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In Washington, it’s often useful to chart a single metric over time. Government economists thrive on them. Budget nerds live and die by such measurements. Hacks seize on those yardsticks to chart progress or regression. Voters respond based on a gut sense of numbers they don’t really understand but know how graphs make their stomachs sink or soar.
So, for the purposes of today’s D.C. Brief, let’s take a trip back to 1958 in search of an explanation for the absurd fabulism of Rep. George Santos, the New York Republican whose biography seems to unravel quicker than that mitten your grandmother knitted for you and that you carelessly threw into the wash. (Stick with us. We promise this deep dive reaches a payoff.)
Back in 1958, Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, rocketed into orbit, closing the Space Race gap with the Soviets’ Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. President Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first U.S. leader to be broadcast in color and, later, via satellite. Washington green-lit NASA, the first post-World War II recession rebounded relatively quickly, and even the accidental drop of a nuclear weapon in Mars Bluff, S.C., failed to produce a nuclear mushroom cloud or yield even a single death.
In short, Americans were feeling pretty good about their country heading into what would be the most turbulent decade since the Civil War. Lady Luck seemed to be siding with Lady Liberty. To be sure, the United States was still far afield from fulfilling its promises of equality, but a strong national footing helped Washington to march to the front of the global pecking order and keep Cold War insecurities at least in check. It helped create what this newsroom’s founder dubbed The American Century.
So when Gallup, for the first time in the polling house’s history, asked Americans in December of 1958 about their trust in government, a mind-blowing-by-today’s-standards three-quarters answered in the affirmative. Eisenhower had a slightly lagging 57% job approval rating, suggesting Americans had faith in their government even if its chief was coasting on fumes toward the end of two post-World War 2 terms.
Fast forward to 1980, to the nadir of Jimmy Carter’s one term as President. Gallup’s polling found a flaccid 25% of voters having faith in government in October of 1980. Combined economic, foreign policy, and energy crises left the public with an utter lack of faith in government. Still, Carter slightly outperformed government itself; 31% told Gallup they approved of him. The peanut farmer from Georgia still had some caché—certainly more than bureaucrats in D.C. still trying to recover from the Watergate scandals. The public thought Carter was a good guy and gave him some slack.
So, you’re asking, what does this have to do with Santos, a first-month member of Congress? Put simply: Santos is a super-charged personification of the adage that all politicians lie. So far, we know that he lied or misstated the truth about his high school, his college, his faith, his C.V., his charities, his money, his marriage(s?), his mother’s death vis a vis 9/11, his grandmother’s experiences during the Holocaust, his staffers’ deaths at the Pulse nightclub shooting… Well, a lot doesn’t add up. Santos is already a drag on public confidence in government, even if the polling hasn’t yet caught up to this reality.
He faces an ethics investigation even before he can unpack his office. Reporters are dogging him on Capitol Hill, and they know the office buildings’ hallways better than he does and are routinely out-navigating him. It’s tough to have any impact as a legislator when the daily questions about your lies chase you, your fellow lawmakers don’t trust you, and it’s not entirely certain that your name is even George Santos. As TIME’s Mini Racker reports, Santos faces an uphill climb steeper than most freshmen.
To reach such a pit takes real effort. But it appears Santos has done the work, including the latest revelation that one of his campaign fundraisers impersonated now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s chief of staff during finance events dating back to 2020. McCarthy can tolerate a fudged resume, but it’s not clear the new—and fragile—Speaker will have much appetite for such false pretenses, especially when that cash could have been his dole out and win favor and the resulting lawmaker could imperil his own political fortunes.
Santos is starting at perhaps one of the lowest points of any incoming lawmaker. It took Trump six years of falsehoods and outlandish behaviors to grind Americans’ faith to anything approaching where Santos finds himself. As he was seeking re-election in 2020, a scant 36% of Americans said Trump could be considered honest or trustworthy, according to Gallup. Americans knew him to be a huckster when they elected the reality TV star in 2016, but they didn’t fully understand the volume of falsehoods that were in store. Still, even after a whole host of revelations, 72% of Republicans still trusted Trump—a figure no one expects Santos to match, even inside his family.
So why does this matter beyond one congressional district in New York? It speaks to the power and potential of government itself, plus its vulnerability. Americans aren’t exactly inclined to give government the benefit of the doubt these days, even if they can find positives in their own lawmakers. Faith in government seems to have bottomed-out at around 17% in Gallup’s aggregate polling. Even during Trump’s era, he didn’t dip below that rock bottom.
But with Santos in the mix—and, if Democrats have their way, serving as the face of the modern Republican Party—that shameful low point may prove still possible to go even lower. Republicans now have control of the House and are poised to actually have a say in Washington, yet the prospect of Santos being imbued with any power or authority within his caucus would only hamper their abilities, not to mention government’s potential. Trump had the advantage of a GOP base that adored him. Santos’ only advantage at this point may be a weak House Speaker who has only a handful of Republican no votes to spare on any given day. Yet even that might not be enough to put up with the reputational costs. That, precisely, is why McCarthy and fellow Republicans may be grateful for Santos’ votes in settling the bloody fight for the Speaker’s gavel over the weekend, but perhaps may have fast-fading loyalty to this unrepentant fabulist.
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