Column/Opinion

OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Sideshows and diversions


I'm inclined to think George Santos is none of our business.

Sure, he's a fabulist and allegedly a felon, but the voters in New York's 3rd Congressional District, which consists of northeastern Queens and Long Island's Oyster Bay, Glen Cove and North Hempstead areas, voted him in by eight points over 68-year-old businessman Ron Zimmerman last year. During the race, Santos was a rising star in the New York GOP. He'd been endorsed by Elise Stefanik, the third-ranked GOP member of the House, who replaced Liz Cheney as chair of the House Republican Conference.

If you were paying attention in October 2022, you might have had some warm fuzzies because the fact that the two candidates were openly gay men seemed incidental to the race. The exception was when Zimmerman criticized Santos' support of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' Parental Rights in Education, or the "don't say gay" bill, which Santos contended wasn't homophobic at all.

(Santos adjusted his opinion of DeSantis in July, after the DeSantis campaign posted an odd video on social media attacking former President Donald Trump as overly friendly to the LGBTQ+ community. While Santos said he still supports the bill "in its nature," he admits "it seems that it had a more perverse agenda behind it. I'm starting to see [DeSantis] for what he is. His rhetoric is to diminish and remove rights away from people like myself, and I can't support that.")

If you didn't know what we all now know about Santos, his historic bid to become the first openly gay non-incumbent GOP candidate elected to Congress could seem to be a feel-good story. Neither Republicans or the LGBTQ+ community is monolithic. You can be both proudly gay and deeply conservative and the voters won't care, especially if you're running against a gay Democrat.

But we all know far too much about Santos.

Everything about the guy has come under scrutiny, even his claims of living as an openly gay man for a decade.

In 2012 Santos married a Brazilian woman who became a permanent legal resident of the U.S. in 2017. In 2019 the couple divorced. She later remarried and obtained permanent legal resident status for her new Brazilian husband. Santos apparently dated men during the marriage, which the government apparently concluded was not a sham. If they re-open the case and find differently, Santos could face up to five years in prison for fraud, and his ex-wife would be subject to deportation.

All this stuff is fascinating, and ripe for novelization.

It is also just a sideshow. Santos is more ridiculous and deserving of censure than most, but we elect clowns and grifters to public office all the time. The GOP should have dealt with Santos on the front end; they should have recognized he was an unsuitable candidate before the election. And the voters of New York's 3rd Congressional District got what they voted for; they could recall him, or not.

Don't read last week's ethics report as an act of courage of the part of House Republicans. They desperately want to hold onto the 3rd District, and that is the only reason they might vote to expel him after they come back from the Thanksgiving holiday. Get some more acceptable person in the seat, and maybe the GOP will have a fighting chance to hold onto it next year. That's the only reason they might kick Santos out.

But what's serious and genuinely terrifying about democracy is that we are all at the mercy of the sort of voters who elected Santos.

I can talk freely about them because they don't read newspapers, or at least not this section of the newspaper. They are casual participants in civic life. They vote for one candidate over another for the same reasons they choose one toothpaste over another. Maybe they like a candidate's eyes, or the sweater he wears in that one commercial. Maybe they prefer a certain skin tone, or a last name that suggests a certain cultural heritage. Most likely they can't really articulate why they prefer one person they've never met over another person they've never met; they just have a feeling about them. Some people present as likable, others give you the creeps.

It's not like Santos didn't come under scrutiny from local news sources during the race (The New York Times and USA Today might or might not be excused for concentrating on the gay-versus-gay storyline); one columnist in Long Island's North Shore Leader pointed out that, were campaign documents to be believed, Santos' net worth had gone from less than $5,000 to more than $11 million over a two-year period.

If we chose our leaders based on aptitude and character, on their potential to be useful in the ongoing struggle to make life better for American citizens, our political class would look a lot different. It would present as shabbier and nerdier, less glib and certain. It would not have the chutzpah to use campaign contributions to make "smaller purchases at OnlyFans."

(For the innocent, I looked it up and found out OnlyFans is an Internet content subscription service used mainly by sex workers and C-list celebrities to distribute pornography and titillating imagery. But it also features some safe content, with creators like boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., rapper Fat Joe and former locker room cancer Terrell Owens among their creators. Maybe Santos signed up for fitness videos.)

But we would rather be entertained than genuinely grapple with difficult issues. When confronted with uncertainty, we tend to look for simplistic answers (that, as H.L. Mencken observed, are wrong). If those answers are shouted by self-styled tough-minded no-nonsense types who have lost patience with the scientific method, so much the better.

So many of us became immunology experts during the pandemic. How many constitutional scholars do you run across on social media? America, I love you, but most of us can't keep score at a baseball game. And we don't have the patience to learn. We need someone to reassure us, tell us everything is going to be OK if we only recycle plastic bottles and vote for them.

The American vice is intellectual laziness. We want to vote for superheroes, cartoon characters and mixed martial arts fighters. I don't doubt that The Rock is telling the truth when he says "the parties" have been in his ear about running for president. In the current climate, he'd be perfect.

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected].