"At the heart of strongman rule is the claim that he and his agents are above the law, above judgment, and not beholden to the truth," I wrote in Strongmen in 2020. "In Trump’s America...the legal and the illegal, fact and fiction, celebrity and politics blend together until nothing means anything anymore and everything is 'a confidence game'."
The election to Congress of George Santos (R-NY), who is now under investigation by Long Island, NY and federal prosecutors, gives these words new relevance. I was not surprised that Santos, a serial liar and con man, felt it was okay to run for Congress again (he first tried in 2020) nor that GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy has so far failed to condemn him.
You have likely read much about Santos's lies. I am interested here not merely in the content of his fabrications but also in the political context that supports those fabrications. The success of "George Santos" —a construct created by a compulsive liar— makes perfect sense according to the logic of corruption and authoritarian dynamics.
When an amoral autocrat captures a political party, as former president Donald Trump did with the GOP, he remakes it in his own image. His values and methods become those of the party he controls. Individuals have worth and status only to the extent that they embrace those values and methods, no matter how criminal these may be. In this way, the autocrat and his proxies also act as corruptors: they do not just give permission to break the rules, but they also let it be known that they will reward those who do.
Lying and fraud have always been central to Trump's business and political practices, and they are now part of the GOP's identity and practice. Trump first learned those skills from his father, Fred Trump, who involved him in tax-dodge schemes for decades. Trump was under investigation for fraud in relation to Trump University when he ran for president in 2016, and one of the House Jan. 6 Committee’s criminal referrals regards Trump’s intent to defraud the U.S. government.
Why wouldn't Trump fall back on his talents and experience when it came time to "solve" the problem of having lost the election? As I argued in a Jan. 2021 CNN op-ed, Trump’s Big Lie (that he and not Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential race) worked on his supporters because they had been primed by more than 30,000 smaller lies and false claims during his presidency.
The fake electors scheme he and his cronies sought to implement was a form of fraud, as were the solicitations to supporters to send money for a non-existent Trump election defense fund. "Not only was there the Big Lie, there was the Big Rip-Off" remarked Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).
Enter George Santos, who lived his whole life defrauding and lying to everyone around him. That included a 2008 episode in Brazil when he committed check fraud (Brazilian authorities are now re-opening the case).
In a different ethical and political climate, such an individual might have thought twice about submitting himself to the public scrutiny of a campaign. Now, Santos fits right into a party devoted to the Big Lie and engaged in a coverup of its complicity in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
There is also something very Trumpian about Santos. Taken collectively, his lies conform to the charismatic authoritarian goal of being all things to all people (Trump’s fervent followers include neo-Nazis and orthodox Jews). A list of Santos' falsehoods includes claims he was part Black (to appeal to African-Americans); Jewish (with grandparents who escaped the Holocaust, to better secure the votes of Jews); and had a mother who died on 9/11 (solidarity from Islamophobes). The Holocaust and the 9/11 lies together place Santos firmly in the victim camp --an essential quality for any contender in the Trumpian vein.
So is the appearance of wealth —and a Manhattan rather than Queens association. During the time Santos claimed he had worked for Goldman Sachs and other prestigious Wall Street firms, he had actually been a customer service agent at a Dish Network call center in Queens. And how Trump-like was Santos's assertion that he owned multiple real estate rental properties, and was suffering from his tenants refusing to pay rent, when in fact he was evicted --in Queens -- three times for non-payment of rent as a tenant.
The glaring example of Trump is why former Congressman Steve Israel's statement that Long Island voters elected Santos, in part, because "they weren't on the lookout for a huckster politician: they didn't think that could happen here, because it hadn't before" is so hard to take.
When a criminal of the magnitude of Trump is in power, the whole window of possibility shifts at the local as well as national level, creating spaces for unscrupulous individuals to succeed.
Some Republicans now make an example of Santos to distract from their party's own crimes. Tulsi Gabbard, as guest host of Fox News demagogue Tucker Carlson's show, eviscerated Santos on air for his lies and lack of integrity, but failed to mention that Santos attended the Jan. 6 rally and claimed he had paid insurrectionists' legal bills. The coup attempt is off limits.
And Republican lawmaker Gavin Brady (R-TX) doubtless feels morally righteous in denouncing Santos —I would not allow Santos to serve on a committee I chair, Brady stated—but he, like other GOP politicians, remains silent about GOP complicity in trying to overthrow our democracy. As Heidi Cuda observes, Santos represents "theatre craft, a form of Russian active measures that introduces new characters as if in a play whose role is to distract from the more important headlines."
For the same reason, don't expect any GOP condemnation of Santos's ties to sanctioned oligarch Viktor Vekelsberg. Vekelsberg's cousin and bagman Andrew Intrator gave Santos tens of thousands of dollars for his campaign. Santos has echoed Kremlin talking points that justify its war on Ukraine. He has called Ukraine "a totalitarian regime" that should welcome Russia "into their provinces."
Congressman Brady may hope that Santos "chooses the right path here" and owns up to his wrongdoing. But Santos has zero incentive to do so, given that his fabulist and fraudster skills are now valuable to the GOP. He has played the scandal exactly as Trump would have: admit little, refuse to step down, and claim the power that brings with it a measure of protection.
And so Santos takes his place in Congress as a representative of a party that absorbed Trump’s values and now has institutionalized lying and fraud. Santos will serve alongside hundreds of election deniers who see no problem being paid by the public for duping the public. Long an outcast who left behind a string of bad situations and broken relationships, Santos has at last found his tribe.
You’re so accurate in your depiction of the Trump branch of the GOP! Serial liars describes them perfectly. They have no shame and will do anything to attain power!
From today’s essay: “ Long an outcast who left behind a string of bad situations and broken relationships, Santos has at last found his tribe.”
This sums it up perfectly.