George Anthony Devolder Santos was born in 1988 with a serious congenital condition which means he is incapable of feeling shame or embarrassment. I’m not sure what the name of the affliction is or whether it’s recognized by the medical establishment – but many of his former colleagues in government seem to suffer from the same thing.

Still, the disgraced New York Republican, who was expelled from Congress three weeks ago and pleaded not guilty in October to a total of 23 federal felony charges ranging from wire fraud to money laundering, clearly has an extreme case. Santos, who was elected to represent parts of Long Island and Queens last year, has been dogged by controversy throughout his short political career. It turns out he lied about pretty much everything in his life – including his mother surviving 9/11.

Every time he’s been called out on his lies and alleged frauds, however, he’s shrugged his shoulders and acted as if people were making a fuss out of nothing. “It’s the vulnerability of being human,” he said loftily when challenged on his claims to have an extensive property portfolio, for example. “I am not embarrassed by it.”

Santos, who is just the sixth person ever to be expelled from Congress, doesn’t seem particularly fazed by his ousting either. I don’t know about you, but if I’d been kicked out of Congress – and was facing a 23-count federal indictment that alleged, inter alia, that I’d stolen campaign donors’ identities and charged thousands of dollars to their credit cards for things like Botox without their knowledge – I’d probably feel a tad sheepish. I’d probably lie low for a bit and try to avoid doing anything that brought undue attention to myself or got me into even more legal trouble.

Santos, however? He’s busy trying to reinvent himself. He hasn’t let disgrace bring him down. Instead, Santos, the first non-incumbent gay Republican ever elected to Congress, seems to be busy trying to turn himself into some kind of ironic gay icon and is leaning into his camp and outlandish persona as far as he possibly can.

He recently announced an X subscription where he promises to “spill tea” on Congress for just $7 a month, for example. He also signed up as a “former congressional ‘Icon’!” to Cameo, a website that offers access to personalized messages from celebrities. For a mere $200-$500 you can get a video message from him.

Are people actually paying for this? I’m afraid they are! A friend of the Nebraska state senator Megan Hunt, who is bisexual and a big supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, hired Santos – who has endorsed several anti-trans policies – to send her a message of support which was widely shared.

“Be yourself unapologetically,” Santos said in the video, seemingly oblivious that he had supported laws that would stop people doing just that. “Just love yourself. Just make sure that you don’t buy into the hate and stand your ground and don’t let them force you out. Don’t let them bully you. You do you, girl. I’m cheering for ya.”

Then there was this week’s much-anticipated interview with Ziwe Fumudoh, a comedian famous for her deadpan interviews. Santos used drag slang like “boots the house down” (an expression of enthusiasm) multiple times throughout the interview in a seeming attempt to remind us all that he may be a disgrace and a Republican but he’s also gay, so he can’t be all bad, ya know?

While he may be familiar with gay slang, Santos doesn’t seem to know much about LGBTQ+ history. Ziwe quizzed Santos on civil rights icons (the former politician once compared himself to Rosa Parks) and he admitted he had no idea who James Baldwin or Harvey Milk were. He also didn’t seem familiar with the transgender activist Marsha P Johnson.

What about Santos’s own gay history? Namely allegations that Santos, a supporter of anti-LGBTQ+ policies like Florida’s “don’t say gay” law, had been a drag queen in the past. That was true, Santos said, but only for a day. “If I was a career drag queen then, like everybody likes to claim, then I must be a myth of a drag queen now … I wear far more makeup today.”

The most important question Ziwe asked was probably her most earnest. “What could we do to get you to go away?” she demanded towards the end, speaking for a nation. “Stop inviting me to your gigs,” Santos replied quickly. “But you can’t. Because people want the content.”

Santos may be fond of fiction but, for once, he was speaking the complete truth. You can be forgiven for pretty much anything in America if you generate entertaining enough content. You can lie, you can cheat, you can commit all manner of sins – but if you draw eyeballs and generate headlines you will probably be forgiven. You might even become president! And you certainly won’t go broke. The talkshow appearances, the book deals, the invitations to Dancing on the Stars will come.

That said, there are a few things that do tend to kill your career in America. Espousing pro-Palestinian views being a major one. Ziwe, in fact, joked about that herself. “Do you support a ceasefire or are you afraid of losing your Hollywood representation?” she asked Santos at one point during the 18-minute interview.

The former congressman, in case you’re interested, made it very clear that he did not support a ceasefire in Gaza, where more than 20,000 people have died. What a strange world we live in, where calling for a ceasefire can get you cancelled faster than using campaign money on shopping sprees and lying your way into Congress.

Ziwe is hilarious but, despite the laughs, the interview with Santos ultimately left a bad taste in one’s mouth. You can’t “gotcha” a guy like Santos. You can’t embarrass him. You can’t expose him. You can’t unsettle him. At one point, for example, Ziwe asked: “What advice do you have for young diverse people with personality disorders considering a career in politics?” Most people would get flustered. Santos just paused for a while then said, “You’re cute.”

Ultimately, none of this is cute. Platforming a guy like Santos, a bigot who thrives on the oxygen of attention, only helps to rehabilitate him. We may think we’re laughing at the ex-congressman but with every view his interviews rack up, it’s clear that the joke is on us.

Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian US columnist

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Are we laughing at George Santos or is he laughing at us?

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22.12.2023

George Anthony Devolder Santos was born in 1988 with a serious congenital condition which means he is incapable of feeling shame or embarrassment. I’m not sure what the name of the affliction is or whether it’s recognized by the medical establishment – but many of his former colleagues in government seem to suffer from the same thing.

Still, the disgraced New York Republican, who was expelled from Congress three weeks ago and pleaded not guilty in October to a total of 23 federal felony charges ranging from wire fraud to money laundering, clearly has an extreme case. Santos, who was elected to represent parts of Long Island and Queens last year, has been dogged by controversy throughout his short political career. It turns out he lied about pretty much everything in his life – including his mother surviving 9/11.

Every time he’s been called out on his lies and alleged frauds, however, he’s shrugged his shoulders and acted as if people were making a fuss out of nothing. “It’s the vulnerability of being human,” he said loftily when challenged on his claims to have an extensive property portfolio, for example. “I am not embarrassed by it.”

Santos, who is just the sixth person ever to be expelled from Congress, doesn’t seem particularly fazed by his ousting either. I don’t know about you, but if I’d been kicked out of Congress – and was facing a 23-count federal indictment that alleged, inter alia, that I’d stolen campaign donors’ identities and charged thousands of dollars to their credit cards for things like Botox without their knowledge –........

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