Politics / November 28, 2023

George Santos, Social Critic

The New York representative seems like Congress’s biggest liar. But he’s got plenty of company.

Chris Lehmann
George Santos

US Representative George Santos (R-N.Y.) casting a vote as the House of Representatives held its second round of voting for a new speaker of the House at the US Capitol on October 18, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

(Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

There is, of course, no defending George Santos. Name any subject, and the New York House member has likely lied brazenly about it—from his nonexistent Jewish heritage to his mother’s presence in the World Trade Center South Tower on September 11, despite her failure even to be in New York State on that fateful day; her proximity to the attack eventually claimed her life, in Santos’s telling. (Santos is now lying about ever making that claim, which was featured prominently on his campaign website, because, well, that’s just the kind of baroquely practiced prevaricator he is.) Santos is now facing 23 counts in federal charges stemming from his aggressively hostile relationship to the truth, including conspiracy, wire fraud, and identity theft; his lies are so far-flung that they furnish the conceit for feature-length online listicles. Santos only managed to win his first, and likely only, term in the House of Representatives thanks largely to the epic incompetence of the New York State Democratic Party.

Santos’s latest run-in with authorities came just a week ahead of Thanksgiving, with a 56-page report from the House Ethics Committee detailing a host of additional trespasses. The bold-faced revelations in the report were his alleged use of campaign funds to pay for a host of personal expenses, from Botox treatments to luxury resort stays to an OnlyFans porn account—but the more consequential charges again involved alleged violations of campaign finance law. A third House vote on Santos’s expulsion is likely to result, and by Santos’s own reckoning, is likely to prevail—an action that the lawmaker says he’ll treat as “a badge of honor.”

Predictably, Santos has derided the committee report as a fundamental abuse of “due process,” claiming that its members never directly questioned him or his staff members about the charges cataloged in it. (He never bothered to note that the House inquiry was not a legal proceeding but a political one, something that’s been all too plain in modern Republican lore since Newt Gingrich used an overcharged ethics complaint against former Speaker James Wright to accelerate his rise to ultimate congressional power.)

Beyond these standard-issue plaints of MAGA victimhood, however, Santos is fighting this latest raft of charges with a refreshing detour into something that bears at least a passing resemblance to the truth. In much the same way that the published work of compulsive fabulist Stephen Glass functioned as a form of media criticism, the late-career outbursts of George Santos point up the ludicrous nature of identifying and enforcing a code of ethics in a government operating on the basis of open graft.

In a lengthy holiday weekend appearance on a Twitter Spaces event hosted by Christian conservative radio personality Monica Matthews, Santos delivered this jeremiad: “Within the ranks of the United States Congress, there’s felons galore, there’s people with all sorts of shystie backgrounds.… I have colleagues who are more worried about getting drunk every night with the next lobbyists that they’re going to screw and pretend like none of us know what’s going on and sell off the American people.… Not show up to vote because they’re too hungover or whatever the reason is, or not show up to vote at all and just give their card out like fucking candy for someone else to vote for them. This shit happens every single week. Where are the ethics investigations?”

Yes, this is a serial liar speaking here—but show me the lie. Congress has functioned as a sluice gate for the lobbying class for decades on end, which is how travesties such as as the repeal of Glass-Steagall restrictions on commercial and investment banking (informally known among lawmakers as the direct handiwork of then–Citibank Chair Sandy Weill) and the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996 came into being. Before he became speaker of the House, former GOP Conference chair John Boehner was famous for taking to the House floor to distribute PAC checks among colleagues voting in line with moneyed interests.

In a later exchange with Axios reporter Andrew Solender, Santos explained that he wasn’t acting out of aggrieved pique. Unlike Madison Cawthorn, an earlier right-wing member of Congress who inveighed against alleged cocaine-fueled orgies on Capitol Hill as he left, Santos said he wasn’t simply “accepting my fate and going out swinging.” Without naming names, he then offered a pen portrait of how corruption happens in Congress: “Let me make this very clear, there is a member of Congress who has no real track record of trading, and the moment this member took up in one of the most powerful committees in the House of Representatives, this member has been able to outperform every single pointed measure of stock trading this year. There’s so much proof…. I’m shocked that the Department of Justice and the Ethics Committee haven’t made moves. This happened out in the open.”

Of course, Santos could well be pandering by concerted falsehood yet again here. But if we agree to let federal authorities do the litigating on that question, it’s worth keeping the bigger picture in mind: Congressional stock-trading is one of the most egregious ongoing scandals in Washington, and self-dealing federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken no serious steps to curb it. If this is another Santos-branded work of fabulism, it’s expressing an urgent greater truth—one that explains a host of flagrant policy failures in Congress, from successive Wall Street bailouts to massive giveaways to Big Pharma to the D.C.-anointed rolling scam of crypto trading.

Throughout his appearance, Santos stressed that the charges in the Ethics Committee report focused on alleged violations that took place during his now-infamous 2022 campaign, while the abuses he sees on the Hill involve sitting members of Congress. That, too, is a self-serving dodge—a broken law is a broken law, regardless of where it falls on a campaign calendar; and it’s unlikely that the House leadership is targeting Santos because he’s an “outsider” who refuses on principle to do their uniform bidding, as he also went on to claim. Yet it’s undeniably true that the way to get ahead in Congress is to align early and often with the sources of donor cash—and that such abuses translate far more often into public reward than into the kind of campaign of organized shunning now poised to expel Santos.

What’s more, there’s something almost petty, measured in simple terms of scale, in a campaign to oust a House member for OnlyFans payments and Botox sessions while Robert Menendez is defiantly pledging to hold on to his New Jersey Senate seat in the face of a Justice Department indictment alleging that the erstwhile chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was peddling foreign influence on a far greater scale. (And for the record, this is the second federal indictment claiming that Menendez was trafficking in seven-figure off-the-books payoffs.) Showing Santos the door also seems a bit inapposite for a House GOP majority that includes 109 members who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, with a bona fide election denier serving as speaker. Some lies and frauds are embarrassments for the powerful, while others are apparently qualifications for holding power.

George Santos seems on course to be a comic footnote to the reliably squalid state of the US Congress. But maybe a compulsive grifter who lied his way into office is better positioned to spot the big con. “Stop empowering people who vote to fuck this country,” he told his Twitter Circle audience toward the end of his appearance. “Just because there’s an R next to their name doesn’t mean that it’s good.”

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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