How does Santos the phony phony differ from Trump the genuine phony?

Imitating Trump’s illusion of invulnerability does not protect one against self-destruction.

Image Credit: Salon/Getty Images

Despite a surfeit of deplorables, the mind-boggling Santos saga defines the Trumpist dumpster bottomland

Easy riddle: What’s even worse than a slimy, two-bit, third-rate, monumentally failed con man? One who makes an equally scurrilous, more flagrant, more powerful charlatan seem less objectionable. How revealing that, without much ado, the most scandalized member of Congress gets the ax while Trump, the most scandalized president, survives two impeachments and 91 felony indictments, perched atop the GOP putsch. Plus, why hasn’t the Santos shame tainted the party, if not Trumpism, as his iconic bad faith only took modern GOP grift politics to its logical extreme. Ditto for Trump: how much unending infamy does it take to undermine a national party?

Morally, and politically, this hellish duo struts the same malignant narcissism, shameless grandstanding, abuse of followers, contempt for law, and a defiant brashness only amplified by exposure. Both scoff at anything as mundane as personal limits, whether spending power, election laws, or criminal nonchalance. Though Trump holds his own as woeful crime boss, Santos the delusional doofus missed every warning signal. Might not both have unconscious impulses to be found out, even rebuked, if only to win more attention?

Why did Santos, for years rotten to the core, implode like a bombed arsenal yet Trump endures, fighting off hordes of prosecutions? Right off, Santos had no inherited treasure, the wrong sexuality, and no friends in high places. Soon after being sworn in, Santos was humiliated by reports of heinous illegality that varied from the serious to the ridiculous, such gross violations even sleepy journalists unearthed unfitness. So many were undeniable that even the GOP-controlled Ethics Committee eventually produced a scathing judgment. Unlike Trump, apparently able to charm servile victims before wrecking their lives, Santos offended scads in his path, even onerous MAGA buddies. His unchecked outlawry (here and abroad) were surpassed only by charmlessness and jaw-dropping myopia—all making Trump look almost conscious of reality. 

Santos makes Trump look better

Somehow, Santos could never escape that first impression—here’s not only a phony crook but a phony phony, a rule-breaker so self-destructive he makes other veteran scammers, like Trump, Kevin McCarthy, or Justices Thomas or Kavanaugh, look half bright. Talk about class distinctions: fat cats with leverage and contacts skirt mortal danger while impoverished, up-from-the-nasty-bootstrap opportunists get smashed. Santos was too base to cultivate a modicum of backers, in the end so block-headed he refused to resign, thus maxing out notoriety. 

Yes, money inequality at the starting gate (and no big sucker fundraising) separate Little George from Big Donald. In this corner, a wildly amateurish loser going it alone without nefarious mentors vs. a master propagandist skilled at rank power plays that serve his image and dominance. Santos suffered from the worst, right-wing fantasy delusion—that self-entitled, underdog “geniuses” (aren’t they all?) in a dog-eat-dog world must and can take huge risks to succeed. Forget playing chess; Santos was just a bullish, snotty, schoolyard a-hole. 

We should recognize fearlessness, however insane, the bet that a Congressman can escape mere financial machinations. He wasn’t planning a Fifth Avenue murder, after all, just theft below the radar. The result—tunnel vision derangement—now explains why he still has no clue what went wrong — why small-time grift attracted a flood of attention. While Trump keeps prison at bay, Santos hunts up the next scam to keep himself out of jail. No doubt he dreams of a right-wing angel bailing him out, the victim of an “unfair, rigged” system, the great criminal escape hatch. Yet fat cats can distinguish a disgraced phony phony from a more live, genuine phony.

Being investible matters

Santos the eventual convict never learned Trumpian mastery of manipulation, the spoiled rich kid forever keeping his head above water by misusing law, media, family, chutzpah, and intimidation as cudgels. Neither Santos nor Trump respect (nor understand) the mandate of law, but Trump learned how to avoid implicating himself, no verifiable written orders when coded commands to lackeys worked. However inept as crime boss, Trump’s protective radar warns him how far to go, in what context, and when to stop. Stealing state secrets and inciting a seditious riot were exceptions, not the rule. As president, he knew that whatever he did, short of committing murder on tape, would be protected by the owned Republican Senate gang. 

His political leverage, in backwaters far less sophisticated than Santos’ Long Island suburb, remains Trump’s ace in the hole, immunizing him from heavy party attacks. Offend Trumpers and kiss party control goodbye. Trump also understood money (and tactical charades) better than Santos, knowing what worthless trinkets pander to MAGA suckers—hats, pictures, playing cards, even a fragment of his indictment photo suit (glorified as the “most important artifact in American history”). No one matches the amoral Trump brew of boundless gall, greed and doggedness—and his mania to lead a cult, whether to glory or disaster.

Whereas Santos fails to appreciate his own ambush, Trump’s every paranoid moment is consumed with inventing propaganda and the obnoxious style that convinces rubes he’s a straight-shooter truly “talking truth to power.” Thanks to career self-promotion (and that awful T.V. show, “The Apprentice”), leveraging PR into a global brand, plus years of media attention (whether dumping wives, playboy nastiness, overseas junkets, Birtherism, attacking innocents), Trump honed his public image as an entertaining shock jock who takes no prisoners. So when he bragged he had enough money to self-finance (the last thing he would ever do), the Tea Party/MAGA crowd sucked up the delusion this fat cat was free and independent from the elitist ruling class he nominally attacked.

That he was a billionaire locked at the hip with corrupt capitalism was smoke-screened to his backward audience, desperate not for a helpful, job-producing politician but a messiah. Because the MAGA types distrusted establishment Republicans, the Trumpist cult was born: here’s a scornful, sneering “non-politician” (in 2016 without a record) voicing what they believed about bad government. Here’s a fellow know-nothing authoritarian who reinforces simplistic, unworkable “solutions,” sharing contempt for hated laws and who favors theocratic, violent (illegal) takeovers. Finally, an anti-abortion, anti-gender rights, anti-affirmative action critic of job-stealing immigrants. Right, a marriage made in heaven, one that Santos in myth or fact never approached. 

One meteor does not make a shower

Whatever. Noting how easily Trump lurched from vanity media renegade/real estate outlaw to White House monarch, Santos imagined his own meteoric rise. The ultimate surface Trump acolyte, Santos never saw nuance, just another arrogant fantasist riding the master’s golden chariot into fame, fortune, and power. Santos imagined the future but without awareness that eventually powerful forces would ask: is this guy for real? 

Sure, grandiosity and mammoth entitlement inform both figures that doesn’t mean any slob can steal Trump’s one-of-a-kind grandstanding ploy. Being first—and outsized enough—matters, especially when lying through your teeth to sound like a plausible populist hero. “Stable genius” is an unnecessary joke when there’s enough sleaze to amuse as actor/entertainer/charlatan. Trump didn’t have to know readin’, writin’ or ‘rithmatic—certainly not history, government, or Constitutional mandates, to pull off his nervy performance art, jumpstarted as an unselfish non-politician willing to forego money making for the sacrifice of “public service.” That preposterous lie matched the later Big Lie as Trump sought the only brass ring that overcomes death: Being an historic, legendary somebody. 

Santos exemplifies the small-fry, low-talent hustler who leaped way above his weight class. Imitating Trump’s illusion of invulnerability does not protect one against self-destruction. Congress seemed a modest jump, but the instant scrutiny killed him. Thus Santos is helpless against federal prosecution while Trump holds his own against a wave of indictments, a slew of personal lawsuits, and the mighty Dept. of Justice. For the first time, Trump will be held accountable, though not quickly. Perhaps Trump falls before Santos gets released from prison.

The world is not fair—and one tempts fate hard by dismissing real-world limits or never amassing resources necessary to pull off staggering egotism. When forced, Trump acknowledges who he is (a tireless hustler), what resources he can steal, and what thresholds he can test. Santos the phony phony was a dead duck from the start, consumed by self-delusions of grandeur beyond his range. Eventually, Trump will get slapped down but not without epic battles, enough postponements to stay politically viable, and another shot at the title. In the end I project he faces the fate—with more cash—of Santos, Alex Jones, Rudy Giuliani, and criminal Trumpers, but no one knows the future. 


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.