Reason Podcast

Why Disgraced Congressman Trey Radel Went Crazy (And America Will Too)

Democrazy, his new memoir, explores the hidden side of Washington, D.C. where it's all about money, power, and...finger food.


The first rule of the Congressional Fight Club, says Trey Radel, is "don't buy cocaine from a federal agent."

In January 2013, Radel came to Washington as a Republican congressman representing Florida's 19th district, an area that includes Fort Meyers and Naples. He had been a TV anchor prior to his win and he ran on a libertarian-leaning Tea Party platform of shrinking the size, scope, and spending of the government. Just a year later, Radel resigned from Congress after getting busted buying drugs and pleading guilty to misdemeanor cocaine possession.

Ironically, Radel has always been a staunch critic of the drug war. In his riveting new memoir about his short time in office, he documents not just his self-destruction but a political system that puts maintaining the unsustainable status quo and fattening party coffers first and philosophical ideals and good policy last. Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food is a no-holds-barred account of what it's like to come to Washington and really, really screw up.

More than that, though, it reveals a system that needs radical reform if the United States is going to avert an entitlements-driven financial crisis and a drift toward even greater polarization and economic stagnation. In a wide-ranging conversation with Nick Gillespie, Radel explains the compulsions that destroyed his political career; doubles down on libertarian positions regarding the drug war, civil liberties, and foreign policy; and articulates his worries that Americans won't demand systemic change until the country has gone "full Greek." "I fear," he says, "that Donald Trump is going to slip into George W. Bush-era policy that led itself to making Republicans disaffected, which was this: Let's lower taxes, increase spending, and pray to God the economy booms. I'm afraid that's just not going to happen."

Produced by Ian Keyser.

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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: Trey, thanks for talking to us.

Trey Radel: It's great to be with you. Thank you so much for having me.

Nick Gillespie: You were a U.S. Congressman from the 19th District in Florida, is that right?

Trey Radel: That is right.

Nick Gillespie: Okay.

Trey Radel: The Fort Myers-Naples area is where many of perhaps your retired grandparents live.

Nick Gillespie: You entered office. You ran in 2012 as part of the last surge of the Tea Party, a professional broadcaster before that, and then you listed about a year in Congress. Tell our listeners, Reason's listeners, what happened, which I think will jog a lot of their memories.

Trey Radel: Sure. The first rule of Fight Club, don't buy cocaine from a federal agent, is where I'd start. While I poke fun at myself, it sucked. I got caught up in some very bad, bad habits that ranged from drinking too much to making really stupid decisions. I paid a really serious, serious price. It's one thing to pay the price for a position that I worked very hard to get, which was a Representative in the United States Congress, and to get there and just toss it all away, but what was the hardest that I would quickly come to grips with was what it did to my family, to my wife, and really to my son, who's only five years old now but who will grow up knowing that his dad had this notorious label.

It sucks, man. It's terrible, it's awful, but you go through life, and you can either choose to dwell in the past, you could be paralyzed for the future, or you can just try and live. That's what I try to do, and have had both some personal and professional successes since my demise in the United States Congress, but it is what it is. It was awful. I was making terrible choices. While I may be a harsh critic of the war on drugs, the fact was is I was a lawmaker and I broke the laws of this country like an idiot, and paid the price.

Nick Gillespie: We'll talk, though, because in the book, and this book is … One of the things that really struck me about is the honesty and urgency of the prose, and also you do a really good job of … At times, I almost felt like I was reading the book that Goodfellas is based on, because there's that delirium where, as things are starting to happen and you're getting out of control, it reads … I hesitate to say this, but it reads like a great junkie's novel. You know. Everybody involved knows this is not going to end well. It's powerful that way. It's a really powerful recreation of that.

What was going on? What was seductive? I guess talk about the life of a Congressman, and what it was like day to day in terms of during the day you're making laws, and you're fighting with people in the other party, sometimes your own party, and then it's time to party. Do more people get swept up in this than we know about from reading the newspapers?

Trey Radel: I don't know. I will be very honest. I don't know anyone who was as much of an idiot as I was in terms of the life choices that I was making, but to go through a day in the life of a United States Congressman, it's insane, in some ways in a great way, and other ways that can be definitely detrimental to a person if you get caught up in certain vices or you want to have a stable family life, because it's very difficult to balance all of that.

You wake up in the morning, and the day starts with these hilarious, monotonous party meetings that you go to. They can be either political, where you have to get out of the United States Capitol or any of the grounds on the Capitol and you go to political meetings in a completely different area that's off campus if you will, because politics and actual lawmaking cannot exist together there.

Nick Gillespie: When you say it's political, that has to do with party stuff, fundraising.

Trey Radel: That's exactly right.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah, right.

Trey Radel: You go into these meetings, and you talk for about two seconds about the bigger picture policy things that you'd like to accomplish, and then everything else is, "Now let's talk about how we're going to raise more money." It goes on and on.

You go to these meetings, then you go to policy meetings, or you're in committee. Then you go and vote. I will tell you that in terms of office time, man, I would remember rolling into work and having 15-minute meetings scheduled back to back for seven hours straight. Some of that is on the burden of the member of Congress, that they need to take more control of their schedule, and other times, this is the work that you've been elected to do, that you ran to do, and you've got to crank it out.

I personally loved that stuff. I had no problem working crazy hours. I'm a type A personality. That's part of with assets and liabilities. That's both an asset and liability, but what I really loved was people. That's one of the reasons that I love being a journalist, which I was for, gosh, 20 years. Anything else that I've done is I love interacting with people. To sit there and have these meetings, sure, sometimes they're a little monotonous, or you get the next 50 people to tell you the way that they think you can solve the national banking crisis and all that, but whether it was wildly optimistic or romantically naïve, I truly felt like I was doing good for the country.

I loved it, man. I loved meeting with people from all walks of life and doing that, but in you're these meetings, and then the bell rings, and you go and vote. Then you come back and meet with people. Then the bell rings. You go and vote. Then it's committee. Then you meet. Then you vote. Maybe 5:00, 6:00 rolls around. You go out for some beers. Maybe you hang out with staff a little bit. Maybe you go out with other members of Congress. I, in particular, really enjoyed hanging out with Democrats. They just happened to be my group of friends. While I could spar with them on the House floor here and there, at night it was like, "Let's have some cocktails and use some adult language, and talk shit and talk politics." It was fun.

Nick Gillespie: One of the ironies of the book is that in a farm bill you ended up voting to blood test welfare recipients, or pushing forward on that. Yeah, go ahead. It comes back and obviously haunts you, and that was the lead in every story about your arrest.

Trey Radel: Yeah, which was just not true.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Trey Radel: To go again to my libertarian beliefs, one of the hardest things that I tried to wrap my head around was the fact that I got labeled this hypocritical drug abuser guy that wanted to really, pardon my language, fuck over poor people or people with problems. That really … It still gets under my skin today, and here's why. Number one, I have very personal issues that are attached to it with my own family. I have sympathy. Not just … I have sympathy. I have empathy for people going rough times, from my own experiences and from family members. Two, I have been since my days that I began to follow politics as a teenager, I was against the war on drugs. I had very hardcore libertarian beliefs that sometimes even get misconstrued for liberal.

I say all that because I got slammed with this label that I voted to drug test food stamp recipients. Saying that I did that, number one, is like saying every time a Democrat votes for some shitty CR or omnibus bill, these giant blobs of ambiguity called policy, that they are voting to … Let's think of stereotypical things. That liberals, Democrats, have voted to give big oil tax breaks and subsidies, or liberals are all funding the big, evil war machine of the United States military.

It's just not right. What I voted for was something that was very consistent with my libertarian beliefs. There was a policy in that farm bill that basically said states can make their own decisions on what to do when it comes to administering any welfare in their state. I don't give a damn. If Colorado wants to legalize marijuana, go for it. Here in Florida, I just voted for, and our state, 70% voted to legalize medical marijuana. I believe each state should be more autonomous from the federal government, should be able to make their own choices, and I voted for this. I never, ever voted to directly have food stamp recipients tested. That's something that I explain in the book, but again, you can't live in the past.

Nick Gillespie: The story, or that discussion point, goes to the larger picture of political dysfunction that you paint with an incredible brush in the book. You were mentioning omnibus bills and continuing resolutions. In your time in Congress, then, Congress, they weren't really passing budgets and they were doing everything to keep the train running. Is it possible, in your opinion, to act … What has to happen that Congress gets serious on the most basic level of only spending as much as they're taking in in a given year, or either trying to be serious and say, "You know what? We actually want to spend $4 trillion a year, and we're going to raise taxes to do that"? Is political change possible, and what is the precondition for a more functional Congress, not in terms of people necessarily getting along but actually doing something sustainable?

Trey Radel: Yeah. As nerdy as I am, I do get pretty heavy in the book about mandatory spending and how I believe that … I compare mandatory spending to the housing bubble in the United States back in 2008. It was there in everybody's face. You had dudes who were bartenders one week and then mortgage brokers the next, in the clubs, buying bottles of [unclear] and telling me about how they're lending money to dudes that have no money, no job, and no assets, called NINJA loans. It's one of these types of things I believe are federal … Our deficits are very similar to the bubble in the housing, in the way that it's right there in front of our faces, and no one, no one, really even recognizes it. I'd say that my most wildly optimistic bent on that is no one does a damn thing until mandatory spending, which is right now what, 60-65% of our budget.

Nick Gillespie: Right. When you throw in interest on the debt, it's about two-thirds, yeah.

Trey Radel: I think that we don't do anything to correct or to even tamper down mandatory spending, which again are very simple, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. I don't think anything gets done until we truly see other types of things compromised, whether it's, to use stereotypical Democrat and Republican issues, Republicans, military gets crowded out, or with Democrats, any kind of welfare spending at all or any projects that they want get crowded out. That's the optimist in me.

The pessimist in me is we go full Greek. When I say that, you look at what Greece and what happened. What happened there was basically they had to look the 65-year-old in the eye, who worked his or her tail off all their life for the benefits that they fully expected from their government, and at 65 years old, they were given the middle finger and told to buzz off because we ain't got the money. I fear that eventually no one … We won't do a damn thing until we get to that kind of a crisis situation. We're Americans. I think unfortunately, we really don't do things it blows off.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. Talk about the … Do you follow politics now on a regular basis? What's your read of … It seems as if there are three power blocs now, which is interesting, because there's Trump and the Trump White House, there's the Republican Party, and there's the Democratic Party. They don't all line up exactly right and whatnot, but do you have hope for the next four years, or are you waiting for 2020 and the 21st century to begin with a fresh piece of paper?

Trey Radel: I think I heard in one of your podcasts that Justin Amash is considering a run in 2020 for President. I don't … I really, in my life … I grew up in the funeral industry. I grew up seeing death from a very young age, and I believe that either consciously or subconsciously that that impressed upon me optimism, undying optimism. That said, and I say that because in growing up and, as dark as it sounds, seeing dead bodies at a young age wasn't freaky or anything for me. It was something that I think I grew up with, knowing that you can either be a miserable POS and walk around mad and angry all the time, or you can live and attempt to be happy. I tried for the latter. That said-

Nick Gillespie: That means you're not following politics anymore.

Trey Radel: I'm optimistic.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. What are you optimistic about? What are the points of optimism?

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Trey Radel: It's hard for me to be an optimist these days, I'll tell you that, but I think a few things that you need to recognize, which are that really we as a society … I don't care I you're affiliated with a party or not, but realize that Donald Trump is not really a Republican in any sense of the traditional word, that he is this autonomous thing. I'll tell you what. A lot of the hardcore Trump supporters that I've talked with, they don't even consider … They're either not registered Republican, or maybe Republican but could give a damn about any Republican other than Donald Trump.

When we look at these issues, let me go back to my thing, if you will. I think different people, whether it's people like us who are into punditry, or grassroots or actual politicians, you sometimes have your thing. My things tend to be very libertarian issues, civil liberties, war on drugs, mass incarceration, and my major thing that I'm addressing now is spending. Donald Trump, to go back to what we just talked about, said he's not even going to touch Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. He's not doing a thing. That's part of the problem.

It's so insane to me how Paul Ryan was the darling of the conservative movement so much so that Democrats were making videos of him murdering his own grandma, and now … They loved him because of his take on spending and reining in our debt, and now Paul Ryan is a terrible man, part of the institution, and a squishy liberal. That's crazy for me when that comes from Trump supporters because Donald Trump isn't addressing these issues, either.

What will get done here? I think not a whole lot is going to get done in terms of spending. I fear that Donald Trump is going to slip into George W. Bush era policy that led itself to making Republicans disaffected, which was this. Let's lower taxes, increase spending, and pray to God the economy booms. I'm afraid that's just not going to happen.

Nick Gillespie: Do you still consider yourself a Republican, and do you have faith that the GOP might turn more libertarian? There are people like you mentioned Justin Amash. There's Thomas Massey from Kentucky. There's obviously Rand Paul, the Senator from Kentucky. Are they the future of the Republican Party, or is the Republican Party in a slow self-asphyxiation of vague ideology into nothingness?

Trey Radel: Yeah, I do believe with both parties, there has always been some vague ideology, but also the ideology flows in the context of its time, if that makes any sense. It can shift, and it shifts depending on really the times that we're in.

Let me go back, though, to your question because I do believe that if the Republican Party wants to continue to win general elections, especially even when we're looking at the White House or various Senate races across the country, I think that the future of the party is a more libertarian-leaning party.

Let me get even more specific about what upsets me, though, or what I'd like to see more out of a Rand Paul or Justin Amash or Tom Massey, which they've done some of, but I think they could do better, which is this. As myself, whatever label we want to use, libertarian, libertarian-leaning conservative, whatever it is, I think that the areas that Democrats and Republicans can agree on are essentially libertarian issues.

Let's just take a look at the war on drugs. The way that I look at this, I really … When I phrase it or talk about it, or even the way that I wrote in the book, I do it in a way because I think it's conservatives that need to be talked to. When you look at the war on drugs, I would use very Republican terminology and address, number one, social conservatives.

Social conservatives, if you think that the war on drugs is a success, what you're effectively doing is destroying families. You are tearing them apart, and you're taking a person, a non-violent offender who's done something which more than not has done something which would only affect him or herself. They will lose any hope of finding a job when they get out of prison, and by the way, they've already spent however many years in prison. Torn away from their families. If you are a social conservatives and you believe in the religious ideology or the teachings of, for example, Jesus Christ, then damn it, execute it in your own life and realize that the war on drugs has failed.

The second part of that is the fiscal conservatives. $80 billion a year we spend on locking up, again, an enormous amount of non-violent offenders. What do we do? Let's take a look at the fiscal ramifications there. Not only are we spending the 80 billion a year, but let's take a look at the individuals. They get locked up. They get put on their record. They're never going to get hired again, coming out of prison. You essentially put them in prison for life, because they're either going to come out as an unproductive citizen, or worse, a hardened criminal.

I really think that Republicans, like a Rand Paul, like a Justin Amash, we need to convince the Republican Party, and then it's an easy segue way to sell on Democrats. To finally button all of this up, why I believe that that's the future is these libertarian beliefs of civil liberties, war on drugs, mass incarceration, and foreign policy, which is a huge thing for me, I believe these are a way that we can go over to Democrats, that we can reach across the aisle, to use that stupid cliché, and begin to find common ground to work on. Those are all based in libertarian belief.

Nick Gillespie: All right. We're going to leave it there. We have been talking with Trey Radel. He is a former Congressman and the author of the fantastic new book Democrazy, A True Story of Weird Politics, Money Madness, and Finger Food. Trey, we didn't really talk about finger food, but there's some fairly disturbing descriptions of the amount of awful chicken on a stick. I can see why you would have been coked out of your mind, to be quite honest, due to that. I want to-

Trey Radel: It wasn't quite that bad.

Nick Gillespie: The book is Democrazy. The author is Trey Radel. What is the best way for people to check in on what you're up to?

Trey Radel: Sure. Just usually Twitter is the easiest. From Twitter, you can go to my Facebook, Instagram, all of that. Everything's all just Trey, T-R-E-Y, Radel, R-A-D-E-L. Democrazy's on sale anywhere, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, all of them. I really appreciate this, Nick.

Nick Gillespie: Thank you.