Why a Possible Drag Queen Past Won’t Loosen the GOP Grip of George Santos

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There comes a point in every relationship where enough is enough. For the current Republican Party, you might think the prospect that one of their own was a former drag queen who played a role in the death of a dog would be that moment. And yet, it would seem there is no end in sight for Republican leaders and their ongoing—and highly tortured—defense of Rep. George Santos, an apparently fabulist freshman whose C.V. reads more fictitious by the day. After all, Santos may be a problem child, but he’s a useful vote to keep the GOP in power.

The latest pestering came via reporting that Santos, who campaigned as a hard-right conservative, performed in drag during his time in Brazil in the late aughts. Santos, who identifies as a gay man and supported Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, has disputed the report—one of the few instances of specific denial in a growing litany of contradictions and fabrications that have come to light since he won an upset race on Long Island in November. GOP leaders apparently knew that his résumé was as fishy as the seafood counter in Bayville, but nonetheless allowed his candidacy to move ahead—for a second time—as they chased power.

And now, with just a five-vote House majority and essentially zero defections to spare, most Republicans are wrapping themselves in Santos’ contradictions, tall tales, and personas—including Kitara Ravache, the apparent stage name he used as he chased the title of Miss Gay Rio. Hypocrisy, it seems, only matters if it comes with cost, and is merely an annoyance if the offending party keeps its spoils, no matter how spoiled.

The latest stench around Santos—who previously called himself Anthony Devolder—comes in direct contradiction to his party’s harsh rhetoric on LGBTQ rights, including drag performers. For some conservatives, drag performers invite perversion and challenge sex characteristics—and a useful foil to rile up potential voters who perceive the acts as alien to their values. For many Americans, events like Drag Queen Story Hour, which began in San Francisco in 2015, were initially a way to get children reading and using their imaginations. Now that’s the case so long as the protesters who interrupt them don’t frighten the kids with their threats of violence.

Still, for GOP leadership, Santos (née Kitara Ravache) is a useful widget in their majority machine. After all, he is the first openly gay Republican to win a seat in Congress as a non-incumbent, and the district is New York’s richest, meaning the right Republican in that role could help raise bank for the party. Santos even won seats on the committees overseeing small business and science, suggesting Republican indifference to charges that they are talking out of both sides of their mouths on LGBTQ policies just to keep a seat in a district that leans in Democrats’ favor. (To be fair, a few New York Republicans have called on Santos to find the door, and find it fast.)

Then again, this really ought not be surprising. At this point, Santos has been caught misrepresenting himself on all manner of things. His schooling, his faith, his wealth, his mother’s whereabouts on 9/11, his grandmother’s experiences during the Holocaust, his staffers’ deaths at a gay club in Orlando… All subject to his creative interpretations, it seems. Just Wednesday, as Reuters was publishing its dispatch on Miss Kitara’s dreams of a tiara, Patch.com broke the story that a charity linked to Santos raised $3,000 to help a disabled veteran save his dog’s life, only to stiff the man. (Again, Santos has denied the reporting, and it may not even matter.)

In almost any other environment, Republicans would have said enough is enough—and not because of the LGBTQ component necessarily, given D.C.’s rich history of gay men wielding great power, as James Kirchick documents in his captivating history of the topic published last year. The seemingly daily revelations about Santos are an enormous distraction, as he can barely move through the Capitol complex without a phalanx of reporters asking him about the drumbeat of drama around who, exactly, he is. No other lawmaker draws such a mix of Hill veterans, tabloid-like interest, and plain is this really happening? gawking, the kind that is rarely seen at the Capitol.

At some point, most lawmakers in such a bind realize they can’t do the job under such conditions. Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner quit in 2011 after a three-week circus surrounding his lewd online messages, Republican Rep. Trey Radel of Florida called it a day in 2014 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor cocaine possession, Republican Rep. Tim Murphy in 2017 announced his resignation in the wake of reports he pressured his lover to have an abortion… The list is not a short one. But in each case, the member made the calculated decision that sometimes survival at any cost just isn’t worth the headaches.

Absent that self-awareness, Congress itself can remove troublesome colleagues with a two-thirds vote. To be clear, it’s happened only twice since the Civil War’s end, and both men were deeply problematic. It’s safe to bet Santos knows this, which along with his useful vote for the Republican agenda is why he is staying put. At least for now, his comrades in the House find Santos useful and haven’t yet reached their breaking point. As long as Santos protects the slim Republican majority, he has some degree of protection—even if his experience is one more appropriate for the New Fiction or True Crime sections of Amazon than anything passing a civics textbook.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com