And so he beats on... (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

December 8, 2023   5 mins

Who is the real George Santos? Even assuming you’ve already read a lot about the Brazilian-American Republican politician, you’re unlikely to know the answer — for it seems he barely knows, either. This is a man who has claimed to have been a Vogue model, an actor in Hannah Montana, a Wall Street financier, a producer for a Spider-Man musical on Broadway, a director of a pet rescue charity, and a Republican congressman. The last one, at least, is definitely true — or it was until last week, when he was expelled from public office.

His dramatic exit — the first of its kind — followed months of journalist exposés, and a recent House Ethics Committee report which concluded he “stole from his own campaign”, “deceived donors”, and “sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit”. Other colourful allegations on the books include the suggestion that he spent campaign funds on Botox and holidays, once worked as a drag queen, and swindled a disabled veteran who was seeking to fund life-saving surgery for a dog called Patch. The disgraced representative now faces criminal charges including conspiracy, falsification of records, identity theft and credit card fraud.

Even by the low standards of public life, the creative nature of Santos’s deceptions and their titanic scale put him in a different league from your average CV-massager or expense-fiddler. A lot of the lies are weirdly specific. Only this October, he insisted that his five-year-old niece had been kidnapped from a playground in New York at the behest of the Chinese government, in retaliation for criticisms he had made about the Communist Party. In 2020, he claimed on radio that he had been forced to get both of his knees replaced after time spent as a college volleyball star — though later admitted he had never attended college at all.

Like Kevin Spacey’s character “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects, there’s a sense that Santos tends to find creative inspiration in the things he sees immediately around him. In particular, he seems drawn to placing himself at the heart of dramatic world events. He has poignantly related how his mother died in the South Tower in 9/11, despite it later emerging she was alive and kicking and living in Brazil at the time. He frequently asserts that he is a Jewish-Ukrainian descendant of Holocaust survivors, making out that his attempts to prove this have been stymied by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. At various times he has said that he was one of the earliest sufferers of Covid-19, though the supposed date of his illness tends to shift. And he has also told of how he “lost four employees” in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida in 2016, later altering this under pressure to the more modest suggestion he had lost “four people that were going to be coming to work for the company that I was starting up in Orlando”. Not only were investigators unable to identify any such employees, they couldn’t find any such business.

Tracing the contours of Santos’s fictional universe has become a full-time job for some; his Wikipedia page alone is one of the longest I’ve ever seen. Perhaps not surprisingly, writers and filmmakers are now also circling, with HBO anticipating the “Gatsby-esque journey of a man from nowhere who exploited the system, waged war on truth and swindled one of the wealthiest districts in the country to achieve his American Dream”.

Yet tempting as it is to picture a Botox-enhanced Santos crammed into elegant white flannels, champagne flute in hand and staring mournfully at Daisy Buchanan’s place across the bay, this comparison seems off. In fact, Santos is more like Gatsby’s shadow-side. While the inventions of Fitzgerald’s most famous character are relatively deliberate and a means to an end, Santos appears chaotic in his confabulation: like a child, wholly immersed in making up a gripping story for himself, and not quite sure where its edges are. Gatsby is a tragic figure, heroically attempting to muscle an unbiddable world into satisfying his deepest longings. Santos appears more of a clown, stuck in a quasi-hypnagogic state between dreaming and waking and apparently often unable to distinguish between the two. His biographer has said that several acquaintances of Santos’s reported to him that his subject “believed the lies he was telling”. And when Piers Morgan once asked “Did you not think you’d be caught?”, the answer came back, apparently accurately for once: “You know, I just went with it… I mean, if you make up a lie, are you thinking at all?”.

According to one study, whereas most of us tell one falsehood per day, a pathological liar tells seven — a round number that has a slight whiff of invention about it. Whether or not that’s true, the chances are that you, too, have a mythomane somewhere in your life. I’m vaguely acquainted with one, and I’m often struck by how reluctant listeners are to challenge the suspiciously tall tales emerging from this person. Socially, to accuse someone of lying is a nuclear option, putting paid to friendly relations afterwards and risking your own reputation if you’re then proved wrong. It’s probably only worth doing if you’re personally invested. Since that doesn’t apply to most of us, even when their fibs are blindingly obvious, pathological liars can operate uninterrupted for a surprisingly long time.

Compulsive liars such as Santos may look as if they fit into the well-worn archetype of the self-invented American man, but I’m not so sure. In her fascinating book, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities From Da Vinci to the Kardashians, Tara Isabella Burton argues that, as both God and Nature receded as explanatory forces in Western societies, and predestined social hierarchies could no longer be justified in precisely those terms, the importance of self-invention emerged to fill the gap. Specifically, she understands this as the metaphysical notion that “who we are – deep down, at our most fundamental level – is who we want to be”. She continues: “We have turned our backs on the idea of a creator-God, out there, and instead placed God within us — more specifically, within the numinous force of our own desires.” Her examples of self-made men and the occasional woman are mostly characters who transgress fairly consciously, pursuing their sexual or aesthetic preferences counter to the existing social grain, and merging self-definition with “artful self-expression” to construct whatever sort of story they want people to believe.

In the picture offered by Burton, the self-made human is largely in charge of his desires and what he does about them — and indeed in charge of reality about himself, to some extent at least. If he flies parallel to the ground now and again, it is in the service of a deliberate plan, and he is at pains not to leave the planet entirely. A frequently used adjective is “godlike”, although Burton also makes the implied hubris clear.

But there are other ways of picturing the relation between a self and its appetites, and they are perhaps better exemplified by Santos. Along with Immanuel Kant, you might think that desire is not a part of the true self at all; that it assaults the self from a position “outside” of it, pulling you this way and that unless you enlist the will to tame them. Alternatively, along with David Hume, you might think of desires (or “passions”) as really in the driving seat of the self, harnessing dull instrumental reasoning to do their bidding. Either way, such visions alert one to the danger that appetites, impulses, and inclinations may come to rule or vanquish the real self. While you believe you are positively (re)creating yourself, you may only be taking dictation.

Pushed into perpetual lying by (I assume) his overriding desires for attention, fame, stimulation and validation, Santos stands as a warning, then: not so much a self-made man as an eventually unselfed one, made to look ridiculous to the world through the machinations of his own psyche. Though, of course, he is an extreme case, other supposedly self-created types should probably take note. There is sometimes a short distance between bold self-reinvention and starting to look slightly bonkers as the deep-seated fantasies take charge. And you probably shouldn’t rely on those around you to tell you the difference.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.