Good Night, Sweet Princess
George Santos was too flamboyantly criminal for Congress
George Santos was not the worst criminal ever to serve in Congress. At the time of his expulsion earlier today, he was not even the member of Congress currently under federal indictment for the most serious crimes — no, that’s Sen. Robert Menendez, who stands accused of selling his office to the Egyptians. No other member of Congress has ever been expelled over a mere criminal indictment; Menendez hasn’t even had to give up his committee assignments. So why was an exception made for Rep. Santos and his (as-yet still alleged!) campaign-funded shopping sprees at Hermès and OnlyFans?
The answer is obvious: anti-gay bigotry.
Haha, I’m mostly kidding. But there is something notable about the relationship between ex-Rep. Santos’ politics, his style, his (alleged!) crimes, his sexual orientation, and his expulsion. We live in an era when the Republican Party is dominated by high camp miscreants. Donald Trump, of course, is a camp figure. But so is Kari Lake with her Vaseline-smudged camera testimonials and her feud with her drag-queen ex-friend. So is Matt Gaetz, who resembles nothing so much as a bobblehead of himself. So, at times, is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who called Lauren Boebert a “little bitch” on the House floor and then reaffirmed those remarks to a reporter in what might as well have been a Real Housewives confessional. These people aren’t gay, but then, neither is Countess Luann de Lesseps. The point is that they all stand on the shoulders of the homosexuals who created the trashy reality TV aesthetic they are living out.
In this context, it’s beyond appropriate that the first openly gay non-incumbent ever to win election to Congress as a Republican was a ready-made reality TV villain. A sassy gay menace was one of the few essential components the GOP reality show had been missing. And Santos did his best to fit in with the reality-show part of the caucus, not just with his outlandish antics but also with extreme MAGA politics that stood out from his more moderate colleagues in the Republican delegation from Long Island. Santos, for example, attended the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally and declared that “rampant fraud” may have cost both him and Trump their elections in 2020.1 He befriended Marjorie Taylor Greene, and even when the House voted overwhelmingly to remove him this week, members like Greene, Gaetz and Boebert stood behind him, voting “no” on the expulsion resolution.
And yet, that was not good enough to save his seat.
One problem was that Santos, as an actual homosexual, played his role too well. His lies were outlandish; his outfits were garish; the twink who shooed reporters away from him in elevators came from gay central casting. He was flaming like a car crash — it was impossible for the media to look away from him and he spoke eagerly to reporters, often in insulting terms about his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. For Democrats, this was obviously great fun, however indignantly they insisted on their indignant indignance about it. For Republicans, it was a tremendous headache; in the past, most members who have faced indictment at least had the tact to keep their heads down and avoid trying to draw their swing-district co-partisans into the news vortexes that swirled around them. But not Santos.
Still, Santos is hardly the only right-wing member of Congress who has drawn a lot of attention to himself in a way that causes headaches for “team normal” Republicans. But one big difference between him and Gaetz and Boebert is that he lacks any deep connection to the MAGA fan base — it seems right-wing voters have not been in the market for a flamboyantly gay MAGA criminal icon, and there is no apparent groundswell of base outrage over his ouster. The role Santos’ sexuality has played here is mostly implicit, but Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett said it out loud, telling Business Insider why the voters in his very conservative district wanted Santos expelled: “I mean, people don't like the fact he's gay. And then you go down the list, then you get to all the criminal stuff.” (Burchett himself, it should be noted, voted against expulsion.)
It seems you can be a gay Republican, or you can be a messy-bitch-who-lives-for-drama Republican, but being both at the same time remains a bridge too far for many conservatives. Or, maybe the way to put it is that Republican voters’ growing tolerance for crime by politicians does not extend to extremely gay crimes like stealing campaign funds to pay for Botox. We have made much progress toward equality, but this shows that there is always more work to be done.
Of course, there are other explanations for why Santos got jettisoned while the heterosexual messy bitches have held on. The most obvious is that he has been indicted and they have not.2 There is also his choice of (alleged!) victims: Ohio Rep. Max Miller says Santos made thousands of dollars of unauthorized charges on his and his mother’s credit cards. Committing literal fraud against your Republican House colleagues and their moms may be legendary iconic ‘slay queen’ behavior, but it’s also pretty reckless if you’re relying on those colleagues to vote to keep you in the House.
Perhaps the best piece of evidence that Santos was not singled out for his sexual orientation is that the Republican establishment did previously take down one of the straight members of the messy-bitch caucus: Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who was defeated for re-election in a Republican primary last year. Cawthorn isn’t gay (his aesthetic of frat homoeroticism notwithstanding), but he does share two things with Santos: He was a political neophyte whose rise to Congress was puzzling before he started causing trouble, and he flamboyantly baited his colleagues in the media, most memorably by alleging that his fellow members of Congress had been inviting him to orgies and doing “key bumps” of cocaine in front of him.3 Maybe the gravest sin in Republican politics these days is not being a sleazebag or a criminal, but being a sleazebag or a criminal who is so interesting that people keep asking your boring colleagues about you.
You don’t have to be gay to achieve that. But it helps.
Santos ran for the same district again in 2022 and, assisted by a broad Democratic collapse in New York’s suburbs, won by eight points.
I will be very interested to see what happens if Rep. Gaetz ends up being on the receiving end of a scathing Ethics Committee report over the underage-sex allegations that did not lead to him being indicted. In October, Kevin McCarthy hinted at damning evidence to come, saying “I’ve seen the texts” when alleging that Gaetz sought his ouster as speaker as retribution over an ethics investigation that remains ongoing.
As Politico reported shortly after Cawthorn’s comments, in March 2022: “During a closed-door House GOP conference meeting on Tuesday, multiple Republicans in the room said lawmakers stood up to air their anger and frustration over Cawthorn portraying his own colleagues as bacchanalian and sexual deviants. In one case, Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) stood up and addressed his colleagues, telling them that he rarely speaks during the closed-door weekly meetings but felt he must address the topic because he's now getting questions about participants in Cawthorn's alleged orgies and drug use. Womack remarked that many lawmakers go to bed at 9 p.m. and still use fax machines and flip phones, stating that it was inappropriate to paint them with a broad brush, as Cawthorn did.”