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The Year George Santos’s Campy Conman Act Ate Capitol Hill

New York's fakest lawmaker courted and created scandal, spoon-fed it to the media, and is now capitalizing off it. The story is as American as apple pie.

Steve Pfost/Newsday RM/Getty Images
George Santos

Weeks after George Santos won the election for New York’s 3rd congressional district, The New York Times published a bombshell report: The Queens native was not who he said he was.

Time would unravel all things about the fabulist congressman who had lied about every detail on his résumé and then some. In emerging reports, it would be revealed that Santos had lied about having Jewish heritage (and about having family members who were Holocaust survivors), had never worked on Wall Street, misrepresented where he attended high school and the fact that he attended college, lied to the federal government to collect undue unemployment benefits, stole $3,000 from a GoFundMe for a veteran’s dying dog, committed check fraud in Brazil, faked donors to his own campaign, stole identities of real donors and used their credit cards for personal expenses, and even lied about his mother dying in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers.

And yet despite the incredible volume and breadth of his lies, the Republican Party backed him every step of the way. They insisted on ushering Santos in on January 4. Days after Kevin McCarthy emerged as speaker of the House, the party refused to yield to calls within Congress and from within Santos’s own district insisting that the Long Island representative was not fit for office. Thanks to Republicans’ paper-thin majority in the House, and the party’s desperate need to hold onto power, Santos slid into one of the most powerful political positions in the nation.

Eleven months, 23 indictments, and a scathing ethics report later, the wishes of some of Santos’s own constituents finally came true. In a 311–114 vote, a historically divided lower chamber decided to boot the member—but by that time, Santos had already issued his greatest damage to the country: He had shaken the sanctity of holding office and tested the limits of what a congressman can and can’t do.

As we approach the one-year mark of Santos’s first day in office, let’s have a reality check. Despite a future riddled with legal woes thanks to alleged credit card fraud and identity theft to feed his Botox and Ferragamo addictions, Santos is now loaded. The Republican is reportedly making more than $80,000 per day for bespoke videos on the mid-tier celebrity messaging platform Cameo—significantly more than his $174,000 annual congressional salary and more than enough to cover any legal fees in his upcoming trial in September.

And while Santos rakes in $500 per video (some of which have been purchased by Democratic lawmakers cashing in on the meme of the moment—looking at you, John Fetterman and Jared Moskowitz), the disgraced representative has seemingly endless opportunities on the horizon. Media outlets have curated listicles for a hungry American public eager to know which reality TV show Santos is most likely to grace (according to Slate, it’s Celebrity Big Brother), while networks scramble to get more airtime and long-awaited answers out of the Long Islander, who has promised to get revenge and spill the tea on his former colleagues. And if that wasn’t enough to retain him in the public consciousness, Santos has repeatedly taunted an eventual return to Congress—even if it takes outliving the members who voted him out.

The end result is uncomplicated and as American as apple pie. Santos has more money and attention now than he ever did as a junior member of Congress. He has courted and created scandal, spoon-fed it to us, and is now capitalizing off it, taking money hand over fist for his opinions, his thoughts, and his time. He’s a regular tabloid celeb, custom made to fit the frame of 2023. Alone, he has managed something that even the sharpest of campaign managers struggle to achieve: He has transformed himself into a meme, turning his image and his legacy into one that you love to hate. And if Santos does decide to make another gambit for high office, his familiarity as Congress’s gossiping, bumbling buffoon will easily translate into an underdog narrative with the American people, who all too often are more audience than voter.

If that sounds over-fomented, take note that Santos knows it. On Monday, Santos admitted his greatest truth: that the American people will never be rid of him because they are obsessed with him.

When explicitly prompted by comedian Ziwe to answer how the United States can collectively wash its hands of the drama queen, Santos made it simple. “Stop inviting me to your gigs,” he quipped. “But you can’t because you want the content.”

But apart from the dystopian decay of American democracy, there’s something disturbingly familiar about Santos’s pathway to fame. Another glance at the real details of Santos’s rising star reveals an imitable road map to a bigger, more dangerous bully, Donald Trump.

And that would make sense. Santos isn’t just another MAGA bootlicker for the indicted former president—he’s more of a disciple.

Santos’s first foray into politics was as president of a small, New York–based organization called United for Trump. Under the helm of that LLC, the relative unknown hosted a counterprotest in July 2019 to an anti-Trump rally in Buffalo, which resulted in an all-out brawl. One month later, Santos tried to raise $20,000 for another Trump rally—an unusually steep price tag for a local event—but only managed to scrounge up $645, according to Politico, which noted that it’s unclear what happened to even that lump of money.

Months later, Santos would copy-paste more tactics out of Trump’s playbook into his own burgeoning political career, actualizing a brain-contorting Trumpism that losing can actually be winning. On January 5, 2021, Santos spoke at Trump’s Stop the Steal rally outside the Capitol building, wielding the same stolen election messaging to claim that his November 2020 election had been stolen, as well.

“If you’re from New York, you know what they did to me. They did to me what they did to Donald Trump. They stole my election,” Santos said at the time.

Twenty-four hours before rioters would storm the Capitol building in Trump’s name, Santos wielded the gravity of the moment and the energy of the crowd to validate an outright fabrication: that he had been congressman-elect for 14 days before he was booted out by a fake-ballot scheme fronted by his opponent, Representative Tom Suozzi.

Santos, like Trump, has also spoken to crowds of white nationalists and far-right conspiracy theorists, and in 2022, the campaigning Republican also filed a shockingly inflated personal finance disclosure, suddenly claiming his net worth sat at $11 million, roughly $10,995,000 more than he had reported in 2020. That lie led to a local investigation by The North Shore Leader, ultimately exposing his sketchy campaign practices.

And while one is undeniably more fascistic, self-proclaimed dictator than retired drag queen, both have played their part in rewriting the rules and guidelines for hoodwinking America, joining the ranks of the country’s best scandalizers alongside O.J. Simpson and Frank Abagnale Jr., convincing the populace to grant them near immunity in exchange for a good show.

That’s a foreboding image for the near future of American politics, which is shaping up to be more critical by the day, considering growing wealth inequality and the winnowing of the U.S. middle class, sinister wars in Gaza and Ukraine, climate change–induced bouts of extreme weather, historic corporate monopolies, and the active slashing of civil protections and reproductive rights.

Meanwhile, in just the last year, some 30 members of Congress have announced their forthcoming retirement, including Capitol Hill mainstays like Texas Representative Michael Burgess and Arizona Representative Debbie Lesko. While a change of the guard is undeniably good for a nation whose average lawmaker is between the ages of 58 and 64, we must consider: In the wake of their absence, which kind of politicians will we foster? Can we dare to hope it will be do-good intellectuals, primed to lead? Or will it be more attention-seeking, fame-hungry, influencer-adjacent liars?

It all depends on who we tune in to and who we can manage to tune out.