Every so often a story emerges of a public figure who entirely fabricated their biography, or made-up intimate details of particular parts of their life, or constructed careers by stringing together one mendacity after the next.
Take the story of rising New York Times journalism star Jayson Blair, who 20 years ago was caught making up interviews, creating sources who didn’t exist and describing scenes that were spun from his imagination. A Times investigation ultimately found that he had largely fabricated at least 36 of the 73 stories he had worked on at the paper’s national desk, and that hundreds of his earlier articles were also in some ways problematic.
Or the story of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who fabricated an entire story of her African American heritage, and rose to become president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP before ultimately flaming out amidst a welter of stories challenging her personal narrative.
And now there’s 34-year-old George Santos, an ardent Trumpist and January 6 insurrectionist, and, it turns out, a master bullshit artist and exaggerator. If he hadn’t been caught in his lies early on in his career — not by the Democratic Party’s opposition research investigators, and not in time to alter the outcome of the November elections, but by New York Times investigative journalists — Santos might have gone on to one day be as great a manipulator of the truth, as great a fluffer of his own self-image as his hero, Donald J. Trump.
Santos hasn’t just embellished one or other aspect of his life story, or cut a few corners to make his biography seem more compelling; rather, in running for office as a U.S. congressman from Long Island, New York, he seems to have presented the voting public with an avatar that bears hardly any relation to the real person.
Santos, who The New York Times found was accused of fraudulently cashing another person’s checks while living in Brazil, created his avatar in a way calculated to appeal to key voting blocs in the Long Island district that he was hoping to wrestle away from the Democrats — and it worked. This past November, Santos got 54 percent of the vote in defeating Democratic nominee Robert Zimmerman. His victory, one of several Democratic seats in New York State that flipped red, was instrumental in helping the Republicans get to the magical 218 House seats that gives them a barebones majority as Congress returns from the new year’s break.
Santos’s avatar is a wealthy real estate player with a past career working for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs; has a college degree from Baruch College, and a high school education, sadly truncated by the 2008 financial crisis, from the elite Horace Mann preparatory school; runs an animal rescue charity, and does other philanthropic work; and is also Jewish, the descendant of Holocaust survivors.
In reality, Santos has done, or is, none of those things. The origins of where he received hundreds of thousands of dollars that he then loaned to his own campaign are murky, at best; and his claims to being a high-flying financial dealmaker for the rich and famous appear to be largely aspirational.
As his story has unraveled, the incoming congressman’s raisons d’être have become more ludicrous by the hour. The avatar proclaimed himself on the campaign trail to be “a proud American Jew.” The real Santos, when challenged on this, acknowledged that he wasn’t actually Jewish, but then said he had meant he was “Jew-ish” — as in almost a Jew, by virtue of his friendship with many Jews. (Frankly, as someone who is Jewish myself, I’d say that answer, that ad hoc addition of a dash where clearly none existed, shows such an extraordinary level of chutzpah — a term that the “Jew-ish” Santos is surely familiar with — that, if it weren’t so vile, I could almost applaud for its sheer audacity. Santos has, in fact, come up with a line almost worthy of a 1950s Catskills comedian.)
In fact, I’d say that Santos’s entire absurdist story is a textbook example of chutzpah. Decades from now, dictionaries could define the word through his shameless behavior: “An act of extreme, even outrageous, manipulation of the truth for personal gain, the willingness to take disproportionate risks with one’s honor and sense of dignity in order to succeed in a short-term goal: see George Santos’s bizarre run for Congress in 2022, for an example of this in action.”
If I had bought Santos’s schtick — yet another Yiddish term that the “Jew-ish” avatar should be all too familiar with — I’d be asking for a refund.
Despite the fact that local and federal prosecutors are now investigating George Santos, and despite the fact that Democrats in Congress (as well as a few low-ranking GOP political figures) are calling for congressional ethics probes into Santos’s fabrications, Kevin McCarthy and the other GOP leaders have remained shockingly silent. Two weeks into this soap opera, the public has gotten bubkes — I’m sure Santos could tell you that in Yiddish this means “beans,” or “nothing” — from McCarthy.
McCarthy’s silence is a tacit vote of confidence in Santos, shorn of his avatar attributes; a tell that in his pursuit of power at any cost, there’s no alliance that McCarthy won’t form — Santos has pledged to vote for McCarthy as House speaker — and no Rubicons that he won’t allow his members to cross. It’s a true sign of the Trumpian times.
Santos’s story is so patently absurd that it’s easy to just treat it as a comedy routine. But, alas, it’s normal behavior for today’s GOP in Congress: Santos created his own Deep Fake political imagery and rode the lies all the way to D.C. And the Trumpified GOP, under McCarthy’s mendacious and mediocre leadership, seems willing to circle the wagons in order to protect him — and to shore up their slim congressional majority. The party’s leadership, in doing this, is giving its stamp of approval to Deep Fake, avatar politics, to the idea that it’s okay to say pretty much anything in order to secure votes. It is also showing, in no uncertain terms, the contempt in which the GOP holds its voters.