The political media fascination with Rep. George Santos, the New York Republican who appears to have faked approximately 95% of his life, is such that it was inevitable that it would draw a "savvy" backlash piece scolding the press about their priorities. The wannabe party pooper finally emerged last week at the Washington Post in an opinion column headlined, "Real people don't care about George Santos." In it, self-assigned buzzkill David Byler argued "America doesn't seem to care" about Santos, which he can tell based on Google search traffic.
Our nation was founded by puritans, so as soon as people had a laugh over Santos, inevitably someone would shake their finger disapprovingly. But there were some flaws in Byler's argument, starting with his assumption that Santos' own embarrassed constituents are not "real" people. There's also the fact that Google Trends isn't a very exacting measure of interest in a subject, as it only measures if people are searching out information. It doesn't capture people who read articles they saw on social media or directly on a news website. Traffic to stories about Santos is plenty healthy on that front.
But perhaps most importantly, this narrow-minded focus on search traffic ignores what a lot of the sneered-at political observers saw coming a mile away: The imminent George Santos makeover into MAGA's Next Top Superstar.
Santos may not matter to "average" Americans, but his story is being leveraged directly into the right-wing propaganda machine that currently controls the Republican Party. On Thursday night, for instance, Santos was sanctified into the echelon of MAGA saints by the Pope of neo-fascism himself, Tucker Carlson. In a typically dishonest segment on his wildly popular Fox News show, Carlson painted Santos as a hapless victim of the bigoted news media by pretending that the only thing Santos lied about was his volleyball career. (Which is one of the more minor fake careers and hobbies Santos has claimed on his resume.) Media Matters has a sample of the extremely silly diatribe:
It was a tissue of lies constructed to deceive the American people. There was no volleyball scholarship. There was not a single dollar of volleyball scholarship. George Santos made it all up out of whole cloth, out of thin air. George Santos is an ersatz volleyball player. A fraud, a ghoul. People voted for this man believing he had played collegiate volleyball on a scholarship and he hadn't.
And yet tonight ladies and gentlemen, this thief of volleyball glory strides the halls of the United States Congress unimpeded by law enforcement. It's like another insurrection.
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Carlson doesn't really have arguments or evidence, but he does do a bang-up impression of someone sarcastically brushing aside nonsense. Except what he's brushing away is usually pretty serious stuff, such as fascist attacks on democracy, attempts to save lives during a pandemic, or, in this case, unbelievable amounts of fraud that look potentially criminal in many cases. With Santos, the number of lies Carlson is ignoring is truly staggering. Santos lied about his resume, his religion, his marriage, his family history, and claimed connections he doesn't have to the Holocaust, 9/11, the Pulse nightclub shooting, and an assassination attempt that appears fictional. It is really no exaggeration to say it's easier to list the things he hasn't lied about (his age and his birthplace in Queens).
For the Trumpist right, aggressive trolling is what politics is all about.
But just as Catholic saints get their status through martyrdom, the saints of MAGAdom must get theirs through falsified tales of victimhood at the hands of "woke mobs" or the "fake news media."
People right-wingers hate are alarmed at Santos and his staggering trail of fraud. So if the "libs" have a negative reaction to Santos, in the troll-based logic that drives the modern GOP, that must mean he's their newest champion. And let's just state for the record that, while Byler may not see left-leaning news consumers as "real people," he probably wouldn't say the same about the millions of Trump voters whose entire worldview is shaped by the crap that Fox News pours into their heads every day.
Carlson didn't reach the conclusion that Santos is the latest MAGA idol all on his own. Practically from the moment that Santos's deceit was exposed by the New York Times, Steve Bannon, the Joseph Goebbels-wannabe who frequently sets the GOP agenda with his popular "War Room" podcast, was championing the pathological liar. Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have also rallied to Santos' side, claiming he's only a target because he's a "fighter." It's unclear who he has ever "fought" for besides himself, but then again, the same could be said of most MAGA figures, from Donald Trump on down.
It's not a mystery why these leaders think the right-wing audience is ready to accept Santos as the next MAGA savior. All that matters to the modern right is "owning the liberals," and who better to do that than someone who lies constantly for no apparent reason other than the sheer thrill of it?
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Certainly, Santos seems to grasp that the move that will take him from a low-level con man to the ranks of the richest MAGA grifters is to lean into trolling. So he's been rolling out the standard issue liberal-owning stunts for weeks now: Flashing the white supremacist-aligned "OK" hand signal during a House vote. (He even knew how to do it so it was clear enough to photograph but so quick he could pretend later it wasn't intentional.) Wearing an assault rifle pin while playing dumb about why it offends people to celebrate the preferred weapons of mass shooters. Feeding the press donuts and acting like they had somehow become complicit in the evil by eating them. Getting into Twitter fights with drag queens, who are the favorite punching bag of the authoritarian right. (Santos seems to have a past as a drag queen, as well, but this is just part of a favorite right-wing trolling tactic, to recruit members of a hated minority to speak out against their own.) Dunking on former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., for criticizing him by tweeting "cry about it."
Reports suggest Santos is delighted by all the negative attention he's getting in the press. An exceptionally short-lived aide recorded a conversation in which Santos was dressing him down, and right in the middle of it, Santos suddenly exclaims, "Don Lemon just texted me — I'm sorry, I'm listening to you — Don Lemon just texted me!" Getting his name on CNN, even during a story on how he is the worst, was just that thrilling to Santos.
Santos is living the fascist dream of a man whose entire existence seems unmoored from the power of facts.
Santos even hired former Steve Bannon employee and professional troll, Vish Burra, as a top aide. Burra's defense of Santos is cynical and self-congratulatory: The lying is a form of "shitposting," which is internet speak for saying outlandish things to draw outrage and attention. For the Trumpist right, aggressive trolling is what politics is all about.
Imagining that they're outraging the left is what the GOP audience gets out of this. (No one tell them that the left's reaction to Santos is more amusement than genuine fury.) But there's an even darker reason that Carlson, Bannon, Taylor Greene, etc. have decided to rally round Santos: He's very useful as a weapon in their larger war on truth.
As with Trump, it's overly simplistic to look at these people, with their non-stop disinformation, as mere liars. Liars are people who are sincerely trying to deceive people. In many cases, it's not at all evident that right-wing audiences actually believe the asinine B.S. that is rolled out by the likes of Carlson and Bannon. For instance, the "outrage" over M&M spokescandy shoe choices is less sincere anger than it is a collective bit of performance art. Both Carlson and his audience merely pretend to be mad as a way to keep ironic distance from their own weird sexual hang-ups. Similarly, conspiracy theories like Trump's Big Lie are often less about true belief and more about displaying fealty to their tribe.
There's a point to right-wingers constantly saying and "believing" things they know not to be true. It's about devaluing empirical reality. Fascists want "truth" to flow from what the right-wing authority figures say is "true," not from lived experience or verifiable facts. They are trying to construct a world where facts don't matter, and only power does. The first step is getting their tribal community to agree collectively to stop distinguishing between true and false and to only claim to believe what is convenient for their leaders or their cause.
For that goal, Santos is useful. He is living the fascist dream of a man whose entire existence seems unmoored from the power of facts. If the MAGA leaders can turn him into a hero, he'd be a living exemplar of their post-truth yearnings: "Truth" can be whatever you want it to be. After all, right-wingers already hate the way facts — Trump lost the election, COVID-19 is real, LGBTQ people exist — get in the way of their desires. They just need permission to let go of that last tendril of reality and start living purely in their authoritarian fantasy world. Santos shows the way. It's unlikely he will be going away any time soon.