Voices: Give him some credit, George Santos has performed a valuable public service
Long before his arrest on Wednesday for fraud, money laundering and theft of public funds, George Santos was a pariah in the Long Island congressional district he was elected to represent.
He was the subject of almost daily protests and press conferences organised by local residents. The Nassau County Republican Party disowned him, and so too did six local Republican members of Congress. He was rarely seen out in public, or at his district office — even when Congress is on break.
His only safe space, it seems, was Washington DC.
His was a story of electoral politics turned on its head. A member of Congress should, in theory, have more to fear from the snakepit of the Capitol than the people who elected them. The reason why Santos didn’t tell us something about the state of the Republican Party today.
Let’s start with an uncontestable truth: George Santos is an imposter. That is true by any measure of the word. He lied about his own personal history, his experience and his wealth. That is without even mentioning the as-yet unproven allegations about his campaign spending, which has now resulted in charges from federal prosecutors.
Much of what is known about Santos today was not public knowledge when voters cast their ballots for him. The same can be said for many of the local Republicans who backed him and fundraised for him — although, given that it is their job to vet candidates running for their own party, they cannot escape blame.
But once the most egregious of Santos’s lies became public, most local Republicans joined in calls for his resignation.
“George Santos’ campaign last year was a campaign of deceit, lies and fabrication,” Nassau County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Cairo said at a news conference earlier this year.
“He deceived the voters of the 3rd Congressional District, he deceived members of the Nassau County Republican committee, elected officials, his colleagues, candidates, his opponents and even some of the media,” Cairo said. “He’s disgraced the House of Representatives and we do not consider him one of our congresspeople.”
Compare that to response from the GOP House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, the only man in the party with the power to take action to expel Mr Santos by holding a vote in the House (and whipping his members to secure a two-thirds majority).
“What are the charges against him? Is there a charge against him?” he responded when questioned by reporters on Capitol Hill. “You know, in America today, you’re innocent till proven guilty.”
“The voters are the power, the voters made the decision and he has the 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,” Mr McCarthy added.
Even after charges were filed, Mr McCarthy stood firm.
“If a person is indicted, they’re not on committees. They have the right to vote, but they have to go to trial,” he said on Tuesday in response to reports that charges were imminent.
What is the reason for the clear divide between the Republicans of New York and the national leadership? In short, naked political necessity.
McCarthy benefits from the same basic facts about Santos as everyone else; he can be under no illusions about the con, or the character behind it. But after a years-long effort, McCarthy ascended to the speaker’s chair as a weakened leader.
Not only had he been forced to bend the knee to former president Donald Trump after publicly criticising him for encouraging the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, his party also emerged from the midterms with a majority of just four seats in the House. This caused him to endure a protracted fight with the right-wing of his party for the leadership.
After that brutal fight, McCarthy was faced with a choice: He could listen to the Republicans who live and work in the district Santos now represents and remove the imposter from the United States Congress — weakening himself further in the process — or he could ignore the problem entirely.
In choosing the latter, McCarthy reaffirmed the lengths to which he is willing to go to maintain his tenuous grip on his party. It tells us something about the state of the Republican Party, and perhaps Congress, that a conman can be allowed to sit in the most powerful legislative body in the world, to cast his vote on matters of life and death and war, in the interests of serving one party. It also reveals a weakness at the heart of the electoral system, that there is no mechanism to remove someone from office who has admitted to lying their way to that seat.
If we’re looking for some lesson in the Santos affair, perhaps this is the best we can hope for — a brief ray of sunlight shone into a dark corner of a dusty backroom. And for revealing this corruption in Congress, we might credit Santos for performing his first and only act of public service.