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Is George Santos a Machiavellian prince? The congressman mirrors America's failing elite

A symbol of his time (Win McNamee/Getty Images)


January 27, 2023   6 mins

After the latest batch of revelations about his hidden history and penchant for patent falsehoods, Americans are struggling to make sense of New York Representative George Santos. Even before he was able to take office in January, several newspapers began to reveal that Santos’s professional and political CV was substantially invented. The lies ranged from the conveniently fictional to the comically fraudulent. But how could such a candidate have risen so far, so fast? Turning to a comparable work of fiction (one no less fanciful and entertaining than Santos’s resumĂ©) may hold some answers.

In the 1979 film Being There (based on the 1970 novel by Jerzy KosiƄski), Chauncey Gardiner — memorably played by Peter Sellers — is an illiterate, mentally stunted, middle-aged man. Owing to his lifelong isolation in the townhouse of an elderly patron, he knows only two things: gardening and television. He dresses in Thirties-style double-breasted suits and speaks with an upper-class accent. But when his patron dies, Chauncey is unleashed in the streets of Washington DC and by a series of accidents soon rises to the heights of power, his mundane gardening commentary eagerly interpreted as sage advice by politicians and the press. Released in the year before the election of actor-president Ronald Reagan, the film has been seen as a harbinger of the postmodern turn in US politics, given expression by the likes of Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan: when appearance came to subsume substance in seemingly new and radical ways. Santos makes sense when viewed as a product of this distinctly late 20th-century, media-driven descent toward a fetish for the fake and superficial.

Meditations on the centrality of image in politics, however, also have a much older pedigree, stretching back to Machiavelli and the classical histories he drew upon. In contemplating what it took to hold power in a corrupt world, the Italian famously wrote in the passage on “the lion and the fox” that “the prince must be a great simulator and dissimulator”. Indeed, the same events in the story interpreted differently (“What if Chauncey was not the dumb beast of burden we were led to believe but was conscious of what was happening?”) would make Being There the ultimate tale of Machiavellian cunning and Chauncey Gardiner the ideal prince.

Santos, of course, knew what he was doing when he, for instance, claimed to have developed new carbon capture technologies or to have been the victim of an assassination plot. Taking the view of him as a calculating con-man would seem to confirm another comparison made of the legislator with a fictional character: Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. But even this is off, for there is nothing of Ripley’s grace, nothing of the subtle or the suave, about Santos. And it is in any event hard to imagine Matt Damon (or a young Alain Delon) playing him in a film. More likely, it is this very tension between the possibility of his being either a Chauncey or a Ripley — a moron or a Machiavel — that makes George Santos such a frustratingly opaque and therefore fascinating figure. That he was found out so soon and so spectacularly suggests the former, but the fact that he is now a national figure who is set to gain more influence (thanks to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s gift of two plum committee assignments) hints at the latter.

Yet for all his mysterious airs, Santos did not materialise in a vacuum. And as easy as it would be to single him out for ridicule, there can be no full accounting of the man and what he represents without acknowledging the context that made his ascent possible. Just as Chauncey could not have risen without the many cues of encouragement and support, unwitting or otherwise, given by his elite benefactors, so too should Santos’s career be seen as rooted in the broader culture and example set by the political class to which he now belongs. While Santos may still shock by the sheer volume and brazenness of his deceptions, he essentially broke no new ground. The content and pattern of his lies closely tracks those made by his predecessors in the political arena. And while Santos’s false claims are evidently more flagrant — and admittedly distant from the artful manipulation recommended by Machiavelli — they are only the more exaggerated renditions of the exact same narrative material provided by others.

In his attempt to inflate (or rather invent) his academic record, Santos carried on where Joe Biden left off in 1987, when the then-first time presidential candidate famously lost his temper after being asked about his grades, challenged the reporter to seeing who had the higher IQ, and bragged of law school honours that could not be verified. (This was also when Biden was caught plagiarising a Neil Kinnock speech.) In his effort to burnish the scarcely existent business career he supposedly had in the top firms of Wall Street, Santos echoed Donald Trump, a flailing businessman with a history of major bankruptcies who parlayed his outsize image into a reality show and then a political career — no less premised on his skills as a huckster. Santos even parroted a signature Trumpian expression when he pointed to his (fictional) experience handling “billions and billions on spreadsheets”. In both instances, Santos played to the most seductive of American myths, meritocracy, beloved by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Santos offended many after he claimed to be descended from Holocaust refugees (in addition to having a mother who died on 9/11), and this was shown to be false; later, he had to revise his identification as Jewish to “Jew-ish”. But his was only an especially crude take on an old trick favoured by American elites — claiming ancestry from an oppressed group to gain admission into a prestigious institution. Senator Elizabeth Warren once pulled it off and so do countless college applicants every year across the country’s best schools. The footage that emerged recently of Santos dressed in drag in is innocuous enough, but running as a conservative Republican at a time when “Drag Queen Story Hour” has become a flashpoint in the culture war makes such a sight more politically compromising than it would otherwise be. And Santos is by no means the first Republican to run on a wholesome, straightlaced image in public only to be revealed as having a far more colourful private life.

But even more than internalising the elite’s instinct for lying about their ethnic identities or private proclivities, Santos has excelled in adopting their appetite for the oil that greases the wheels of US politics: big money. Asked by another “colourful” Republican, Matt Gaetz, where he got $700,000 in self-donated campaign funds, Santos responded like a pro: he quickly deflected to an attack on partisan enemies and appealed again to his “self-made” credentials. “Well I’ll tell you where it didn’t come from. It didn’t come from China, or Ukraine, or Burisma
 I’ve lived an honest life. I’ve never been accused, sued of any bad doings. So it’s the equity of my hardworking self that I invested inside of me.” Among the allegations levelled against Santos, the ones having to do with campaign finance violations are the most serious and could potentially bring him down. But whatever Santos may have done (he has since revised his claims), he would be punished for breaking the rules of a campaign finance system that is already known as among the most nakedly venal and dysfunctional in any major democracy.

Machiavelli scandalised Christendom with his blunt take on the “mirror of princes” genre, in which he aimed to instruct the power-seeker on how to mantenere lo stato (“maintain the state”). Santos appears to be playing a similar role in modelling, perhaps a little too well for anyone’s comfort, the principles and methods by which the rulers of the American state gained and maintained their power. In his lies can be seen reflected back the pathologies of elites at the helm of both parties. To invoke the memory of yet another fictional character who embodied the moral and political zeitgeist of his era, Santos may steal a line from Malcolm Tucker and say to the whole political class: “I am you, and you are me.”

At the very least, then, we may ask: can there be anything of the redemptive or even the heroic in the Santos saga? Does beating the elite at their own hypocritical game and showing them up on their own turf count as a commendable instance of princely virtĂč in Machiavelli’s book? If the ghostly wraith of the Florentine philosopher wandered the halls of Congress, would it descend upon the New York delegation and give George Anthony Devolder Santos a pat on the back?

For all his centuries-long reputation as a teacher of amorality, Machiavelli was never a mere cynic or nihilist. He was so unscrupulous with the means precisely because he was so terribly devoted to the ends. As he confessed to a friend, “I love my country more than I love my soul.” He was clear that the object of power was not self-preservation alone but the restoration of good government, not to enlarge the cesspool of vice but to drain it. As he wrote in the Discourses on Livy: “And truly, if a prince seeks the glory of the world, he ought to desire to possess a corrupt city, not to spoil it entirely as did Caesar but to reorder it as did Romulus.”

George Santos will have neither the glory of Romulus nor the infamy of Caesar, nor even the innocence of Chauncey Gardiner. Nevertheless, in his farcical mediocrity, he stands as the symbol of his time.


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Santos is nothing more than a serial liar who was able to spin fantastic tales because of a hollowed-out regime media that no longer speaks truth to power, and doesn’t have the resources or intelligence to dig into what seems like an entirely fanciful story.

The Dems should have done the background check, but they were so sure of victory in deep red New York they didn’t bother doing the research.

The guy almost certainly has some kind of mental health issues because the tales were so ridiculous.

I agree with the author that voters seem more willing to tolerate the awful behaviour of politicians. Biden is a liar. Trump is a liar. Maybe it would be different if voters had decent people to choose from.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Who did he run against? You’ll probably find Santos less objectionable. Certainly New York thinks so.

Graeme McNeil
Graeme McNeil
1 year ago

I think you’ll find that the revelations about Santos’s fantasy life came after the election.

Graeme McNeil
Graeme McNeil
1 year ago

I think you’ll find that the revelations about Santos’s fantasy life came after the election.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It almost seems baked in that the options are always so poor. A veritable Hobson’s choice.
I’m only left wondering if this is by design or we’ve arrived at a point of the political and media system that compels fraudulence.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

I think most right-thinking people avoid politics. Who wants their private life on display and every mistake they make to be pounced on by a pious media machine? The only people who can flourish in such a system are those who have no relationship with truth. In the long-term such a system is not self-sustaining and eventually collapses under the weight of its own inconsistencies. What’s happening at the moment in South America is a forerunner to what’s to come in the U.S.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Decline of the western empire?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

I think most right-thinking people avoid politics. Who wants their private life on display and every mistake they make to be pounced on by a pious media machine? The only people who can flourish in such a system are those who have no relationship with truth. In the long-term such a system is not self-sustaining and eventually collapses under the weight of its own inconsistencies. What’s happening at the moment in South America is a forerunner to what’s to come in the U.S.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Decline of the western empire?

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

And the Republicans didn’t check him because they were just looking for a warm body to put on the ticket.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Who did he run against? You’ll probably find Santos less objectionable. Certainly New York thinks so.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It almost seems baked in that the options are always so poor. A veritable Hobson’s choice.
I’m only left wondering if this is by design or we’ve arrived at a point of the political and media system that compels fraudulence.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

And the Republicans didn’t check him because they were just looking for a warm body to put on the ticket.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Santos is nothing more than a serial liar who was able to spin fantastic tales because of a hollowed-out regime media that no longer speaks truth to power, and doesn’t have the resources or intelligence to dig into what seems like an entirely fanciful story.

The Dems should have done the background check, but they were so sure of victory in deep red New York they didn’t bother doing the research.

The guy almost certainly has some kind of mental health issues because the tales were so ridiculous.

I agree with the author that voters seem more willing to tolerate the awful behaviour of politicians. Biden is a liar. Trump is a liar. Maybe it would be different if voters had decent people to choose from.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

No one is “struggling to make sense” of Santos. He is obviously a liar who found for himself the perfect occupation, along side virtually all others in the same line of grift. The theatrical outrage is laughable given that a man who lies about literally everything was lied into the Whitehouse and people around the world pretend that he’s president. That’s what we struggle to make sense of.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago

True – otherwise , how would you explain the greatest liar, Adam Schiff, as chairman of the intelligence committee. He HAD all the info on the Trump Russiagate, for example, but lied about what was in there to the American people. I imagine he’s still very popular in California, and will run For Finestien’s senate seat.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

I don’t know if you’re an American, but creatures like Schiff cling to the rafters of government for a reason: they can always be counted on to say the odious things for a little bit of meat so those in the nice rooms don’t have to. T’was ever thus. Thank God for memes to which earlier times had no access.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

I don’t know if you’re an American, but creatures like Schiff cling to the rafters of government for a reason: they can always be counted on to say the odious things for a little bit of meat so those in the nice rooms don’t have to. T’was ever thus. Thank God for memes to which earlier times had no access.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

You mean ‘voted into the White House’

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago

True – otherwise , how would you explain the greatest liar, Adam Schiff, as chairman of the intelligence committee. He HAD all the info on the Trump Russiagate, for example, but lied about what was in there to the American people. I imagine he’s still very popular in California, and will run For Finestien’s senate seat.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

You mean ‘voted into the White House’

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

No one is “struggling to make sense” of Santos. He is obviously a liar who found for himself the perfect occupation, along side virtually all others in the same line of grift. The theatrical outrage is laughable given that a man who lies about literally everything was lied into the Whitehouse and people around the world pretend that he’s president. That’s what we struggle to make sense of.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago

From a Machiavellian perspective there is no need for a “prince” to be moral, though it may be advantageous to appear to be moral. But, if you can’t manage even that, remember that the public–which is itself cowardly and duplicitous by and large (if also powerful)–will forgive this or that moral failings if the practical outcome is better for them. (And if you leave their property alone.)

You hear more about Virtu when it comes to Machiavelli but he also stressed the importance of adaptability–yes, you
must “slap and thrust” when it comes to Fortune, in an effort to control her, but this also means adapting to the times she lays out.

So perhaps this Santos character has made a calculation that notoriety and audacity will be his entree to an influential political career–that nobody at this time cares if politicians are honest, rather if they can get the job done. Machiavellian.

Looking around at all these flimsy, hypocritical “moralizers” who meanwhile overlook–or encourage or carry out–any depravity as long as it benefits them, who could blame Santos for this tactic? (This from a Machiavellian point of view.)

On the subject of notoriety, the papal ban on Machiavelli’s work and the “scandalized Christendom” as well as the “Malevolent Machiavel” branding, actually helped spread his work and his name. The Prince itself was written in order for Machiavelli to rehabilitate his career–Machisavelli tailored it to appeal to, and to flatter, his would-be employers, the Medici. (It failed to do so. Some years later Fortune changed and his Arte della Guerra was what allowed him to regain favor.)

Trump of course is a great Machiavellian character. So many of his voters didn’t approve of the man but had the feeling he would deliver–which he did. And from a Machiavellian perspective Fortune gave him the opportunity to pick the supreme court justices, after he had “grabbed her by the pu55y,” to update Machiavelli’s similarly colorful phrasing. But he wasn’t Machiavellian enough: if only he had “adapted” slightly when conditions changed, in order to win a second term. I think his base would have forgiven him a bit of “moderation” of his views and tone during campaign season; and those who voted for him because of his abilities to make certain changes would have retained their confidence in his overall effectiveness.

David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

Machiavelli isn’t an amoralist. He advocates bending to necessity, but also, if possible, upholding morality. I agree with the article’s depiction of Machiavelli as a traumatized idealist. “I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they cannot all be entirely possessed or observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the disrepute of those vices which would cause him to lose his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, away from those which would not lose him it; but if this is not possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them.”

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

Trump is a politician who couldn’t be more different from the subtle and devious means recommended by Machiavelli. He got an opportunity to select two conservative Supreme Court judges, and did what any President would have done in the circumstances. He promptly lost both the House and the Senate at the first call of asking.

David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

Machiavelli isn’t an amoralist. He advocates bending to necessity, but also, if possible, upholding morality. I agree with the article’s depiction of Machiavelli as a traumatized idealist. “I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they cannot all be entirely possessed or observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the disrepute of those vices which would cause him to lose his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, away from those which would not lose him it; but if this is not possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them.”

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Hendricks

Trump is a politician who couldn’t be more different from the subtle and devious means recommended by Machiavelli. He got an opportunity to select two conservative Supreme Court judges, and did what any President would have done in the circumstances. He promptly lost both the House and the Senate at the first call of asking.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 year ago

From a Machiavellian perspective there is no need for a “prince” to be moral, though it may be advantageous to appear to be moral. But, if you can’t manage even that, remember that the public–which is itself cowardly and duplicitous by and large (if also powerful)–will forgive this or that moral failings if the practical outcome is better for them. (And if you leave their property alone.)

You hear more about Virtu when it comes to Machiavelli but he also stressed the importance of adaptability–yes, you
must “slap and thrust” when it comes to Fortune, in an effort to control her, but this also means adapting to the times she lays out.

So perhaps this Santos character has made a calculation that notoriety and audacity will be his entree to an influential political career–that nobody at this time cares if politicians are honest, rather if they can get the job done. Machiavellian.

Looking around at all these flimsy, hypocritical “moralizers” who meanwhile overlook–or encourage or carry out–any depravity as long as it benefits them, who could blame Santos for this tactic? (This from a Machiavellian point of view.)

On the subject of notoriety, the papal ban on Machiavelli’s work and the “scandalized Christendom” as well as the “Malevolent Machiavel” branding, actually helped spread his work and his name. The Prince itself was written in order for Machiavelli to rehabilitate his career–Machisavelli tailored it to appeal to, and to flatter, his would-be employers, the Medici. (It failed to do so. Some years later Fortune changed and his Arte della Guerra was what allowed him to regain favor.)

Trump of course is a great Machiavellian character. So many of his voters didn’t approve of the man but had the feeling he would deliver–which he did. And from a Machiavellian perspective Fortune gave him the opportunity to pick the supreme court justices, after he had “grabbed her by the pu55y,” to update Machiavelli’s similarly colorful phrasing. But he wasn’t Machiavellian enough: if only he had “adapted” slightly when conditions changed, in order to win a second term. I think his base would have forgiven him a bit of “moderation” of his views and tone during campaign season; and those who voted for him because of his abilities to make certain changes would have retained their confidence in his overall effectiveness.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
1 year ago

The dude is nothing but a huckster, grifter, and sleazebag and those folks have been around since day one. To me, he is the endgame of the Bill Clinton politician that started in the mid 90’s and has come to the final model. Keeps things interesting, though.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
1 year ago

The dude is nothing but a huckster, grifter, and sleazebag and those folks have been around since day one. To me, he is the endgame of the Bill Clinton politician that started in the mid 90’s and has come to the final model. Keeps things interesting, though.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
1 year ago

Does Khrushchev come to mind?

Graeme McNeil
Graeme McNeil
1 year ago

Pretty standard conservative morals. I mean, you people voted for Trump.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

What a charmed life you must lead, being able to neatly divide the world into good and evil.

Graeme McNeil
Graeme McNeil
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Doesn’t take any special insight to see that Trump is a fraud and so is this clown Santos. Much like Johnson in the UK.
You people voted for these liars.

Tiaan M
Tiaan M
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Does Biden and Blair ring a bell? So-called liberals are the last to preach about morality. So sit down

Last edited 1 year ago by Tiaan M
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Explain why Trump is a ‘fraud’ – a specific term – rather than someone perhaps of dubious personal morality or someone whose policies – for example stopping uncontrolled migration from Mexico – you personally disapprove of?

Tiaan M
Tiaan M
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Does Biden and Blair ring a bell? So-called liberals are the last to preach about morality. So sit down

Last edited 1 year ago by Tiaan M
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Explain why Trump is a ‘fraud’ – a specific term – rather than someone perhaps of dubious personal morality or someone whose policies – for example stopping uncontrolled migration from Mexico – you personally disapprove of?

Graeme McNeil
Graeme McNeil
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Doesn’t take any special insight to see that Trump is a fraud and so is this clown Santos. Much like Johnson in the UK.
You people voted for these liars.

philip kern
philip kern
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Don’t know what you mean by ‘you people’. Almost none of the conservatives I know voted for Trump–because of his morals.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Since a majority of people on this forum are not American, it is pretty unlikely that they ‘voted for Trump’. It is kind of depressing as well as boring how crass so many left wing ‘arguments’ usually turn out to be, amounting to nothing more than name-calling: ‘racists’, ‘fascists’, corrupt etc.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

What a charmed life you must lead, being able to neatly divide the world into good and evil.

philip kern
philip kern
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Don’t know what you mean by ‘you people’. Almost none of the conservatives I know voted for Trump–because of his morals.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Graeme McNeil

Since a majority of people on this forum are not American, it is pretty unlikely that they ‘voted for Trump’. It is kind of depressing as well as boring how crass so many left wing ‘arguments’ usually turn out to be, amounting to nothing more than name-calling: ‘racists’, ‘fascists’, corrupt etc.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Graeme McNeil
Graeme McNeil
1 year ago

Pretty standard conservative morals. I mean, you people voted for Trump.