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Small Timers

George Santos Is a Buffoon. The Bigger Story of Corruption in Congress Is Less Funny.

The New York lawmaker’s biggest mistake was not mastering the way the get-rich-quick game is played in Washington.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
George Santos, a silly little guy

George Santos is emblematic of Congress’s reality television era—where fame for its own sake, rather than legislative accomplishments, earns you endless feature roles in the daily news cycle. It would hardly be surprising if, after his career in the House of Representatives comes to an end (and, perhaps, after a stint in prison), Santos washes up on Bravo with a show of his own. He is cartoonishly, transparently villainous and endlessly fun. We’re all in on the joke.

During his brief tenure in Congress, he has been an unceasing font of drama, feuding with his colleagues and lying (often needlessly) about anything and everything. Case in point: Earlier this year, Santos appeared in a Fox News interview claiming to have only heard of OnlyFans, the internet subscription service favored by sex workers, “three weeks ago,” when he had in fact been using campaign funds on the service for months. This is classic Santos: A small lie—his claim to have only recently become aware of this cultural phenomenon—takes attention from the big deception: the suspicious line items on his campaign finance filings. Oh, and then there’s this whole new thing: He has recently taken to holding random babies of unknown provenance, giving him a distinctly Baba Yaga–ish vibe. He is an incompetent legislator and can’t seem to stop doing crimes.

He is also fun as hell. The sheer brazenness—and haplessness—with which Santos lies, cheats, and steals is part of his appeal. Sadly, we may not have him to kick around for much longer. On Thursday, he announced he would not seek reelection following the release of a damning report from the House Ethics Committee that found “substantial evidence” that Santos had spent campaign funds on numerous personal expenses, including luxury handbags, casino vacations, and Botox injections. Among the sad details: Santos is still going to Atlantic City, America’s most depressing resort town.

Given that Santos is already facing numerous fraud charges, was unlikely to be reelected, and had already faced one expulsion vote, his decision to not seek reelection was hardly surprising. It’s honestly an open question as to whether he ever really intended to win a seat in Congress in the first place. While there’s still a chance that he’ll survive an expulsion vote (Republicans can truly not afford to lose too many members at this point), it’s safe to say that Santos’s congressional career is in any meaningful sense already basically over. He’ll soon be moving on to his next one—whether that’s prisoner or reality TV star or prisoner then reality TV star. At this point, who’s to say he won’t jump into the presidential primary?

What have we learned from this experience? Well, aside from knowing that we still love a good story about a funny idiot doing cartoon crimes, Santos’s short political career has many lessons. It serves as a reminder of the profound failure of New York state’s disastrously managed Democratic Party, which was principally responsible for giving the GOP its thin House majority in the first place. It is also a black mark for the political media, which failed to adequately vet a man who has nakedly and openly lied about pretty much everything about himself. But with Santos’s sudden fall unfolding at the same time that New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez experiences his latest, greatest scandal—his arrest on similarly comical bribery charges earlier this fall—a stark light has been shone on just how much corruption a politician can get away with if they apply themselves and play the Washington game, and just how ridiculously over-the-top a lawmaker’s conduct must be for them to face any consequences whatsoever.

Here’s a fun fact: A New York Times investigation from September 2022 found that between 2019 and 2021, 183 members of Congress reported stock trades. Of those 183, “more than half … sat on congressional committees that potentially gave them insight into the companies whose shares they reported buying or selling.” One could make the case that the only place where insider trading is legal is Congress, where it is arguably as popular a pastime in the legislature as golf.

Everywhere we see powerful people, safely ensconced in positions from which they won’t soon be ousted, cashing in where Santos is cashing out. The erosion of campaign finance laws has blurred numerous ethical lines: Do politicians adopt positions because of lucrative relationships with donors and Super PACS or do these relationships flow from preexisting positions? It’s a gray area, but the money flows all the same. The Supreme Court has, over the last 20 or so years, done everything it can to destroy the boundaries meant to keep money out of politics and, in doing so, has basically legalized corruption. It’s hardly surprising to see its members lavished with gifts from billionaires. Somehow, Clarence Thomas essentially being awarded his own plutocratic patron isn’t deemed to be a sin on the level of those of Santos or Menendez.

Santos is at once a symptom of this larger culture and a distraction from it. His conduct is obviously appalling, but he might yet live to fight another day because he’s so integral to the GOP keeping control of the House. They need anyone they can get—even if that person is a congenital liar and criminal. But let no one say he isn’t useful: The heights of absurdity he so regularly hits provide cover for the many ways, big and small, that Congress itself is corrupted.

If Santos had stuck around Congress long enough, he may have actually figured out how to play the game. You can do very well for yourself as a legislator. You can rake in campaign contributions and speaking fees and book deals. You can sit on important committees and trade stocks based on what you learn from them. Possibly because he knew he wouldn’t be in Congress for a long time (he was instead there for a good time), Santos just ran wild. His biggest mistake was getting elected. His second-biggest was doing corruption the wrong way.