Scott Montgomery on George Santos' assemblage strategy for political success.
George Santos, the recently elected representative for New York’s third Congressional district, is a new brand of Republican. He openly claims to be gay and thus a full supporter of LBGTQ+ rights and protections. Yet he was married to a woman until only a few days prior to his unsuccessful run for office in 2020, and he remains an ardent, full-throated supporter of Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, thanks to detailed investigative work by the NYTimes, which seems to have outdone even the strict due diligence of both political parties in an election year who mentioned none of this, we now know the following:
During his successful 2022 campaign, Santos lied about going to college; attending NY University business school; working for Goldman Sachs and Citigroup; being a Ukrainian Jew (he is neither); founding a charity (Friends of Pets United); being wealthy; owning lots of real estate; having employees who were killed in the attack on an LBGTQ night club in Florida; having employees; about his mother being in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11; about vandalism on his apparent home in Queens, NY; about his campaign finances, about not being evicted three times in the last several years; about not being accused of check fraud in Rio; about not having confessed to check fraud in Rio.
This is a selective list. The point, however, seems evident. The only possible conclusion is this: George Santos does not exist. He is the invisible man, a phantom of his own imagination. Or, at the very least, he is somebody else, or once was. The talented Tom Ripley, perhaps.
The political questions are abundant, however. Should this person actually be seated as a congressperson, in the most powerful legislative body on earth? He is under investigation by local and federal officials and is being asked to resign by Democrats. The Republican leadership, meanwhile, has come forth boldly with utter silence. Some commentators, meantime, have taken a nuanced view, asking, “Another liar in the Republican party? Shocking.” True enough, the U.S. did recently elect a president for whom the words “fact” and “truth” exist only in foreign languages.
But to be serious for a moment, George Santos (or whoever he is) can be called a current-day political animal in the sense of running as a far-right candidate while shamelessly exploiting nearly every major moral issue of the day. He is not pretending, that is, to be a certain someone, but a kind of assemblage of successful persona—well-educated businessman, oppressed minority, diversity employer, 9/11 sufferer, etc.—intended to draw admiration, compassion, pity, righteous anger, and more. Such exploitation, however crude, has thus far worked very well: not only did he win the election, but, for the moment at least, he effectively retains the endorsement of his party’s voiceless leadership.
He may believe his own parrot talk about “an all-out attack from the Radical Left” or he may not. That he was elected by a fairly well-off, educated part of Long Island shows it doesn’t matter. Anything can be faked, or everything. Reality need not be real. Though Santos is incapable of telling the truth, he promises to “work hard and be a good legislator.” In Republican terms, there isn’t the slightest contradiction in this.
It may all come crashing down, of course, if Mr. Santos faces indictment. But until then—and for longer if he keeps his seat—he is the new, more friendly phantom of America’s political opera. We might even thank him for revealing how far the slide into illiberalism has gone, how it is now possible, even easy, to dance into the U.S. Congress on a floating castle of lies, in an election where so much of democracy’s future was at stake.
Photo by Thom Gonzalez