Why George Santos Won’t Resign

In a world where norms and codes of conduct mattered, George Santos’s would be an open and shut case. But as long as he remains useful to the narrow Republican House majority, the chronically dishonest congressman likely isn’t going anywhere.

Representative George Santos leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference at the Capitol Hill Club on January 25, 2023. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Last November, a thirty-four-year-old Republican from Queens who currently identifies himself as George Santos was elected to represent New York’s third congressional district. Beyond these somewhat rudimentary facts, however, the objective reality of “George Santos” has become increasingly difficult to discern. Indeed, the millennial human being — who has also gone by the monikers Anthony Santos, George Devolder, Anthony Zabrovsky, and George Anthony Santos-Devolder — appears to have premised his entire public-facing identity on a series of falsehoods and fabrications so brazen and audacious that they make even a seasoned bullshit artist like Donald Trump look like Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar.

To even call Santos a liar, in fact, risks understating the case. Politicians lie all the time, but their rhetorical contrivances usually have to do with things like the size of the federal deficit or how they once voted on a bill that no one remembers. What Santos does belongs to an entirely different, and altogether more postmodern, order of dishonesty and is less about stretching or bending the truth than pulling it straight from the ether.

During his failed 2019 bid for Congress, his official bio claimed he had attended the Horace Mann School, a bougie preparatory academy in the Bronx but had to drop out his senior year because his “parents fell on hard times, which was something that would later become known as the depression of 2008.” Staff at the school can find no record of his attendance, nor can Baruch College — from which he initially said he had obtained a degree in economics and finance some thirteen years ago.

Some of Santos’s untruths are so fabulous they can, in turn, be opened up like Matryoshka dolls that contain others within. During his nonexistent tenure at Baruch, he has also claimed to have sacrificed both knees playing on a volleyball team that “slayed” Harvard and Yale. In 2021, he tweeted that the attacks of September 11, 2001 had “claimed his mother’s life,” while his campaign website placed her “in her office in the South Tower” on the day itself — Santos having elsewhere characterized the late Fatima Devolder as “the first female executive at a major financial institution.” Devolder, who according to none other than Santos himself died in 2016, not only did not work in finance but was not even in New York on 9/11.

Santos has also made up a background on Wall Street, claimed Jewish and Ukrainian heritage while insisting his grandparents “survived the Holocaust” and fled to Brazil (records in fact suggest they were born there and there appears to be no evidence Santos, who has elsewhere identified himself as a conservative Catholic, is either Ukrainian or Jewish), asserted a personal connection to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that seems to be entirely fabricated, and claimed to have survived a politically motivated “assassination attempt.” (Photos and videos have also emerged showing Santos dressed in drag over a period of several years — by no means a crime or scandal, but certainly an odd fit for a freshman congressman elected on the heels of the GOP’s overtly homophobic, Libs of TikTok–derivative midterm strategy.)

Insofar as anything unites the disparate parts of Santos’s fabricated backstory, it would seem to be no more or less than sheer, crass opportunism. From stolen 9/11 valor to tall tales of elite schooling interrupted by the crash of ’08; from various cultural affiliations appropriated and adorned as phony badges of authenticity to a cookie cutter narrative of conservative victimhood, much of it is reducible to what might be politically expedient for someone seeking elected office as a New York Republican in 2022.

Then again, Santos appears to have been practicing his craft for quite some time and his pattern of dishonesty clearly predates any involvement in politics. He has also offered up conflicting details about two separate marriages, is alleged to have bilked thousands of dollars from a homeless veteran seeking treatment for his sick service dog, and may or may not have authored a Wikipedia account bio that lists past roles in the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana and a movie called The Invasion starring Uma Thurman (a movie with that title was released in 2007, but neither Thurman or anyone named Devolder or Santos is listed as part of the cast).

What any of this actually signifies, beyond one man’s gobsmacking penchant for falsehood, is open to a variety of interpretations.

Politically speaking, the most striking thing about the Santos affair has been the relatively tepid Republican reaction to it. In a world where facts, norms, and objective reality mattered the way we’re often told to think they do, this would be an open and shut case. At time of writing, however, the number of elected GOP officials actually calling for Santos’s resignation is remarkably small and New York–centric. A majority of Republican voters, albeit a very thin one, apparently want him to stay and Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s response has been to outsource the matter to the House Ethics Committee while insisting that outright law-breaking is the only criterion by which he’d support Santos’s removal from office. Given both the narrow Republican majority — Santos’s resignation would trigger a likely competitive special election — and the useful smokescreen of distraction provided by the ongoing Santos circus, the embattled congressman probably isn’t going anywhere.

If public officials in the past could be expected to resign over lies after they reached a certain critical mass, the Trump era suggested that whatever normative guardrails may have once existed around truth in politics have been eroded to the point of impotence (and not just because of Donald Trump himself). Institutional backstops to dishonest behavior, such as they even exist, mainly consist of unwritten rules that can be violated by any politician with sufficient willingness to transgress and are, in practice, often considered secondary to wider partisan goals.

Santos may thus be a bullshit merchant without peer, but if he does resign it will be less because his lies have “caught up with him” than because he ceases to be useful to the broader Republican cause. Raw, and in this case petty, calculations of power and ideology generally matter more in politics than norms or ethereal codes of conduct. GOP elites might be privately embarrassed by Santos, but the experience of the Trump and Obama eras suggest they grasp this reality better than their liberal adversaries — and will continue to remain impervious to shame and outrage until other considerations intrude.