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The Non-end of George Santos

Fiction can be riveting, as the many lies that supported Representative George Santos’s political career have demonstrated. But facts can also be entertaining too—a point made by the House Ethics Committee’s investigation into the New York Republican, released today.

The report is full of language that, even in the formal tone of congressional documents, is scorching. Here’s the short version: “Representative Santos’ conduct warrants public condemnation, is beneath the dignity of the office, and has brought severe discredit upon the House.” Furthermore, “Representative George Santos cannot be trusted.”

And here’s a longer version, too precise and cutting to quote in part:

Santos sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit. He blatantly stole from his campaign. He deceived donors into providing what they thought were contributions to his campaign but were in fact payments for his personal benefit. He reported fictitious loans to his political committees to induce donors and party committees to make further contributions to his campaign—and then diverted more campaign money to himself as purported “repayments” of those fictitious loans. He used his connections to high value donors and other political campaigns to obtain additional funds for himself through fraudulent or otherwise questionable business dealings. And he sustained all of this through a constant series of lies to his constituents, donors, and staff about his background and experience.

And this is all in addition to the already well-known fabrications on his resume. The 56-page investigative report goes on and on like this, not stinting on details such as Santos’s use of campaign funds on OnlyFans and Botox. The whole thing is carefully footnoted with text messages and credit-card applications, and laid out in charts with everything but circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one is.

The one thing missing is testimony from Santos himself. The subcommittee noted that though Santos pledged publicly and privately to cooperate fully, “that was another lie.” What he did offer “included material misstatements that further advanced falsehoods he made during his 2022 campaign.” The members considered issuing him a subpoena but decided against, reasoning that it would take too long, his attorney had already said that his client would take the Fifth, and beyond that—they add drily—“Representative Santos’ testimony would have low evidentiary value given his admitted practice of embellishment.”

Whew. Santos responded to the report’s careful findings by taking full responsibility and agreeing to no of course he didn’t, come on. In a lengthy post on X, he called the report a “smear” and said that “If there was a single ounce of ETHICS in the ‘Ethics committee’, they would have not released this biased report.” He said that the investigation into him proved that the nation needs a constitutional convention. Santos wrote that he was dismayed to see such vitriol in “the hallowed halls of public service,” and whatever else you can say about the man, he has enough of a sense of camp that we can assume this was delivered with a hefty dose of self-aware irony.

But Santos did say that he would not run for reelection in 2024. This promise, like most of his, is not worth the pixels it’s printed on, but it’s also a formality; Santos could be expelled from the House as soon as this month, and he stood nearly zero chance of winning a reelection bid. He also faces a 23-count federal indictment in New York, and the House Ethics Committee voted to refer their report to the Justice Department, so he could be facing more charges in the future.

“Public service life was never a goal or a dream, but I stepped up to the occasion when I felt my country needed it most,” Santos wrote. What need was he filling for the country? Comic relief? As I have written, the Santos story is both funny and appalling: “If you’re unable to laugh at these stories, you should check your pulse. But if you’re only laughing at them, you should check your head.” Like a good jester, his act puts an uncomfortable mirror up to the audience—in this case, both the other members of Congress and the American people.

Santos is simply the most extreme version of a new approach by American politicians to dealing with scandal, showing the disappearance of shame from public life. At one time, a scandal-ridden politician would resign in disgrace and quietly leave the scene. Even President Richard Nixon, not one to shrink from a fight, resigned and slunk back to San Clemente. Later, politicians learned that they could apologize, perhaps with tears in their eyes, but obstinately stay in office—an approach popularized by President Bill Clinton and emulated by Senator David Vitter and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

But in retrospect, that looks like merely a transition phase to the new phase, in which an embattled politician doesn’t apologize, doesn’t resign, and in fact insists he’s a righteous martyr. The epitome of this approach is former President Donald Trump, who faces 91 felony counts for, among other things, trying to steal an election and absconding with highly classified material and then allegedly lying to the government, repeatedly, when asked to return it. Rather than back down, Trump is running for president again on a campaign of personal immunity from consequences and political retribution, and tells supporters, “They’re not after me, they’re after you… I’m just standing in the way!”

Others have adopted the Trump model, like Senator Robert Menendez. The New Jersey Democrat, who was found to have piles of gold bars and stacks of cash hidden in jacket pockets in his closet, insists that his prosecution for corruption is all just a scheme to get him because he’s a powerful Hispanic legislator.

And then there’s Santos. It is hilarious to imagine that a bipartisan group of House members, backed by reams of evidence, are persecuting him for reasons darkly hinted but never detailed. No one believes that, not even Santos. But no one has to believe it. Unlike Santos’s other lies, he’s not telling this one because he thinks anyone will fall for it. He’s simply refusing to accept any sort of responsibility.

Shame had a purpose. It kept some bad actors from public life, and it chased other ones from public life. With its decline, people like Santos will blithely charge into office and make a mockery of representative democracy. Bodies like the House Ethics Committee can fight valiant rear-guard actions like this one, but they can’t and don’t serve much preventative function.

This may be the end of George Santos’s time as a member of the House, but Santos will be back. Perhaps it will be as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, or some lower-tier reality competition. Maybe he’ll try to reinvent himself as a conservative radio host, or as an Instagram influencer. Or he could try a political conversion narrative, positioning himself as a reformed man and a political progressive. The substance doesn’t really matter. The point is that hucksters like him are always going to be trying for their next act. So Santos won’t go away—and neither will the behavior he exemplifies, so long as shame is absent from politics.

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