Monday, February 26, 2024

At the end of the day, it may have been the luxury goods that brought down George Santos. Not the lies about going to Baruch College and being a volleyball star or working for Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. Not the claims of being Jewish and having grandparents who were killed in the Holocaust and a mother who died of cancer as a result of 9/11. (Not true, it turned out.) Not the fibs about having founded an animal charity or owning substantial real estate assets. None of the falsehoods that have been exposed since Mr. Santos’s election last year. After all, he did survive two previous votes by his peers to expel him from Congress, one back in May, one earlier in November.

At this point, the discussion around lies and politics is so familiar, it has become almost background noise. But taking $6,000 of his campaign contributions and spending it on personal shopping at Ferragamo? Dropping another couple thousand at Hermès? At Sephora? On Botox? Those revelations, documented in the House Ethics Committee report released Nov. 16, seemed simply too much. Despite the fact that Mr. Santos had announced that he would not seek re-election, despite the fact that he is still facing a 23-count federal indictment, Representative Michael Guest, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, introduced a resolution the week before Thanksgiving calling for Mr. Santos’s expulsion from Congress. On Friday, the House voted in favor – 311 to 114, with two voting present – making Mr. Santos only the third representative since the Civil War to be ejected from that legislative body.

As Michael Blake, a professor of philosophy, public policy and governance at the University of Washington, wrote in The Conversation, Mr. Santos’s lies provoked “resentment and outrage, which suggests that they are somehow unlike the usual forms of deceptive practice undertaken during political campaigns.”

It was in part the ties that had done it. The vanity. The unabashed display of greed contained in the silken self-indulgence of a luxury good.

“Material objects are at the heart of this thing,” said Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton University. “They expose what is seen as a universal character flaw and make it concrete.”

White collar crime is often abstract and confusing. Tax evasion is not sexy. (Nothing about taxes is sexy.) It may get prosecutors excited, but the general public finds it boring. To be sure, the House Ethics Committee report, all 55 pages of it, went far beyond the juicy details of designer goods (not to mention an OnlyFans expense), but it is those details that have been plastered across the headlines and stick in the imagination. They make the narrative of wrongdoing personal, because one thing almost everyone can relate to is luxury goods.

These days they are everywhere: unboxed on TikTok with all the seductive allure of a striptease; dangling by celebrities on Instagram; glittering from store windows for the holidays. Lusted after and dismissed in equal measure for what they reveal about our own base desires and human weaknesses, they are representative of aspiration, achievement, elitism, wealth, indulgence, escapism, desire, envy, frivolity. Also the growing and extreme wealth gap and the traditions of royalty and dictators – the very people the settlers (not to mention the Puritans) came to America to oppose.

There’s a reason even Richard Nixon boasted in a 1952 speech that his wife, Pat, didn’t “have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat.”

As Mr. Wilentz said, it has been, and still is, “unseemly to appear too rich in Washington.” (At least for anyone not named Trump. In this, as in so many things, the former president appears to be an exception to the rule.)

In the myth of the country – the story America tells itself about itself – our elected officials, above all, are not supposed to care about the trappings of wealth; they are supposed to care about the health of the country. “The notion of elected officials being public servants may be a polite fiction, but it is a polite fiction we expect politicians to maintain,” Mr. Blake said.

Even if, as David Axelrod, the former Democratic strategist and senior fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, points out, speaking of the amount of money needed to run for office these days, “office holders and candidates spend an awful lot of time rubbing shoulders with people of celebrity and wealth and often grow a taste for those lifestyles – the material things; the private planes and lavish vacations.”

Indeed, Mr. Santos is simply the latest elected official whose filching of funds to finance a posh lifestyle brought them to an ignominious end.

In 2014, for example, a former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, was found guilty on federal bribery charges of accepting $175,000 worth of cash and gifts, including a Rolex watch and Louis Vuitton handbags and Oscar de la Renta gowns for his wife from the businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., and sentenced to two years in prison. (The Supreme Court later vacated the sentence.) During the trial, the products were entered as exhibits by the prosecution – glossy stains on the soul of the electorate.

In 2018, Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, was convicted on eight counts of bank fraud and tax crimes after a Justice Department investigation revealed that he had spent $1.3 million on clothes, mostly at the House of Bijan in Beverly Hills, including a $15,000 ostrich jacket that set the social media world alight with scorn. More recently, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey was accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz, among other bribes, in return for political favors.

In each case, while the financial chicanery was bad, it was the details of the stuff – the objects themselves – that became the smoking gun, the indefensible revelation of moral weakness. And so it was with Mr. Santos.

Even if, at one point, his appreciation of a good look may have made him seem more accessible – he reviewed NASA’s spacesuit and created a best- and worst-dressed list for the White House Correspondent’s dinner, both on X – it also proved his undoing. As the House Ethics Committee report read: “He blatantly stole from his campaign. He deceived donors into providing what they thought were contributions to his campaign but were in fact payments for his personal benefit.”

And worse – for vanity, reeking of ostentation. That’s not just an alleged crime. It’s an affront to democracy.

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