When it comes to big political losers, there are few as obvious as the “fair tax,” which would abolish all federal taxes and replace them with a single, national sales tax. The move would immediately raise the prices of just about everything by 30 percent. Coming after a year of staggering inflation, the fact that the GOP is pushing the “fair tax” is especially absurd. “Great idea,” President Biden said in a sarcasm-laced quip last week, as he converted perhaps the easiest layup of his presidency. “It would raise taxes on the middle class by taxing thousands of everyday items from groceries to gas, while cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans,” he drove home.
And yet House Republicans will vote on the “fair tax” for the simple reason that Kevin McCarthy desperately wanted to be speaker of the House and getting the gavel forced him to give the looniest members of his caucus whatever they wanted. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who stood by McCarthy as he strung together one lost vote after another, was given spots on the House Oversight and Homeland Security committees after being stripped of her assignments during the last Congress for making a string of incendiary remarks about, among other things, Jewish space lasers causing wildfires in California. The House GOP’s other recent priorities are a litany from the fringes: symbolic anti-abortion votes and made-for-Fox News investigations into President Biden’s family. Meanwhile, the United States hit its debt limit on Thursday, and a standoff—perhaps an economically catastrophic one—between House Republicans, who are demanding draconian budget cuts, and Democrats is in the offing.
The news isn’t all so bleak, however. Republicans have a secret weapon in the form of George Santos, the newly elected House Republican from Long Island, who appears to have made up his entire life story. A kind of bumbling Mr. Ripley or charmless Chauncey Gardiner, he is an inept sociopath who has fibbed about his work history; about his mother surviving 9/11; about a charity he claims to have run called, hilariously, “Friends of Pets”; playing volleyball at a Division III school; and being Jewish.* (Santos has defended this by saying he merely meant that he was “Jew-ish.”) He’s an irresistible story: Here is someone who got elected to Congress on a completely fabricated résumé, who appears to be completely inept and incompetent, and who furnishes new torrents of scandals every day. It has shades of Trump’s presidency but without the sense of menace or dread. George Santos is a bad person. But George Santos also does not have the nuclear codes. However, he is something the GOP needs right now: a diversion.
It’s hard to fault outlets for covering Santos to the extent that they have. It’s a delicious story. Lunatics get elected to Congress a lot, but they typically only carry so much baggage with them. (Even Greene and her colleagues on the far right, Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz, can sustain only so many continuous days of news coverage.) After apparently zero due diligence was done on Santos by either New York’s Democratic Party—the country’s most incompetent Democrats—or its media, there is a giddy rush to turn over every stone.
The scandal is relentlessly bad for Santos, but is it all that terrible for House Republicans? Here, Greene serves as an illuminating foil. Greene was an adherent—she has since distanced herself—of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that the Democratic Party is harboring a ring of pedophiles who harvest children’s blood in a quest for immortality. She believed that victims of school shootings were crisis actors. She has made repeated homophobic and transphobic statements and built her political career around attacking LGBTQ people. Greene’s story, though extreme, resonated in part because it spoke to larger trends within the Republican Party. The GOP was growing more extreme; millions of its members believed outlandish conspiracy theories about Democrats and victims of violence. Greene’s rise within the Republican Party neatly encapsulated this rightward drift—and her ascendance during this Congress, thanks to her allegiance with McCarthy, only underlines that.
With Santos, it’s a lot less clear that he is a symbol of the GOP’s decline. Yes, he is a serial liar, an egotist, a nihilist. But part of the reason Santos’s story is so incredible is that it has found a way to max out its sheer absurdity: Here is someone who appears to have lied about nearly everything about his life and, somehow, gotten elected to Congress. That, weeks later, those lies continue to be exposed is only more amazing. But for McCarthy and the House GOP, the steady march of Santos scandals has served as a perhaps welcome distraction. After McCarthy’s grinding, humiliating election to the speakership—the longest, most drawn-out such election since the Civil War—all of the attention was on the dysfunction of the Republican caucus and its general ungovernability. But in the aftermath, Santos has eaten most of the attention, stealing some of the limelight away from the plum committee assignments being handed to dyed-in-the-wool extremists, or their weird ideas, like the “fair tax.”
This state of play might change at any time. Santos has signaled that he may try to ingratiate himself within the ranks of the House’s far-right clique—or at least that he will be legislating further to the right than he suggested he would on the campaign trail. Given the minuscule size of the Republican majority, McCarthy desperately needs him to stick around, even if he is a serial fabulist and general bungler. If he were expelled from office or resigned, it would trigger a special election.
Santos’s improprieties may continue to be a headache, but it’s one that McCarthy seems prepared to endure. This is reflected in the fact that he was willing to hand the embattled New York congressman some committee assignments that, while hardly top-shelf—the Small Business and Science, Space and Technology committees—still weave Santos into the fold rather than leave him in an outcast state. McCarthy faces two years of being reminded that a man who once swindled a veteran out of charity money for his dog—yes, literally—now sits on the House Small Business Committee. Still, for now, it’s a small reward for the man who’s provided no end of distraction from the unruliness of the House Republican Caucus and the first few weeks of McCarthy’s unsteady leadership.
* This article originally misspelled Gardiner’s surname.