The George Santos Saga Isn’t (Just) Funny

The amusement of such a candidate reaching office should not eclipse the horror of it.

Black-and-white photo of George Santos
Anna Moneymaker / Getty

Have you heard the latest ridiculous turn in the George Santos story? No, not that one. The newer one. Oh wait: That’s out of date now, too.

This week alone we’ve learned that Santos’s mother, who he said was in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and died years later from complications, probably wasn’t even in the United States that day. We’ve heard an allegation that he stole $3,000 he had raised for a military veteran’s ailing dog, a story that seems too cartoonish to make up. We’ve also seen a photo that a Brazilian drag queen insists is Santos in drag, though he denies it. In more scandalous sartorial news, a former roommate says that the scarf Santos sported at a Stop the Steal rally was, fittingly, stolen.

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. The Santos story is funny, but a real danger exists that the public might allow its amusement to eclipse the horror of such a candidate reaching office and the consequences for Congress and the American political system’s remaining shreds of repute.

Voters have a right to know whether the people they vote for are who they say they are. In Santos’s case, even the fact of his name is marshy; many former acquaintances say he used to go by “Anthony Devolder”—his middle name and mother’s maiden name—and detested what one might call his government name, in two senses of the word. In response to his ill-gained success, some of his critics, including other members of Congress, have suggested bills that would require something like truth in advertising for political candidates, an approach both legally dubious—any sufficiently sweeping bill would probably violate the First Amendment—and more broadly imprudent, the latest example of Americans seeking to enlist the justice system to do work the political system can and should do better.

That said, Santos ought to be investigated to see whether he broke any existing laws. He already faces complaints before the House Ethics Committee and Federal Election Commission about his campaign spending, and there’s a larger question about how Santos, who was previously strapped for cash, per his own disclosures, suddenly got the money to loan his campaign $700,000. Brazilian authorities have revived a long-moribund fraud investigation against him there, too. In the meantime, he’s in Congress, where he recently won placement on committees on small business and science, space, and technology, and he may get access to classified information, a privilege afforded to members of the House.

Politics has always had its share of oddball stories, but the country seems to be suffering through an epidemic of funny-but-not-funny episodes. A recent example—in which Santos had a walk-on role—was the tortuous election of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House on the 15th ballot, after days of failures. The speaker election was as riveting as any process that takes place over several days on the House floor can possibly be. For excitement and length, it would certainly beat out a cricket test match. The human drama was irresistible (for a certain type of nerd—present company included). But it was not low-stakes. The functionality of the government was on the line, most urgently in the matter of whether Congress will raise the debt limit in time to avoid a national default.

The apotheosis of this dynamic is Donald Trump, who can be very funny by intent and often by accident (“very legal & very cool”), even when (or especially when) his behavior is boorish and unbecoming of a leader. Trump is entertaining, in the sense that he provides hours of diversion and he emerged from the world of entertainment.

Figures like this don’t necessarily act the way they do to be amusing, but they know that throwing a three-ring circus can relegate their truly bad behavior to the sideshow tent. To borrow a different metaphor, their approach helps feed what Patrick Hruby has called “the SportsCenter-ization of political journalism,” in which “coverage of Washington—and the world, really—apes a glossy entertainment product dedicated to spectacular touchdowns, gee-whiz statistics, [and] prefabricated drama.”

Jon Stewart, who in his previous guise as host of The Daily Show was both a lucid critic and a major catalyst of politics-as-entertainment, connected Santos to Trump in this respect this week. “The thing we have to be careful of, and I always caution myself on this and I ran into this trouble with Trump, is we cannot mistake absurdity for lack of danger, because it takes people with no shame to do shameful things,” he said.

Even if Santos is eventually forced out of office, as seems possible, treating him like a mere joke risks feeding a vicious cycle that will persist after his exit. When clowns get elected, it rightly lowers the esteem in which the public holds Congress; this, in turn, leads voters to be more apt to elect more clowns, which only produces a Congress even less worthy of respect. So go ahead, laugh at George Santos. But when your giggles peter out, don’t let your attention drift away.