World’s Foremost George Santos Expert Explains It All
A Q+A with Mark Chiusano, author of the new book, "The Fabulist: The Lying, Hustling, Grifting, Stealing, and Very American Legend of George Santos."
1:14 PM EST on December 6, 2023
During the 2022 midterm election season, Mark Chiusano, then a Newsday reporter, began writing about small little lies coming from a Republican congressional candidate running on Long Island named George Santos. Chiusano found that Santos lied about where he lived and that campaign cash didn't exactly go where Santos said it did. But it was only after Santos was elected that the public at large really looked into the totality of Santos's lies, which began his great unraveling, ultimately leading to his expulsion from Congress last week.
In his extremely well-timed new book, "The Fabulist: The Lying, Hustling, Grifting, Stealing, and Very American Legend of George Santos," Chiusano goes deep into Santos's many grifts, from taking money from his elderly devout grandmother to fundraising for a recount effort that never happened. Reading Chiusano's account, Santos doesn't come across as all that different from the scheming small-time crooks who hover on the periphery of everyone's social networks and mostly get away with it—Santos just made the mistake of getting elected to Congress.
Hell Gate spoke with Chiusano about his new book, the recent outpouring of appreciation for Santos online, and whether local news media really "missed" the story.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
There's been this metamorphosis in recent weeks of the broader understanding of George Santos. People have gone from thinking of him as a vile threat to democracy and an embarrassment and now have a kind of ironic, detached perspective that "you know, actually this guy is great." As somebody who spent a year combing through this guy's life history, where do you end up on this spectrum?
I think the truth is that he is both of those things. He's many things to many people, and he is many things to himself as well, I guess. That's what's been so interesting about this project, seeing how consistent his life patterns have been. Even from the very beginning, he was saying a lot of crazy, conspiratorial, vile stuff, but also at the beginning of his political life, he was kind of weird and funny and a little bit of a character.
In the book, you call his election a "perfect storm"—this guy shouldn't have been elected, but somehow was, with New York's Long Island suburbs revolting against the governor and coming out in force to vote. If he never ended up getting elected, how long do you think he could have kept up all these grifts he was working on seemingly all the time?
I think that he could have gone on for a really long time as this kind of low-level con artist, a kind of hustler. He could have kept making a moderate amount of money just grifting off his friends and associates for a long time, if he hadn't gone into politics.
For the most part, he's been able to wriggle his way out of low-level legal things, up until getting into politics. But the difference between politics and everything else is that you yourself have to offer your background and kind of open your books to a certain level.
I remember writing about his "recount campaign committee" that he did right after he lost the first race [in 2020] to Suozzi. Even then, there were already these kind of sketchy, bizarre, probably illegal things. And so it's like, from the very beginning of his political life, he was really playing with fire.
What does it say about the Long Island GOP that someone like Santos was able to quickly become their darling during a victorious 2022 election cycle?
It tells a kind of counterintuitive story about Long Island, because right now, it's this resurgent GOP for sure. I write about this a lot in the book, that it shows the strength of the Nassau County Republican Party, which has been this incredible machine for decades.
Reagan had this crazy line about when a Republican dies and goes to heaven, it looks basically like Nassau County. The sort of grip that they have over jobs and patronage is so intense, and continues to some extent to this day.
But Long Island is not like the Long Island of the Reagan era where everyone is Italian American or Irish. It's not just shaped by the early suburban, white flight era anymore. Now, it's increasingly diverse and even socioeconomically, too. So the GOP, especially in Nassau County, has very smartly looked to change its face—they're looking for people who can appeal to these new constituencies. And Santos was kind of ideal for this, because he was a guy who said he could raise money on his own, he didn't really need that much economic help from the party. In fact, he helped the party get money, which was part of why they kind of turned a blind eye to him.
And he had this incredible story, that he was a son of immigrants, a gay man. He was able to smuggle in some very, very deeply conservative values through this kind of new face for the party.
And he'd embellish a lot, obviously about his religion, and add some other lies. But you could point to the current mayor of New York City, who does this pretty often too.
I think that the difference with Santos is that he kind of is doing everything at once. Lots of politicians will have a favorite lie that they tell. And an exaggeration that they keep returning to and keep kind of embellishing. Or, on the other hand, they don't tell lies, but they're corrupt or they have some sort of grift going. Santos, he was both doing the grift in a really intense way, literally using campaign dollars for personal gain, even to the extent of putting it in his pocket. So he had the grift going and he was exaggerating about things and he was whole-hog lying about things that were totally, totally made up.
And he would lie about policy things as well. He could kind of stir the cauldron of these intense political currents on Long Island in ways that some other, more truth-bound politicians couldn't.
Santos didn't have that problem. He would happily just sort of talk about crime in New York City, stuff like that. He would be anti-mask, but here was a guy that in the beginning of the pandemic, took COVID-19 super seriously, even didn't go to some campaign events because he was so worried about COVID-19. And then obviously made that full 180-degree shift in a way that other politicians wouldn't feel so comfortable doing.
What do you think was behind the revulsion that other members of Congress felt towards Santos?
I don't think that Republicans as a block were so thrilled about getting rid of him. They seated him, and it took months and months and months to push him out. There was definitely a concern about the margin of the majority in Congress. But also cynically, I think it's convenient to sort of focus on Santos and say, Santos is the rot in the party, and once we've gotten rid of him, we're all good, when the same Republican leadership gave Marjorie Taylor Greene back her committee when they took power. Marjorie Taylor Greene has said some of the same crazy, conspiratorial stuff that Santos had. They're kind of drawing a line conveniently where they are to get rid of Santos.
But there was also a revulsion, because he wasn't seen as one of them. He wasn't a guy who had spent his whole life thinking about politics and wanting to be in politics. He didn't fit the mold of a politician. He sort of reflected badly on them because he's like a clown who fits the public's idea of a politician—which is actually kind of a liar and a scammer.
A lot of people frame this story as the collapse of local news, where reporters didn't catch this guy until he was in Congress. But you were there, and you were writing about it. Why is it framed as a news desert story as opposed to a "why didn't people notice this guy was a scammer earlier" story?
I was writing critical things about weird, weird things that he was doing. He didn't live where he said he did. He had this weird campaign financing. The Daily Beast did a great job with his job background, the North Shore Leader, too. But the problem was, none of us, myself included, kind of connected all the dots and said, oh, it's not just that he's sketchy on these four or five levels, he's lying about every single thing. And that didn't happen until the New York Times did their great piece, which connected the dots.
But I also think it's tricky when you have someone who's willing to lie about everything, especially in this moment where lying isn't like an immediate death sentence. Any one of these stories that did come out about Santos before the elections really should have been enough for people to say, oh, this guy is totally unacceptable. But in this sort of Trump moment where everyone is fatigued about lying politicians, it didn't really cut through, and it was such a partisan year that people were voting Republican no matter what.
There's a special election for his seat now called for February. Is this an easy win for Democrats?
It's not really a slam dunk right now for the Democrats, even though they kind of should be able to pick it up, given what has happened here. From the outside looking in, you would be like, OK, the last guy was Santos, what a crazy candidate, it should switch sides. But the Republicans did a pretty good job, from a PR standpoint, of stepping away from Santos and trying to disavow him.
So I think that this is going to be a tight race, and those political currents that helped Santos win have not gone away, and if anything, they've only gotten stronger.
What's your general sense of where Santos goes from here?
It was not surprising to me that he jumped right to Cameo. In the book, I look at his intense fascination with entertainment and media and kind of gossipy stuff. He used to be really into celebrity culture, essentially Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton. So it makes sense that that's what he'd turn back to now that politics is over.
But I do think that with the recent metamorphosis of public opinion on Santos, people kind of forget about the federal fraud trial that's coming up. It's going to be really tough for him.
Digging into his history, what was your favorite grift of his?
I guess I was struck by how much he'd been grifting from the beginning. He had this thing going with his grandmother in Brazil. And he would mooch off her and say essentially, oh, I lost the money that you gave me. In Brazil, I talked to the doorman of the apartment that she used to live in, and the doorman said that she used to go to mass every day, she was a very deeply religious, older woman, and he's kind of running a little hustle on her.
What's your main takeaway from your year with George Santos?
What struck me about this whole thing was how it's this American story. He's almost a Forrest Gump kind of figure in this American moment.
It just really seemed like he had this American dream that he wanted to achieve and couldn't, and so instead became successful in this totally separate American way. Which, in itself, is extremely American.
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