Villages are likely to be among the most hardcore Trump supporters in an already Republican area.

But that doesn't necessarily make them fringe. Polls have shown that a majority of Republicans, for example, believe the lie that the election was stolen or rigged.

One such Republican is Linda Murphy Griffaw, who came to the rally in a red dress with "Make America Great Again" emblazoned across the bodice. She voted for neither Barack Obama nor John McCain in 2008, nor did she vote for Obama or Romney in 2012. But Trump fired her up.

"I never vote unless I truly believe in the party I'm voting for," she said. "And I truly believe that he wanted the best for us."

Villages resident Linda Murphy Griffaw poses before the Gaetz-Greene rally on Friday.
Danielle Kurtzleben / NPR
Villages resident Linda Murphy Griffaw poses before the Gaetz-Greene rally on Friday.

If there are enough voters like Murphy Griffaw, it lends weight to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's argument that the Republican Party can't "move forward" without Trump.

But then the question is what comes of the Cheneys and Romneys. On NBC's Meet the Press, Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy said Sunday the party can win only if all of those Republicans come together.

"For us to win in 2022 and 2024, we need everybody," he said. "We need those who feel as Liz. We need those who feel as Lindsey."

It's not clear, however what coexistence might look in the long term between Republicans like Cheney, who reject Trump, and Republicans who have built their identities as Republicans around Trump.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.