Opinion: Farewell to George Santos, the perfect MAGA Republican

Photo/Mark Peterson/The New York Times / Rep. George Santos, R-New York, is surrounded by media outside the courthouse in New York where Donald Trump was on trial on April 4, 2023. A clout-chasing con man obsessed with celebrity, driven into politics not by ideology but by vanity and the promise of proximity to rich marks, Santos is a pure product of Trumps Republican Party, NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg writes.
Photo/Mark Peterson/The New York Times / Rep. George Santos, R-New York, is surrounded by media outside the courthouse in New York where Donald Trump was on trial on April 4, 2023. A clout-chasing con man obsessed with celebrity, driven into politics not by ideology but by vanity and the promise of proximity to rich marks, Santos is a pure product of Trumps Republican Party, NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg writes.

Should the blessed day ever arrive when Donald Trump is sent to federal prison, only one of his acolytes has earned the right to share his cell: George Santos, who on Friday became the sixth person in history to be expelled from the House of Representatives, more than seven months after he was first charged with crimes including fraud and money laundering. (He's pleaded not guilty.) A clout-chasing con man obsessed with celebrity, driven into politics not by ideology but by vanity and the promise of proximity to rich marks, Santos is a pure product of Trump's Republican Party.

"At nearly every opportunity, he placed his desire for private gain above his duty to uphold the Constitution, federal law and ethical principles," said a House Ethics Committee report about Santos released last month. He's a true child of the MAGA movement.

That movement is multifaceted, and different politicians represent different strains: There's the dour, conspiracy-poisoned suburban grievance of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the gun-loving rural evangelicalism of Lauren Boebert, the overt white nationalism of Paul Gosar and the frat boy sleaze of Matt Gaetz. But no one embodies Trump's fame-obsessed sociopathic emptiness like Santos. He's heir to Trump's sybaritic nihilism, high-kitsch absurdity and impregnable brazenness.

Perhaps the reason a critical mass of Republicans finally jettisoned Santos is that he was too embarrassing a reflection of the values of the party's de facto leader. That's certainly why I, for one, am going to miss him. A gay man and, reportedly, a former drag queen in a party consumed by homophobia, and a pseudopopulist accused of bilking his campaign donors to pay for Botox, Hermès shopping trips and adult entertainment website OnlyFans, Santos distilled the Trump movement's lurid hypocrisy to great comic effect. In a world overflowing with tragedy, he's a farce.

Adam Serwer famously wrote that when it comes to Trump, "the cruelty is the point," but maybe the criminality is as well. Rule-breaking is key to Trump's transgressive appeal; it situates him as above the strictures that govern lesser men while creating a permission structure for his followers to release their own inhibitions. That's a big part of the reason his multiple indictments appeared to only solidify his Republican support. Sure, some of his backers probably identified with his epic persecution complex, but that alone doesn't explain the worshipful enthusiasm among some of his fans for his mug shot. Rather, many people on the right thrill to displays of impunity from people who share their politics.

Of course, the devotion of part of the right-wing demimonde was not, in the end, enough to save Santos. More than half of the House Republican caucus, and most of its leaders, stood by the disgraced swindler, and Greene called his expulsion "shameful," but unlike Trump, Santos never amassed nearly enough power to force Republican institutionalists to swallow their disgust with him. Besides, as Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. — who voted against expulsion — said of voters in his district, "People don't like the fact he's gay."

While he may not be a congressman anymore, Santos has said he's not done with public life. At a news conference Thursday morning, he said he plans to be involved in the 2024 presidential race: "I won't rest until I see Donald Trump back in the White House." Hopefully, he'll pop up on the campaign trail before his trial begins next September. No one deserves to be a Trump surrogate more.

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