Los Angeles Politics

Opinion: George Santos isn’t comic relief anymore

In Shakespeare’s plays or, say, the Victorian novels of Dickens, Trollope and Austen, there are often at least two plots moving forward at any moment: a serious dramatic story involving the work’s main heroes and villains and a comic subplot peopled by absurd characters.

In the real world, we have comic subplots as well. Take Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), who — while American democracy has spun out of control, the U.S. Capitol was overrun and Donald Trump became a serious contender for reelection — wanders on and off the national stage like a ditzy clown keeping the audience amused.

Santos has been a recurring joke in the midst of our otherwise terrifying and riveting political drama — a somewhat doughy, somewhat hapless Mr. Magoo-turned-con man in a blazer, sweater and chinos. He is a fraudster who told lie after ridiculous lie, ad absurdum, about his family background, education and job experience and, though caught in the act, steadfastly refused to be held accountable.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

His free ride, though, could be coming to an end. Federal prosecutors in New York announced Wednesday that the 34-year-old freshman congressman has been charged with a wide range of not-so-funny crimes, including wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to Congress. In short, they allege, he deceived and defrauded campaign donors and the U.S. government.

Santos turned himself in to federal authorities on Long Island on Wednesday morning and pleaded not guilty to the charges.

As my mom used to say, it’s all fun and games until it’s not. Santos has been a national punchline in one of the weirdest scandals in U.S. congressional history (and we’re talking about a governmental body that was once home to Anthony Wiener!). But now he may be written out of the story altogether. The U.S. attorney’s office says he could face up to 20 years in prison on the top counts.

The absurdity of the Santos situation first became clear to me when I watched a video of him trying to find his way through the House office buildings, lost but perpetually moving because he was being trailed and hounded at every step by a scrum of bloodthirsty reporters. He tried to pretend they weren’t there; they had a great time at his expense.

He was barraged with questions like, “Hey George, what’s your name today?” He tried to look dignified, talking oh-so-seriously into his phone as he walked, though I highly doubt anyone was on the other end.

Santos quickly became the butt of the late-night shows.

“I don’t consider the things I’ve said to be lies,” said a straight-faced Jon Lovitz, impersonating Santos on Jimmy Fallon’s show. “They’re what my great-grandfather, Winston Churchill, would call ‘embellishments.’ ”

At the heart of the joke was the fact that his lies were so brazen and so egregious — and yet so mundane at the same time. So checkable and disprovable — yet so insignificant. Like when he said he had been a “star” on the volleyball team at Baruch College. I mean, who would lie about that?

It turns out he wasn’t on the volleyball team. And didn’t graduate from Baruch College at all. Nor did he attend the Horace Mann School, as he claimed. Nor did he work at Goldman Sachs or Citigroup.

He is not Jewish, as he repeatedly claimed to be. Or of Jewish descent. Or “Jew-ish,” as he later said he’d said.

His grandparents did not flee Hitler.

His mother was not in the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks. She wasn’t in the country at all.

Santos’ behavior was laughable, for sure, but also it was wrong, not to mention creepy. It was Jon Stewart, in the end, who pointed out the obvious: “We cannot mistake absurdity for lack of danger,” he said. “Absurdity always makes you think something is more benign than it is.”

And it’s true: The endless fabrications are obviously not funny to Santos’ constituents on Long Island, who now, six months after the 2022 election, are still represented in Congress by a serial liar. Or to those who gave him money for his campaign.

But Stewart meant more than just that. He was referring to how so many people — himself included — had failed to take Donald Trump seriously at first, seeing him as a harmless clown like Santos.

Trump did seem like a joke in those early days. He said outrageous things, told endless lies, pushed kooky conspiracy theories and seemed to have little argument for why Americans should vote for him other than that he was a flashy, rich, irreverent TV star.

Anyone who doesn’t remember how improbable it all seemed should watch the clip (which I saw recently courtesy of journalist Peter Beinart‘s newsletter) of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) on ABC News with George Stephanopoulos and a panel of so-called political experts in July 2015.

In it, Ellison says that people who oppose Trump ought to get active, get involved and vote.

“This man has got some momentum and we’d better be ready for the fact that he might be leading the Republican ticket,” says Ellison.

At that point everyone on the show bursts into laughter. Peals of laughter, really. Stephanopoulos, grinning, says — and I don’t really blame him for this error of enormous historical magnitude, because I probably would have felt the same way — “I know you don’t believe that.”

Ellison doesn’t join in the laughter. He says: “Stranger things have happened.”

President Santos anyone?


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Joseph Hernandez

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