This holiday season, why not give that special someone something truly timeless: a recording of a disgraced congressman performing for your ironic viewing pleasure. Thanks to the magic of Cameo, a video platform that allows users to pay celebrities for custom messages, and the indefatigable American spirit of grift, you can commission a 30-second video of the recently expelled Representative George Santos telling you to “let the haters hate.” It costs $500.
Since joining Cameo a week ago, Santos—just the sixth person in history to be expelled from the House of Representatives—has reportedly made six figures recording these videos, far outearning his congressional salary. They’re frequently ridiculous. In one, he can be seen congratulating someone on coming out as a furry; in another, he’s singing along to Taylor Swift. Senator John Fetterman’s campaign paid Santos for a video to post to his social-media accounts. The late-night host Jimmy Kimmel launched a series last week called “Will Santos Say It?” People are lapping it all up: “Turned out two videos in about 10 minutes in different locations with different outfits,” reads one review on Santos’s Cameo page. “George Santos is the hardest working man in America.”
Of course this is happening. Since winning his election in 2022, the 35 year-old former representative has proved himself to be nothing if not audacious, even comically so. He allegedly used a charity to steal money intended for a veteran’s dog, spent campaign funds on OnlyFans subscriptions and Botox, and has lied aggressively about his background and embellished his résumé. (Santos has denied the allegations that he took money from the dog fundraiser and has also denied the misuse of campaign funds; he has, however, admitted to lying about his educational background, his real-estate portfolio, and his employment history.) But because he was so clearly inept in his role as a lawmaker—and so evidently disinterested in the job—he feels more like a clown than an actual threat to democracy. Thus, he has become an easy and comfortable target for parody, including on Saturday Night Live, which has only elevated his pop-culture presence. The man is everywhere.
No matter how silly or fun the videos appear, they are also gross and depressing. Like Rudy Giuliani’s appearance on The Masked Singer or Sean Spicer’s turn on Dancing With the Stars, Santos’s success on Cameo is another example of American politics’ cynical descent into a spectacle that seems more concerned with big personalities and drama than effective governance. That people are happy to shell out hundreds of dollars for a 30-second video from a politician who is currently facing 23 federal charges (including identity theft, theft of public funds, money laundering, and wire fraud) is proof of a general desensitization toward corruption, provided it is entertaining enough. (Santos, it should be said, has not been convicted of any crime, and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.)
Perhaps most disheartening is the Fetterman example. From a public-relations standpoint, commissioning a recording from Santos is a smart move—Fetterman’s post with the video has more than 7 million views on X alone. But paying your disgraced former colleague to help with your social-media strategy has a secondary price: It makes it harder to take Fetterman himself seriously. No matter his staff’s intention, highlighting a Santos clip only manages to link the two lawmakers together in a joint bid for attention.
Cameos don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re meant to be shared online. As NBC News reported this weekend, online influencers are buying his videos to grow their own accounts. The strategy is easy: Get Santos to say something absurd, post it to their social feeds, and harvest likes, reposts, and follows. In this sense, Santos is offering a valuable and all too rare internet service in the form of premade, zeitgeisty, ready-to-go-viral content. This proposition has proved irresistible not just for influencers but for politicians who should know better—and for Kimmel, who has spent considerable time moralizing about politics in his nightly monologues.
Yes, these videos ostensibly exist to make fun of Santos. Fetterman’s team likely bought the Cameo because it was a quick way to make a point about an issue his office cares about: corruption in the Senate. Kimmel’s broader point seems to be that politicians like Santos will do anything for money or fame. Almost every Santos Cameo post I’ve seen is winking or ironic.
But this isn’t how things work anymore. The logic of these Cameo purchasers is from a different era, when shamelessness wasn’t a superpower. That time is long gone, replaced by an internet where platforms give an attentional advantage to the individuals who excel at manufacturing drama or outrage. Whether from Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Real Housewives, or your garden-variety main character of the day, shamelessness is not a road that leads to ostracism. It is a shortcut to notoriety, however fleeting. If you’re unwilling to admit defeat, any reaction online is a good reaction.
The most valuable resource in our culture is attention. You cannot manufacture more of it, you can only compete for the finite amounts that exist, which makes it unfathomably precious. And it’s not just politicians who cultivate this attention, of course. The clamor for attention has sucked in the entire media ecosystem. Being able to attract attention, even for being shameless, deplorable, or unserious, is like a cheatcode—a surefire way to receive coverage. Then, that newsworthiness justifies more attention. Rinse and repeat.
Pushing back against this attentional cycle makes me seem like a miserable scold, I know. But to participate in this cycle, even ironically, is to perpetuate it. Santos’s Cameo popularity reflects a tricky circular logic. As a lawmaker, he embodied a moral rot in our politics that leaves us feeling powerless. Paying him to dance for us feels like clawing back a little of that power. But for Santos, the opposite is actually true: Though it is quieter and less satisfying, denying him the attention he seeks would be a far more effective way to exert your power. In order to push back against the very system that led Santos into a position of authority, we need to learn to stop giving attention hijackers what they desire. The absolute worst-case scenario for Santos is not mockery—honestly, it might not even be jail time. It’s becoming irrelevant.
Breaking this cycle doesn’t require taking some grand, self-important moral stand. Withholding attention is deceptively simple: You just need to ignore people acting in bad faith and redirect your focus to … anything else! The internet is positively teeming with enjoyable things to do.