The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘lying congressman’ and his crewnecks

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) is the man in the gray crew neck sweater. He is both meaningful and meaningless. Bland but utterly unforgettable. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), the freshly minted congressman whose primary talent appears to be conjuring up outlandish — but useful — lies, has planted his roots firmly into popular culture. He’s flourishing in inhospitable soil.

Santos was satirized Saturday by Bowen Yang in multiple “Saturday Night Live” sketches as a flat-voweled, fabulist who meanders from hyperbole to boastful falsehoods to incomprehensible tall tales. Santos has been mimicked by Jon Lovitz and engaged in a social media spat with the comic in which Santos, aiming to take charge of the narrative, criticized the comedian’s caricature of him. And actor Leslie Jones, serving as guest host of “The Daily Show,” offered her own biting assessment of Santos: “Do you know how much you have to lie to be known as the lying congressman?”

In each case, the preferred visual of Santos shows him wearing a crewneck sweater under his sports jacket. The combination instantly identifies him to audiences before his imitators have uttered a single one of his fabrications.

The breadth, pettiness and audacity of Santos’s lies may well set him apart from his colleagues, but so do his sweaters. They’re all part of a look: khakis, conservative ties, a navy blazer and the spectacles — real or fake. In a congressional gathering full of staid suits and yawn-inducing ties, Santos manages to stand out in an ensemble that’s equally as bland and yet stridently different.

His look is a nod to prep school attire and all the privilege that implies. The style isn’t necessarily about wealth — although that is often part of the equation — but about access and aspiration. It’s the uniform of school boys for whom mathematics and grammar are the fundamentals of their education but leadership and power are the ultimate goals. It’s the attire worn by young men who are being groomed to tap into their entitlement in ways that are uplifting if worn by a poor kid in a struggling community and off-putting when donned by a coddled one with a wealth of possibilities. It’s the costume of young men who are already old and old-timers who refuse to walk away from their youth.

It’s a look that says nothing and everything. For Santos, it’s perfect. It’s also feels inevitable.

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With his hair parted on the side, his dark-rimmed glasses and his round cheeks, Santos can look younger than his 34 years. His clothes fit comfortably. The sweater is neither snug nor rumpled. The jacket is fine. The clothes serve him like camouflage rather than enhancement.

In so many of the photographs taken of Santos upon his arrival in Congress, he has the look of a man who knows he’s being watched. How could he not when he was chased down the halls of Congress by cameras and microphones? He avoids eye contact as if doing so would render him invisible, all while he’s dressing in a manner that makes him unmistakable. He looks frightfully self-conscious, not so much like a man wearing uncomfortable wool or cotton but one who realizes he’s wearing the emperor’s clothes.

Santos is a visual conundrum, something that has been heightened by the photographs of him in drag — a style turn that didn’t go unnoticed by SNL’s Yang. In Santos’s response to the picture of him in fire engine red feathers and paillettes, he chalked it up to being “young” and having “fun” at a festival in Brazil. But he refused the description of drag queen which would be admirable if he was doing so as a matter of humility regarding his feminine talents and fashion sense. But Santos is someone who has been antagonistic to the LGBTQ community despite identifying as gay. Mostly, his denial seemed sad and cruel.

For all the lies and half-truths that Santos has told about his education, professional history and family tree, he is a compelling curiosity. He is a bewildering unknown. For whom did his constituents actually vote? He’s given the country glimpses of the characters to which he’s committed himself, from the young man dressed like a show girl who was just having fun to the often pouty-looking cog who dutifully slips on the suit and tie uniform of his Republican colleagues for whom he serves the central purpose of helping them hang on to their slim majority.

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His fellow Republicans back in New York have disavowed him, publicly declaring that he is unwelcome in their midst. His constituents are knotted up in anger, exasperation and disgust. But he has said he isn’t going anywhere; he won’t resign. Why should he?

He’s found an audience far more numerous than the three-quarters of a million people in his district. His notoriety reaches far beyond the House of Representatives and Capitol Hill. Santos is embedded in popular culture. He’s the subject of satire and SNL cold openings and TV monologues. And while he may protest the characterizations, he does so with the grand, self-aware gesture of a man who’s settling into his infamy. He’s laying claim to his shame.

Santos is the man in the crewneck sweater and the sport jacket: entitled, privileged. He’s a man for this age, one in which facts are fungible, the truth is opaque and mediocrity can take a person far. Santos is everything. And he is nothing at all.