The Strange Case of George Santos*

We all lie about twice a day, say experts in the field. And we take it for granted that politicians lie as a matter of course. We also understand that Donald Trump introduced the idea of “alternative facts” — a way of falsifying truth — into the political realm. But this trend didn’t end there. With the recent election of Republican Rep. George Santos, we now have a whole new world of possibilities, one that has opened the door to the definitive end of ethics and shame and the start of an era in which brazen impudence is an acceptable way of being in the political world. And we know this, too: Whatever Americans introduce will, sooner or later, make its way here. Santos was a complete unknown until the world realized that nothing about the tales he spun while running for election was, it turns out, real. He was elected to Congress and will apparently suffer no consequences for having invented his life story.

The full story of Santos’ lies is difficult to follow, but let’s take a look. He lied about which universities he had attended, and obviously was never a volleyball champion at any of them. He lied about the successful career he supposedly had on Wall Street. He lied about having worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. He lied about his family origins, and he had the gall to claim that his grandparents were Holocaust survivors. (Many in his congressional district are Jewish.) He is Brazilian and has no Jewish roots. He said that his mother escaped the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and that she had died from a cancer related to that event. In fact, his mother was not even in the United States in 2001. Although he was open about being a gay man, he did not reveal that he had been married to a woman or that he had been a drag queen in Brazil, and none of this is consistent with the anti-LGBTQ positions he supported in Florida. He also had the effrontery to start up charity initiatives to support dogs, including one to raise funds for the veterinary bills of a war veteran’s dog, but in the end, the money he raised never left his pocket and the dog died. Since he won his House seat from a Democrat, Santos feels he was freely elected and can legitimately serve in Congress. But who exactly did people vote for? Political analysts have asserted that this is a case without precedent in U.S. history. And further, analysts say this sets a dangerous precedent if it has no consequences, and if Santos, whoever he is, is allowed to serve out the duration of his term, which it appears he intends to do.

A review of studies brings up one from the Health Journal, which claims that a man will tell about 109,000 lies in his lifetime, while a woman will do the same about 65,000 times. A TED Talk suggests that we are lied to between 10 and 200 times a day, and most of the time we either don’t care or are unaware that we are being lied to. Yet another study suggests that parents are the main targets of lies, followed by friends, and that women apparently specialize in half-truths. A recently published essay by Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel titled “A History of Lying” takes the position that lies are at the heart of all civilization, from mythology to God, from war to politics and economies, from love to death. But it’s hardly necessary to be that profound. The 1997 film “Liar Liar,” starring Jim Carrey, addresses the challenges that face a lawyer who has built a successful career by repeated lying when he is forced to speak the truth for an entire day. A lie is not just a pungent brew that helps keep society’s gears properly greased. According to Muñoz Rengel, lies are part of the actual fabric of society. But, in the midst of all these perspectives, where does someone like Santos fit, a legislator and compulsive liar, in a society that we viewed as prudish just two decades ago, a society in which a lie about whether or not one had an affair was enough to ruin a presidential candidate?

Science suggests that we all have cognitive constructs that predispose us to be fooled, to lie to ourselves, and to refuse to change our minds, for example, even when we are shown to be wrong. On the other hand, look at the British and their views on Brexit: They are changing their minds, and freely say they were misled by lies. It is possible, it seems, to change deeply held beliefs and to accept that one has been fooled, contrary to what experts suggest. And yes, we do lie every day, but often to get out of a jam, to avoid conflict or to make others happy. These are the white lies, which we consider harmless, or that serve a purpose which is in our best interests, but which do not alter the course of history. And then there is sheer malevolence.

Compulsive liars are those who constantly and deliberately manipulate with no regard for the harm their actions cause to others. Bernie Madoff, the notorious fund manager who doubled fortunes through a Ponzi scheme, was a calculating and meticulous swindler. But someone like Santos, seemingly so far away in the United States, is absurdly dangerous. He may have been a drag queen in a samba line, but he was also avowedly anti-LGBTQ. No one knows where he studied, he falsely presented himself as a descendent of the Holocaust, lied about 9/11 and about being a phenomenal success on Wall Street, and even stole from a sick dog. But there have been no consequences for any of this since he was elected. This is a post-post-truth moment, in which the creation of fictional “truths” as a way of life goes unpunished. In which you can pretend to be whatever you wish until you achieve your objective, and where this is not considered fraud. Santos is pathetic, but the impunity of his actions, and what that suggests, does not augur well.

*Editor’s note: The original language version of this article is available with a paid subscription

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