By now, you probably know a lot about George Santos, the congressman who scammed with abandon and made up almost everything. His college diploma. His grandparents who “survived” the Holocaust. Many of his most egregious untruths were unveiled by The New York Times last December. This week, the House Ethics Committee went even further, reporting that he had used campaign money for Atlantic City trips and things marked “Botox.”
This most recent round of investigative revelations prompted Mr. Santos to say he won’t run for re-election, as his fellow House members try once again to expel him. But the fact that he remains in Congress highlights something crucial about the people’s House. It’s a Congress that this week featured a former speaker being accused of playing a sharp-elbowed bully and a senator getting ready for Mortal Kombat with the Teamsters president. Even in that company, Mr. Santos stands out by exposing just how much craziness the Republican Party is willing to tolerate in pursuit of narrow partisan gains.
The biographical lies and widely reported small-time hustles that boosted Mr. Santos pale in comparison with his penchant for “just throwing ideas.”
I’m borrowing that phrase directly from Mr. Santos, who said it in a Spaces conversation on X, formerly Twitter, in October, shortly after Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel. After saying that the ambush made him worried about “the kind of danger that we’re in on a national security front,” he started freestyling ways for the United States not to get “caught sleeping,” as happened before Sept. 11. Maybe we should take a close look at people who waved Palestinian flags at a protest — he thought there was “probable cause” to check them out. Or perhaps federal agents should be vetting people more broadly: “I think every inch of this country at this point should be mapped out again and completely checked,” he said, without getting into specifics. “I don’t care if we go into a police state for a couple of months.”
Here was an elected official pulling a police state out of his hat that would make the Patriot Act look timid. And yet it went all but unnoticed, much less bemoaned than his volleyball fibs or Sephora shopping.
Mr. Santos’s history in this radical, shocking register was apparent for much of the time I was covering him for Newsday during his two House campaigns. Though he would lose his first run for Congress, in 2020, by more than 12 percentage points, he embraced Donald Trump’s “stop the steal” rhetoric and tossed out theories about how it applied to him. “Ballots just keep pouring in,” he said in a Facebook video three days after Election Day, adding, “this just smells rotten,” though the rules in New York gave postmarked absentee ballots a week to arrive. He talked of never confirmed “irregularities” and kept returning to the subject, in interviews and on Jan. 5, 2021, at a rally the day before the chaos at the Capitol.
Mr. Santos’s spitballing takes on a contrarian, just-asking-questions aura, so that misinformation comes across as just another idea in the air — like his half-baked early-pandemic musing on a March 2020 podcast about a possible “cordon” dropping on New York, preventing escape.
There is nothing new about aggressive bluster or even conspiratorial thinking in U.S. society; the historian Richard Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in 1964. Mr. Santos is in one sense representative of the kinds of questionable takes that have flourished during the social media era, as influencers from Alex Jones to Mr. Trump spread misinformation, and the Covid-19 pandemic loosened America’s grip on reality. But Mr. Santos brought his conspiracy theories and blatant lies into the halls of Congress, where they rubbed up against bills and the national agenda, as opposed to podcast scatting.
He is perhaps the sloppiest and most attention-grabbing legislative idea thrower, though far from the only one. He has been at the vanguard of a shamelessness caucus of sorts, a group that he sidled up to and boosted, co-sponsoring legislation and sometimes voting in concert. These peers include Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has conjectured about a Rothschild-connected space laser starting California forest fires; Lauren Boebert, who once spoke approvingly of the delusion that is QAnon; and Paul Gosar, who has floated election fraud conspiracy theories and posted an anime video of himself killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It can sometimes feel as if the political scene has never looked uglier. Failures of American political decorum rise and fall, all the way down to Representative Preston Brooks’s caning of the antislavery Republican senator Charles Sumner’s unprotected head in 1856. But congressional coarseness has been spotlighted lately, as intense polarization and exceptionally narrow majorities fuel a win-at-all-costs mentality. Party gatekeepers like the newly minted House speaker, Mike Johnson, most likely can’t afford to ignore or reform the renegades who keep him in power. And the incentives for sober behavior are out of whack. With local reporting verging on moribund and mostly getting worse, all politics has become national.
Members of Congress have taken note. Some still focus on constituent work and try to rise in the ranks, but others in gerrymandered districts see social media clout as a simpler route to donations and re-election. Conspiracy theories and misinformation become ways to get notoriety and signal your fighting spirit.
Some previous party leaders fought against such impulses through swift and severe accountability for lying or indecorous behavior. Roughly a decade ago, John Boehner, evincing no tolerance for personal misconduct, oversaw the swift exits of two congressmen embroiled in relationship scandals. Yet it took mountains of evidence against Mr. Santos and months of stalling before the political pressure finally ratcheted up.
That means that any but the most goofy, shameless members can operate with near impunity. And it left plenty of time for the introduction of a proposed Medical Information Nuanced Accountability Judgment Act, a Santos measure that would prohibit the federal government from imposing mandates on somewhat new vaccines, never mind the already rigorous testing requirements. The title’s acronym is “MINAJ,” apparently a reference to the rapper Nicki Minaj, who became a hero to vaccine skeptics after tweeting a story about someone’s testicles swelling up after he received the shot.
The bill did not pick up traction and will probably stand as a hollow testament to Mr. Santos’s embarrassing and brief career in Congress. Just one more controversial idea tossed into the maelstrom. Other ideas will linger and perhaps even fester, because Mr. Santos was not the cause of the House’s shamelessness but a symptom. And a warning.