George Santos, the GOP’s Useful Liar

It’s easy to condemn the congressman’s fabrications. Maybe too easy.

Congressman George Santos against a funhouse-mirror backdrop featuring his face
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Drew Angerer / Getty; U.S. House Office of Photography

After President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address last night, George Santos offered his appraisal of the proceedings. “SOTU category is: GASLIGHTING!” the representative pronounced in a tweet.

The review was curious, coming as it did from a man who has fabricated much of his own biography. And the tweet, Trumpian in both look and tone, provoked precisely the replies you might expect under the circumstances: sarcastically invented references to Santos’s “experience” as the host of Jeopardy, to his own State of the Union speech, to his status as a gaslight incarnate. The replies were tidy reflections of the attitude that many Americans have adopted toward Santos, as journalists have reported on the lies he has told about his past and as polls have been conducted about those revelations. One of the few things we can agree on in these divided times, it seems, is that George Santos is a national embarrassment.

Because of all that, Santos is typically discussed as a problem for the Republican Party. He is, in fact, the opposite. His lies make for convenient distractions from the more dangerous and insidious fabrications that flow with impunity from the mouths and keyboards of his colleagues. Santos has found himself on the receiving end of that time-honored strain of American political discourse: mockery. Late-night shows and Saturday Night Live and the amateur comedians of social media have steadily converted him from an object of shame to one of ridicule. The jokes might seem to be a sign that Americans, understanding that democracy cannot exist without common facts, have no tolerance for leaders who would try to mislead their constituents. But their censure offers false catharsis. Santos is instead a figure fit for our post-fact political environment: a useful liar.

Over the course of his presidency, Donald Trump, per one estimate by The Washington Post, made more than 30,000 “false or misleading claims”—or about 20 untruths a day. The claims were, in a way, apt: The star of The Apprentice was propelled into office with the help of the tacky falsehoods he had created about his own past. Trump punctuated his term with the manic deception that has become known as the Big Lie, his baseless claim that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the facts—his conviction that reality is beholden to him, rather than vice versa—led to the violence of an attempted coup, to the abuses of poll workers, and to the very real possibility that democracy might die not in darkness but in broad daylight.

And yet: In a recent poll, The Washington Post and ABC News asked people whom they’d favor were the 2024 presidential contest to play out as a matchup between Trump and Biden. The former president essentially tied with the current one, with nearly half of respondents favoring Trump and nearly half favoring Biden.

Trump, rather than Santos, is the avatar of his party. And Trump, rather than Santos, is the figure who most directly captures the truth of this country’s relationship with political lies. The former president’s falsehoods were told not only about himself—adding to the heady mythology of Trump the branded celebrity—but also about others. Trump lied about immigrants. He lied about Democrats. He lied about individuals and broad groups of people. He sowed misinformation, making the lies personal, and in that way sowed mistrust.

There is no excuse for Santos’s lies. But one might compare the harm they’ve done with the harm that Trump’s deceptions caused. Santos’s fabrications concerned, for the most part, his own past; they were mostly tools of self-aggrandizement. Trump’s lies, on the contrary, often were—and often have been, ever since he left office—weapons of denigration.

Santos is a diversion from all of that. He makes Americans’ tolerance for being lied to seem lower than it really is. This is his utility. The useful idiot, as a term and a trope, is thought to be an outgrowth of totalitarianism: Useful idiots are easily manipulated, giving the illusion of autonomy but serving, in the end, as mouthpieces for the party. Santos, as a useful liar, functions in a similar way but in reverse: Rather than amplifying the party line, he distracts from it. His fabrications give cover for the bigger lies. (A recent survey found that Santos is now better known nationally than all of his Republican House colleagues, except for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.) To follow the public censures of Santos is to feel momentarily reassured that truth still matters, that facts are still sacred. It is to feel that relief even as Americans’ political—and existential—fates are shaped every day by propaganda that spreads unchecked.

That propaganda made appearances during last night’s State of the Union address. The speech was interrupted by, among others, Marjorie Taylor Greene. (“Liar!” she shouted at Biden, making headlines if not much sense.) Greene’s own claims have been particularly hurtful: The representative who once endorsed the idea that the Parkland mass shooting was a “false flag” event also has a history of making anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments. Greene is also one of many members of Congress who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election. Last night, she was, in that, in good company. A significant portion of the speech’s in-person audience had endorsed the Big Lie. “On January 6, 2021,” my colleague David Graham noted last year, “147 Republicans, including eight senators, voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory. All eight senators remain in office. Of the 139 representatives who objected, 124 ran for reelection, and 118 of those won.”

And so, when Santos issued his “GASLIGHTING!” tweet last night, making his show of preening defiance, his diagnosis was accurate even if his target was not. Santos, though he has lost his committee assignments, remains in office. He is “expected” to face a House Ethics Committee investigation, CNN reported yesterday; the inquiry has yet to be started. This morning, Representative Nick LaLota of New York gave an interview to CNN. (He had been invited, presumably, because he was one of the Republicans who heckled the president during the State of the Union.) LaLota called Santos a “sociopath.” And then he complained, “Every time I have to come to something like this and talk about George Santos, I can’t talk about what Republicans ought to be doing instead.”

Precisely. Hot air tends to take up space. While Santos navigates his infamy, Americans’ lives are being shaped by ever more insidious—and, at the same time, ever more blatant—attempts to upend the shared facts of our lives. Florida’s governor has been hard at work ensuring that the state’s students will not have access to the full truths of American history—or, for that matter, the full truths of the American present. Books are being banned from schools and libraries; hate speech and its bigoted fictions are spreading on social-media platforms; Trump, the biggest liar of them all, is embarking on his campaign for another presidency. He has a chance of winning. “You don’t belong here,” Mitt Romney reportedly told Santos last night. The senator is correct: Santos should not remain in Congress. But Santos is neither the beginning nor the end of the matter. He is merely a symptom of our chronic disorder.