Here’s a question I never thought I’d have to ask. What’s worse: taking $3,000 from a disabled veteran to help save his dog’s life and then absconding with the money, or lying about your mother being in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11?
Well, it turns out that Rep. George Santos did both.
Of course, with Santos, we have to dig much deeper to find a bottom. Is it worse that he lied about being Jewish and falsely said that his grandparents had survived the Holocaust? How about claiming to be a star member of a championship volleyball team? What about making up your entire work and educational history, or not being able to account for the $700,000 you loaned to your congressional campaign? Oh, and I almost forgot that Santos might be a fugitive from justice in Brazil. The fact that Santos might have been a drag queen in Brazil is perhaps the least scandalous thing about him — and has birthed perhaps the funniest joke about the New York congressman: that his drag name would be ”Miss Representation.” (Though “I wouldn’t be surprised to find out George Santos is actually a cake” is a close second).
Counterintuitive as this might seem, straight-up lying in politics used to be pretty rare.
All of this is bad, but here’s what’s worse: Santos remains a member in good standing of the House of Representatives, with seats on two House committees. Santos is more than a joke and a national embarrassment; he is one of the most flagrant examples of the Republican Party’s continued assault on basic and treasured democratic norms.
In the era of Donald Trump, the following notion might seem laughable, but in politics, the truth actually does matter. Yes, politicians regularly exaggerate, misstate and gloss over inconvenient facts. It’s the nature of the business, and frankly, most of us do the same. But counterintuitive as this might seem, straight-up lying in politics used to be pretty rare. Flagrant dishonesty could actually get you in trouble with the media and voters.
Consider our current president, Joe Biden. During the 1988 presidential campaign, he dropped out of the race after he was caught lifting passages from speeches by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock — including details from Kinnock’s biography. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was waylaid by accusations that she had lied about coming under sniper fire when she visited Bosnia in 1996.
Today, those scandals seem quaint by comparison. Trump showed us that lying is no impediment to elected office. After all, according to The Washington Post, Trump told more than 30,500 lies in his four years in office, and today, he’s among the front-runners for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Trump so normalized political dishonesty that his fellow Republicans no longer appear to possess any shame about making statements that are provably false.
As Steve Israel, who formerly represented Santos’ district, told me, “The Trump administration opened the door for him. That normalized not just a new scale of lying but also new heights of shamelessness when caught in the lie. I can’t think of anything more threatening to democratic norms than a society that can’t agree on any self-evident truths. It gave Santos the path he took.”
Keeping Santos around to pad McCarthy’s razor-thin majority is a slap in the face to every voter duped into casting a ballot for Santos.
Indeed, the Santos scandal is another noxious example of the Trumpification of the GOP, but in a way that feels even more dangerous and destabilizing. It’s bad enough to lie about policy issues and your political differences with an opponent. But lying to voters about who you are? Where you come from? Your religion, ethnicity, employment history and so on? It’s political fraud on an unimaginably grander scale. I’ve followed American politics for a long time, and there’s nothing even remotely comparable to this situation. Santos isn’t just guilty of "embellishing" his résumé, as he has lamely claimed. He’s invented an entire persona out of whole cloth and used it to con voters in his congressional district. We don’t even know if George Santos is his real name.
While Santos is under investigation for campaign finance violations, his actions go beyond violating criminal codes. Every day that he remains in Congress mocks the once unquestioned notion that politicians have a fundamental obligation to adhere to a baseline level of honesty and truthfulness when they present themselves to voters.
What makes Santos’ continued membership in the House even more galling is the cynicism that keeps him in office. I’m not just referring to the shamelessness of Santos refusing to step down even after being exposed as a pathological liar. I’m speaking instead of the Republicans who won’t demand that he resign.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy initially ignored calls not to seat Santos, because with a narrow four-seat majority, he needed Santos’ backing in the 15-ballot fight to win the speakership. But even after winning that fight, McCarthy seems to care more about the fact that if Santos were to step down, it would not only reduce his margin for error to three votes — and the swing district Santos represents could choose a Democrat in a special election. So McCarthy is content to look the other way, even as Long Island Republicans and several members of the House GOP have called on Santos to step down.
Keeping Santos around to pad McCarthy’s razor-thin majority is a slap in the face to every voter duped into casting a ballot for Santos under false pretenses, but the speaker is clearly more concerned about his personal ambitions than a silly, trifling thing like the will of Long Island voters. As Joshua Zeitz, a historian and contributing writer at Politico Magazine, said to me, “It’s a reflection of their [the GOP’s] fundamental belief that power is the end itself. Truth doesn’t matter. The voters don’t matter — the votes they cast don’t matter. We’ve seen the brute application of political force throughout American history — sometimes for a good cause (civil rights) and sometimes for bad causes (maintaining white supremacy). But rarely, if ever, for no end other than power itself.”
We saw this play out during the Trump years as congressional Republicans made the cynical decision to enable his lies for fear of getting on the wrong side of Trump’s rabid supporters and potentially losing their jobs. With Santos, however, we’ve entered previously uncharted territory. There’s apparently no moral, ethical or civic line that any Republican (even a freshman House member) can cross if acting on it threatens the party’s hold on power.
Santos’ presence in the hallowed halls of Congress is the logical next step in the GOP’s cynical, even nihilistic political machinations and its continued degradation of American democracy. If you’re OK with someone like George Santos in the people’s House, you’re pretty much OK with anything.