How Do We Solve a Problem Like George Santos?

The slippery slope of political fabulism, from the "Jew-ish" freshman representative to the president of the United States.


On Wednesday afternoon, the Republican Committee of Nassau County, which borders Queens on the western end of Long Island, formally called on embattled freshman Rep. George Santos (R–N.Y.), from the Nassau/Queens 3rd congressional district, to resign in the wake of his serial, jaw-dropping fabulism scandals.

"George Santos's campaign last year was a campaign of deceit, lies, and fabrication," Nassau County Republican Committee Chairman Joseph Cairo said at a news conference. "He's disgraced the House of Representatives, and we do not consider him one of our congresspeople."

Rep. Anthony D'Esposito (R–N.Y.) from the neighboring 4th district added: "[I] will not associate with him in Congress and I will encourage other representatives in the House of Representatives to join me in rejecting him."

So that's one pretty robust way of dealing with a problem like George Santos, whose fabrications include that he was the grandson of Nazi-persecuted Jews, son of a woman who died in 9/11, employer of four victims in the Pulse nightclub shooting, graduate (and star volleyball player!) from Baruch College, and employee at Goldman Sachs and Citibank. Maybe these tribalist political parties are sometimes capable of policing their own?

Not so fast. There's a big difference between the incentives of small-beer Republican pols in suburban swing districts (remember: Santos was part of the New York mini-wave helping flip control of the House of Representatives to the GOP) and the third in line for the U.S. presidency. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.), after having benefited from Santos' support through 15 nail-biting votes in the speaker election, said Wednesday that, far from asking the bewildered-looking 34-year-old to resign, he was preparing to give the rookie some congressional committee assignments.

"In America today, you're innocent until proven guilty, so just because somebody doesn't like the press you have, it's not me that can oversay what the voters say," McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill. "The voters are the power. The voters made a decision, and he has a right to serve here. If there is something that rises to the occasion that he did something wrong, then we'll deal with that at that time."

There have indeed been a growing number of attempts to assess and possibly prove the congressman's guilt ever since The New York Times made Swiss cheese out of Santos' resume last month: investigations by the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, the New York attorney general, and Nassau County district attorney; a complaint to the Federal Election Commission alleging widespread campaign finance violations; a request for an inquiry by the House Ethics Committee; and even a possible reopened fraud case in Brazil. These efforts, too, can be part of how you solve a problem like George Santos.

But McCarthy's slippery statement illustrates why we cannot depend on politicians to do the normal right thing. Instead, we should seek to change their incentives.

On one hand, the speaker is absolutely right about the presumption of innocence as a legal principle and also as the traditional threshold for (extremely rare) expulsions from Congress, which are generally limited to joining the Confederacy or being convicted of a crime. But Santos is absolutely guilty—by his own admission in several cases—of telling voters and fellow politicians a series of ridiculous lies (try as he may to downgrade them as "embellishments"). Those transgressions are considerably more grievous than being the target of negative press, and being denied a committee appointment bears little resemblance to being found guilty of a crime.

McCarthy for the moment is taking the calculated risk that his narrow five-seat GOP majority is better protected by not calling for a new special election in a district that went for Joe Biden by 10 percentage points in 2020 and instead just absorbing the collateral stink. This is where the amorphous blob known as we comes in—we voters, we political consumers, we contributors to the culture of public affairs. We can, if we choose, make the stink of not shunning a brazen liar unbearable for even the least principled of politicians to breathe.

But I've got some bad news about us.

Two-party political systems on their best days are pendulums—we vote for zig when the other side zags too far, often without getting too hung up on the details. This is indeed what brought us George Santos: Voters in the suburbs of New York City were fed up with crime, inflation, and education policy and sought to punish the locally dominant Democrats. That desire overwhelmed any motivation to learn about let alone act upon the preelection reporting from the local North Shore Leader newspaper that Santos was lying about his real estate holdings and much besides, to the point where the paper editorialized that "he's most likely just a fabulist—a fake."

That pendulum-swing inattention becomes actively corrupted every time an election is cast as a potentially apocalyptic showdown against forces that threaten to bring down the entire country. Who's got time for political niceties (like not making crazy things up) when the very future of the republic is at stake? That logic helped bring us one of the wildest liars in U.S. political history, Donald Trump. And it also brought us his serially fabulist successor, Joe Biden.

This is where the accusation, tool, partisan crutch, and occasional journalistic dodge of whataboutism preemptively comes in. Here's how Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.), no stranger to zany falsehoods, used the W-card to defend the indefensible lying of George Santos:

Whataboutism does have the honest-to-goodness virtue of pointing out hypocritical imbalances of treatment, especially by allegedly neutral institutions, of political actors based on their partisan or ideological status rather than on the behavior being critiqued. But for people locked into a must-win electoral mindset, it defaults to pure deflection. How can you criticize our guy when you didn't criticize their guy? How can you bust Biden's chops on repeatedly saying untrue things without immediately producing a scorecard showing that his predecessor was worse?

At the risk of overstating the obvious, this is not a recipe for reducing the amount of venal and possibly even criminal dishonesty among elected officials. Whataboutism could be used in a partisan way for good—like, "Hey, that bad behavior on the other side; is anyone on our side doing something similar? If so, we should knock it off." But there's no reason to expect politicians to take that path until the rest of us show them the door.

Again, there's that problem with us. As demonstrated, to an extent worth lingering on, by the career of Joe Biden.

At a town hall with military veterans last month, the president told a poignant story about how, as vice president, he once tried to present a Purple Heart to his dying uncle Frank, but the old Battle of the Bulge vet refused the medal out of deference to his fallen comrades. "The others died. I lived," Biden recalled Uncle Frank as saying. "I don't want it."

The only problem with Biden's story is that Frank Biden died in 1999, a decade before his nephew became vice president. Also, there was no mention of Frank being honored with a Purple Heart in his obituaries, on his gravestone, or in various (incomplete) online registries. PolitiFact rated Biden's story "false," FactCheck.org said it "doesn't add up," and Snopes additionally found that the president was incorrect in saying that Frank joined the military the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. (He actually joined on July 17, 1941.)

Unless you are a right-of-center news junkie, this presidential fabrication probably passed you by. After all, it was the holiday season, no real harm was done, and, well, Biden talks like an old man. (His literal next words after the Uncle Frank tale were: "Just like a generation—this generation in Vietnam—excuse me, in—in Iraq.")

But the man is president, he keeps saying things that are false, and he keeps acting on his hyperbole (most notoriously, that social media is "killing people") with abusive policy. And the thing is, we've known this is who he is for most of Biden's half-century in politics.

The splashiest set of revelations, and the only ones that Biden has materially suffered from, came in a two-week flurry in September 1987 that culminated with him dropping out of a competitive Democratic presidential primary race. First came news that he had lifted whole chunks of the United Kingdom Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock's familial back story and presented it as his own. Then came an unearthed 1965 plagiarism incident in law school, some exaggerated claims about his involvement in the civil rights movement, some made-up college degrees and academic achievement….Is any of this sounding familiar?

"There's a good reason why Democrats shut Joe Biden out in 1988 and 2008 when he ran for president, and why he had the sound sense to sit out the 2016 contest," Jack Shafer wrote in Politico in July 2020. "He rambles. He plagiarizes. He flip-flops." And yet: "Instead of hammering him and pouring vinegar on his wounds, the press has bestowed 'strange new respect' status upon Biden….With Biden, though, there's a twist. In his case, 'positive' coverage—the kind of wet-kiss treatment that helps a dented and flawed candidate slide right into the White House—consists primarily of ignoring him."

Biden has not changed his spots. He's still out there repeating untruths that have already been fact-checked, concocting stories intended to burnish his shaky civil-rights reputation ("Biden's ridiculous claim he was arrested trying to see Mandela" was one memorable 2020 headline from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler), and making assertions about governance that border on the bizarre.

So how have we solved a problem like Joe Biden? Mostly, we have not. (Here, the sarcastic phrase "Thanks, Obama!" surely has valence, since it was the 43rd president's pick of ol' Joe as a ticket-balancing veep that eased him into the previously unlikely lane of Elder Statesman.) Surely, his history of fabulism would have loomed larger as an electability issue had he not been running against a guy whose first day in office was subject to a multi-day lie that it was attended by "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe."

George Santos is a more breathtaking fabulist than Joe Biden, in a much less important job. Biden is a leaky-brained liar of a president, who nonetheless bullshits less (and with far less influence on the beliefs of voters) than the craven Donald Trump. No one here deserves a medal, nor do the people who voted these openly flawed humans into office.

You want to solve a problem like George Santos? Keep laughing at the guy—he deserves it, it's fun, and ridicule is a response that the power-hungry have a hard time coping with. At the rate of revelations, it's not hard to imagine his situation becoming untenable even to Kevin McCarthy.

But we also need to solve the problems of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, which means not excusing or minimizing their lies just because the other guy is worse, and maintaining the citizen self-respect not to succumb to political trench warfare. Not only do your political hatreds pay for an entire unproductive economic sector, they also enable awful people to get away with their past malfeasance in the improbable name of saving America. Want politicians to stop lying to you? Stop letting them.