History repeats itself, as Karl Marx memorably said, first as tragedy, second as farce—and there is surely no more farcical figure on the contemporary scene than soon-to-be-ex-Rep. George Santos (R-NY).
Donald Trump, of course, was the tragedy: a con man who, even to this day, is able to hoodwink a hundred million people, through innate charisma and the time-tested techniques of the demagogue.
George Santos, then, is the farce: a con man whose lies were so transparently ridiculous, whose grift was so glaringly obvious, that he will go down in history (and perhaps a Netflix limited series) as a clownish figure, at once rube and knave, who sowed the seeds of his exile through a series of ludicrous self-owns.
I admit, I’ve loved the Santos story since the beginning. Where Trump’s corruption and deceit have torn apart this country, Santos’s was merely laughable. And it kept getting better. First there were the made-up resume items: schools he never attended, a firm he never worked out. That was pretty ordinary.
But then things got weird: Santos said his mother died on 9/11, which she did not. He said his grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, which she was not. He said his company had four employees killed in the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre, which it did not. Gradually, the lies seemed pathological rather than calculating. The man simply could not help himself.
As someone who once wrote an entire book on a charlatan (an 18th century heretic and quasi-cult-leader named Jacob Frank), I couldn’t look away.
And then came the wild stuff, like claims that he won a college volleyball championship, produced a Broadway show, and starred in Hannah Montana. Sometimes the truth was even stranger than the fiction, such as Santos’s drag persona Kitara Ravache, which he still officially denies despite clear photographic evidence.
Indeed, like a good TV drama, some of the juiciest bits were saved for the finale: today’s damning House Ethics Committee Report, which was unanimously approved (when was that last happened in Congress?) and which likely spelled the end of Santos’s House career, as he today announced he would not seek re-election.
Get this: Santos founded a consultancy, recommended it to colleagues without mentioning that he was a co-founder, and used $50,000 in proceeds to pay off his credit card debts. He used at least $4,000 worth of campaign funds on Botox and other cosmetic procedures. The guy even used campaign funds to pay for OnlyFans.
You can’t make this stuff up. I mean that literally: if you made it up, no one would believe it.
And throughout it all, after every conclusive refutation of his lies, Santos responded with imitation MAGA rage, lashing out at the media for covering irrelevant stories (such as his own corruption) rather than what real Americans care about (such as the Biden Crime Family).
Indeed, as has been well observed, the entire MAGA movement is filled with grifters. Steve Bannon with his fraudulent ‘Build the Wall’ campaign, Alex Jones with his nutritional supplements, Paul Manafort, George Papadapoulos, and of course, Trump himself, with his fraudulent university, fraudulent foundation, and even fraudulent steak and wine brands. Election denial itself spawned a whole cottage industry of previously-unknown “experts” who got rich telling the MAGA base what it wanted to hear, from General Michael Flynn on down.
In a way, Santos was just one of many MAGA grifters, but he was just so bad at it. The baroque lies, the self-contradictory justifications, even the rage was studied, learned—and as fake as that Baruch College diploma. It was as if Santos had learned how to perform MAGA rage by binge-watching Tucker Carlson, but had never actually felt it.
That’s the thing with confidence men: you have to make the mark believe that you believe it. You have to sell the lies so well that they appear more truthful than the truth. Just look at Trump—the guy has been conning people so long, he appears to have even conned himself. Or maybe that’s just part of the con.
But Santos just couldn’t quite sell it. His performance was camp—bravely maintained until the bitter end, but a failure nonetheless. The faux-preppy sweater under the blazer, the Finance Bro vest, even Santos’s looks were a kind of simulacrum of the characters he was trying to play. He never really passed.
Alas, in real life, the Santos saga will not have a happy ending, at least not for its protagonist. He already faces numerous criminal charges for wire fraud, theft of public funds, and making false statements to Congress. The Ethics Committee has referred its findings to the Justice Department. And it looks certain that the House will vote to expel him, probably quite soon.
The guy is going to lose his job and probably go to jail, and given his spending habits, he’s probably close to broke.
But as a story, his is a quintessentially American tale. We love a good con artist, from The Music Man to The Great Gatsby, Catch Me if You Can to The Wizard of Oz, Inventing Anna to The Dropout. They mirror the American dream: start with nothing and get rich—a narrative Santos tried and failed to turn to his advantage. They take advantage of the credulous and we love them for it. They even reflect American history itself, which has been filled with grifters since the very beginning, as detailed in books like Stephen Mihm’s A Nation of Counterfeiters and Edward Balleisin’s Fraud: An American History From Barnum to Madoff.
American con artists also reflect something distinctive about the American experience, with its critique of old, European ways and its embrace of novelty and innovation. Why could Elizabeth Holmes (or Sam Bankman-Fried for that matter) snooker smart Silicon Valley investors into putting millions of dollars into a clearly scientifically impossible product? In part because we all want to believe in the quintessentially American capacity for invention – including self-invention. Holmes had her black turtleneck, Santos had those sweaters.
And Donald Trump, of course, has his hair weave, his spray-tan, his ill-fitting suit and long red tie.
That’s the dark side of con men, of course: that they sometimes succeed. We can laugh at George Santos, the camp self-parody of a grifter. But the same American credulousness that got him into Congress has propelled his role model to far greater power, and may yet do so again. If that happens, the last laugh will be on us.
The Daily Beast