Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including The New York Times bestseller “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
A damning report by the House Ethics Committee seems to have done what criminal indictments could not: bring the turbulent saga of Republican Rep. George Santos of New York to the conclusion an increasing number of observers have been hoping for. He has announced he will not seek reelection next year.
While this seemingly interminable drama has at last come to a head, the hard truth here is that at this point, Santos’ exit hardly matters, at least when weighed against the reality of the party he’s leaving behind.
The report details “substantial evidence” that one of the nation’s most famous liars had violated federal laws. The committee was in unanimous agreement that they would send the material to the Department of Justice. Although the committee did not make any recommendations, the evidence could be enough to finally obtain the support of two-thirds of the lower chamber needed to support expelling him from office. If he were to be expelled, he would be the only member in US history to meet that fate who has not been convicted of a crime or fought for the Confederacy.
At the same time that he announced he would not run for reelection for a second term, since “my family deserves better than to be under the gun from the press all the time,” Santos made sure to tell supporters on X (formerly Twitter) that the report was a “disgusting politicized smear that shows the depths of how low our federal government has sunk. Everyone who participated in this grave miscarriage of Justice should all be ashamed of themselves.”
Santos seems to have learned from former President Donald Trump that when in trouble, the response is to try to discredit everyone who has exposed the problem.
The report doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It only adds to the long list of news stories that have uncovered how much of what Santos told voters was not true. He fabricated a record, a whole fake life really, to become one of the handful of Long Island Republicans who helped swing control of the House from the Democrats to the GOP.
In an age where lying and misinformation has become a normalized part of national politics, many observers rightly wondered if there would be any accountability. Given that Republicans can’t afford to lose any seats because of their slim hold on power, a number of House Republicans determined that protecting Santos took priority over any kind of punishment (though both Democrats and Republicans ultimately called for his resignation).
Given the evidence that has been presented by the Ethics Committee, the odds have increased that the indictment could turn into a conviction, and this is more than most Republicans are willing to swallow.
Putting morals aside, many legislators in the GOP can see that this would be a good story to deal with as they try to protect their majority going into 2024. Nor does Santos have the same kind of standing and support as Trump. Today, the odds became pretty good that enough Republicans might join Democrats in voting to expel Santos.
Indeed, New York Republicans are calling for his expulsion: The Ethics report “is in alignment with my long held belief that this fraudster,” said Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, “has no place serving in the People’s House and I once again call on my colleagues to join me in advocating for George Santos’ expulsion from Congress.”
Now that Santos is on his way out, the most pressing concern is what, if anything, the nation can learn about improving the state of American politics. While it would be tempting to cheer the outcome as evidence that the system is working, and that the truth still has a place in national politics, that would be an overly optimistic interpretation of events.
The Santos story, as dramatic as it has been, is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle that has allowed US democracy to descend into a morass of disinformation and falsehood.
In certain respects, Santos stepping aside — before being ejected or convicted — allows the GOP to sidestep the question of what has happened to their party. Santos may be bowing out, but Trump is still their 2024 presidential frontrunner. Four indictments aside, as well as numerous civil suits, Trump remains popular and enormously powerful despite a fact-checking record so long that it should find a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Santos choosing not to run again does nothing to curtail or ameliorate a massive and toxic conservative media eco-system — from cable television to social media — that is virtually filter-less and allows all kind of lies, such as election denialism, to circulate at the speed of sound. It does nothing to change the hearts and minds of an electorate that seems so dug into its partisan outlook that anyone can say anything and as long as they don’t threaten the party nobody will touch them.
Like Trump, Santos is a symptom, not the cause of what has been happening to the Republican Party. Eliminating him from the caucus will not solve the problem at the core of the party. Trump remains front and center as he continues to spread lies about the election that he lost. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has been constantly throwing out egregious falsehoods such as saying on CBS “60 Minutes” that Democrats are pedophiles. Lying in the GOP has become a national pastime.
Santos’s story is only relevant in that it took so long for him to fall. The fact that he lasted until now, and that there was a serious chance he could survive the kind of record that makes Jon Lovitz’s Saturday Night Live character Tommy Flanagan — that’s the ticket — look honest is remarkable. Lovitz portrayed a pathological liar who ended his elaborate lies by saying “that’s the ticket.”
When Santos attacked Lovitz after he came back to play the congressman, the comedian posted on social media: “Thanks the review and advice! You’re right! I do need to step my game up! My pathological liar character can’t hold a candle to you!”
It took the serious possibility of federal crimes and expulsion to finally shake him. Now it wouldn’t be completely surprising to see him reemerge as a commentator on Fox News.
A healthy political party wouldn’t allow this behavior to thrive. Santos’s downfall should be a moment for Republicans to engage in some introspection, rather than celebration, to think about how they reached this point.
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