The Madness of Rep. George

george santos
George Santos has quickly surpassed Anna Sorokin in his shape-shifting journey, trying on various careers and guises to increase his marketability within the G.O.P. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP
Tina Nguyen
January 18, 2023

Long Island’s George Santos has quickly surpassed Anna Sorokin in his shape-shifting journey, trying on various careers and guises to increase his marketability within the G.O.P. even after being unmasked as a pathological fabulist. Having failed to pass as a gay Jewish volleyball superstar financier, Santos’s latest costume is MAGA Martyr: a victim of the mainstream media and the Deep State, who may have lied a bit on the way up, but hey, hasn’t everyone in Washington? 

This latest transformation hasn’t surprised members of New York’s Republican scene, especially after the community nearly universally disowned him. (Santos is also being investigated by local and federal prosecutors for his actions on the campaign trail, and by Brazilian authorities for an alleged 2008 fraud.) Ironically, the far right has always been open and accepting, in its way, of weirdos and exiles. “They used to say that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” a New York City-based Republican consultant joked to me. “Now, it is to endear yourself to the MAGA base.” 

The abiding question, however, is if this walking meme can actually make lasting allies of the MAGA crowd. Apart from a chaotic appearance on a recent episode of Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, guest hosted by Matt Gaetz, Santos has been largely shunned by members of the “Taliban 20”—the House Freedom Caucus mini bloc that filibustered Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become Speaker earlier this month—and has found himself on the wrong side of the Tucker Carlson Cinematic Universe. It certainly didn’t help matters that he declared early on his support for McCarthy, the kind of MAGA heel turn that only Marjorie Taylor Greene could pull off. Or that he might have once been a drag queen.

One person described Santos to me as a MAGA “tryhard,” and a senior aide close to his office suggested that the political makeover was hardly the survival tactic that Santos had planned when he ran for Congress. “I think he just thinks of, like, every layer of what people will think of [him] and kind of adjusts his story based on that. And so I feel like he ran on [being] half MAGA, half not” the aide told me. “That’s what his district was electing him for. I think he was going to come into Congress far more RINO than he maybe would have wanted, or it probably doesn’t matter to him. But now being embattled and everyone pretty much dumping on him, it looks like he’s going to try to adopt some kind of MAGA personality, because that’s really the only way you can get out of this thing—with a fight.”

To wit, Santos has recently brought on a new director of operations, Vish Burra, a former Bannon affiliate on War Room and former Gaetz staffer who was recently spotted strolling into Santos’s office wearing a tactical NRA backpack. Burra, who is assisting Santos with his right-wing makeover, is neither a slouch nor a grifter—two traits all too common in the MAGA operative world. A Republican operative in these circles described Burra’s reputation to me as “crazy but effective [and] a killer.” 

Indeed, Burra’s resume and internet trail indicate that he is, at least, a true believer in the cause. Apart from his stint with Bannon and Gaetz, as well as a turn as a spokesman for failed congressional challenger Carl Paladino and as executive secretary for the New York Republicans Club, Burra is a self-proclaimed “MAGA jihadist” who openly tweeted, the day after January 6th, that storming the Capitol “was necessary for our movement to show what we can do when you don’t have our consent to be governed.” He is, in short, just the kind of hire that Santos would make if he wanted to go on offense to defend himself. (Burra did not return a request for comment.)

So far, however, Santos seems to be caught in the liminal space between MAGA grifter and McCarthy stooge. As I reported several weeks back, the McCarthy speakership calculus meant that he had to retain Santos’s vote in order to form a bulwark against the Never Kevins, and Santos’s loyalty was rewarded yesterday with seats on two House committees—even after it was revealed that a Santos staffer had impersonated McCarthy’s chief of staff to raise money from G.O.P. donors. Santos now owes McCarthy, and McCarthy holds his fate in his hands—not exactly the ideal circumstances for Santos to reinvent himself as an anti-establishment bomb thrower. After all, if there’s one thing that characterizes a true MAGA fighter, it’s being able to present as having a blazingly authentic personality. Santos may be too strange, and too compromised, to survive in Congress without McCarthy’s protection.

Nevertheless, Santos is chasing the approval of the MAGA crowd, so long as his past doesn’t catch him first. “He has to clearly answer where the [campaign] money came from. That’s the only thing that’s holding him back from making a full comeback,” the senior aide close to his office told me, pointing out a dodgy answer Santos made during his appearance on War Room. Even if he can do that, Santos will have to commit to the full MAGA agenda for the rest of his days. “It’s gonna depend a lot on the kind of legislation he puts forth and what he says in the next few months,” the aide continued. “It’s not just going to be like, do one or two things and boom, ‘I’m MAGA, the whole team loves me.’ He’s gonna have to prove himself over the next few months, and we’ll see if he has the wherewithal to actually do that.”

Ron’s Retail Therapy

Back in the real world, outside Washington, all eyes are turning towards the potential ’24 challengers to Donald Trump—namely Governor Ron DeSantis, plus whatever other names are being floated by G.O.P. operatives this week. But interestingly, neither Trump nor Desantis appear to be engaging in any of the usual primary state pageantry—stalking Iowa’s local interest groups, say, or shaking hands with New Hampshire mayors. On the contrary, as recently noted in Politico, DeSantis has either flubbed or disengaged entirely from the “retail politics” game of courting wealthy donors and state power brokers. (My favorite detail: Republican governors having no idea how to reach DeSantis’s team, sometimes resorting to Google searches.) Instead, as I’ve reported in the past, DeSantis has taken a leaf from the Trump playbook: on the political side, purging longtime Republican legislators in Tallahassee; on the P.R. side, virtually ignoring mainstream press in favor of upstart digital outlets, and going straight to the people. 

But in the eight years since there was a true anything-goes Republican presidential primary, populist-minded conservatives have less interest than ever in traditional campaign objectives like endorsements and introductions. Many of these power brokers are avatars of the G.O.P. establishment that voters now explicitly reject. It’s no wonder that DeSantis and Trump have largely eschewed the game. “Donald Trump broke a narrative that you needed these people to win. DeSantis is seen as America’s governor by the right,” said an operative with close ties to Iowa. “The grassroots are strong and they don’t trust any of the other people.” The operative went on to describe the primary electorate’s perception of various national G.O.P. fixtures in dismissive terms: “Asa Hutchinson: Democrat. Nikki Haley: seen as weak. Tim Scott: basic. Larry Hogan: Democrat. [Chris] Sununu: weak. Etcetera.”

Of course, while there’s an increasingly smaller number of retail politicians to meet, the phenomenon isn’t fully dead yet. The one power broker in Iowa who would be decisive, this operative told me, would be Governor Kim Reynolds, a rising star in today’s red-hatted iteration of the G.O.P. “She’s the first Iowa governor anyone has cared about in a while,” he said, adding that should the G.O.P. field widen, there could be an endorsement domino effect: “If Sununu runs, it negates his endorsement mattering. Tim Scott and Nikki Haley negate any South Carolina endorsements mattering.” And so on.

If the tactics for winning allies have changed over the past eight years—yes, it’s been that long since Trump descended the golden escalator—so, too, have the tactics used to discredit Republican rivals, which now lean heavily on MAGA personalities and influencers scrapping on Twitter. (See: this massive Twitter battle between the pro-DeSantis radio host John Cardillo and Trump-aligned strategist Alex Bruesewitz over whose candidate took more corporate money.) Other, more familiar mud-slinging tactics wouldn’t appear out of place in a pre-digital age: South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, for instance, has started taking shots at DeSantis over his position on abortion, perhaps in an effort to boost her own odds on a Trump ticket. (DeSantis approved a 15 week abortion ban in Florida—a position that is considered too lenient among conservative hardliners, even amid growing evidence that an outright ban is wildly unpopular with voters.) 

So far, the DeSantis media strategy remains the same: ignoring literally every piece of criticism or news that doesn’t concern the state of Florida. But the fact that these early 2024 proxy wars are playing out over online channels, rather than via television surrogates or direct attacks from Trump himself, also highlights the surprisingly low volume of the G.O.P. presidential field. Trump, despite announcing his run in November, has barely said anything about his campaign and rarely appears in mainstream media outlets. He’s also mostly held back from critiquing DeSantis, except perhaps through intermediaries or would-be surrogates, like Noem. 

DeSantis, who is widely expected to enter the race sometime over the summer, seems content to lean on his emerging D.T.C. strategy of picking fights with various “woke” institutions —this week, for instance, he attacked the NHL over a diversity job fair—and allowing sympathetic media outlets, like the Daily Wire, to do his P.R. for him.

Trump’s own alt-media campaign, meanwhile, appears to have lowered his profile. “Just look at how many Members refused to take his call just a couple weeks ago,” a conservative activist told me, referring to the speakers’ battle, when members of the 20 Never Kevins literally ignored calls from Trump on the House floor. “DeSantis is popular, strong and was the biggest G.O.P. winner on election night 2022. His reach is only growing. If anything, [Noem] should be praising Ron with a hope of getting on his ticket.”