Friday, January 27, 2023

Why the George Santos scandal is so historically unprecedented

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Shreya Christina
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In ancient Jerusalem, an aged King Solomon remarked: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Solomon never knew George Santos.

Thanks to revelations about a seemingly endless series of lies about his background, the newly elected Republican congressman from Long Island is a phenomenon without any precedent in American history. Within weeks of taking office, he has become a national celebrity without actually doing anything. It’s not that he’s actively put the spotlight in the way that figures want Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) when they drew a media frenzy as first-term members of Congress. His story is just so fantastic and absurd that there are no clear precedents for it.

Since the New York Times reported first the lies of Santos about his religion, his education and his CV at the end of December have sent things into a spiral. Almost every aspect of Santos’ life has been questioned and his attempts to explain it have become increasingly difficult – from his punch line-worthy try to insist that he never said he was Jewish, but that he was “Jewish,” to his initial staunch denial that he had previously dressed in cross-dressing as a young man in Brazil finally give in to reporters at the baggage carousel at LaGuardia Airport that he was just “having fun at a festival”.

Santos’ lies have also led to investigations by local and federal law enforcement agencies. The New York Republican stares at questions about his campaign finances and how he was suddenly able to to borrow his congressional campaign $700,000 after that is turned off for not paying rent and being taken to court not pay debts. There are complaints filed his conduct with the Federal Election Commission and the House Ethics Committee. There is also the unresolved issue of a decade-old criminal charge in Brazil. Santos has denied this, to the New York Post“I’m not a criminal here — not here or in Brazil or any jurisdiction in the world.”

Sean Willentza Bancroft Prize-winning historian at Princeton University, told cafemadrid that Santos was more of a character in American literature than American history, citing Herman Melville’s The Confidence man. “This is not something a historian can do much about,” he said. “There is no example like this.” It’s not that Santos was a completely foreign object – the peddler is an American archetype, and nothing is more clichéd than a dishonest politician. As Wilentz put it, he is “made of materials that one can identify.” But that such a shadowy figure and compulsive liar ended up on Capitol Hill remains remarkable. “Embellishment happens quite a bit that a lot of people get away with,” Wilentz said. “This is a different order, because this is a made-up life.”

He commented that “it’s one thing to be Marjorie Taylor Greene and make up all this crazy stuff, and here you just have a number.” Using another literary reference, Wilentz compared Santos to the “kind of nothing man who drips through the novels” of John le Carre.

Santos has been left in an unusually isolated political position. Local Republicans in and around his district have been calling for him to resign, and the defenses the national Republicans are offering him are lukewarm – rooted in procedure and precedent rather than any sincere effort to defend Santos on the grounds.

Santos jokes have become one of the few things both sides can agree on. As one congressman told cafemadrid, “You have Democratic members and Republican members texting Santos memes to each other. He really is a two-pronged joke.”

But it has also made him a national figure. In a poll from early January of Navigator Research, a majority of Americans held an opinion about him, making him better known than many more established and influential politicians such as Representatives Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Jim Jordan (R-OH). Another recent Data for Progress poll showed that more than 60 percent of Americans had an opinion about him, even more than Greene. Those who had heard of Santos invariably had a negative opinion of him – even Republicans had an overwhelmingly unfavorable view of him. In his home state poll found that Santos was much better known than Hakeem Jeffries, the top Democrat in Congress, and that he is just as politically toxic in New York as he is nationally.

It’s a level of celebrity breaking through outside of politics. Santos has already become a staple of late-night comedy — he served in Congress for a month and has been a character in two different Saturday Night Live sketches — and an obsession of #resistance Twitter and MSNBC. His office on Capitol Hill has become the site of constant media scrutiny and TMZ cameras follow him around the airport. Even Santos is aware of his new status and has privately expressed his fear of turning into a meme.

There’s no telling what strange paths the Santos saga will take next. He has been for the past few days attached to the nephew of a Russian oligarch (whom Santos accused scam it) and accused of scamming a homeless veteran by pocketing the money from a fundraiser for the veteran’s service dog. (Santos has refused this one.)

Nearly every turn his saga has taken so far has gone into uncharted territory. While Congress has generated nearly two and a half centuries of scandals, they all have familiar roots in common human traits such as ambition, sex, or venality. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee watches a stripper dive into the tidal basin after being caught drunk in a car with her is unusual, but alcoholism and adultery are less so on Capitol Hill. Even the more archaic crimes – like the 18th century senator who plotted with the British to seize then-Spanish-controlled New Orleans — stem from impulses such as greed or lust for power displayed daily by elected officials in both parties.

But Santos is something else. The level and frequency of his apparently compulsive inventions mark new ground in modern politics.

In the aftermath of his election, it’s hard to imagine there will be future members like him – more vigorous efforts are likely to be made to check that when aspiring politicians to claim to be top collegiate volleyball players, they didn’t just make up that they went to college, let alone play competitive sports there. But if someone is elected in the future, at least historians have an analogy.

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