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George Santos is no Gatsby Pathological liars quickly turn into clowns

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

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.
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Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
7 months ago

George Santos as an allegory for the woke mind. Nice.

Edwin Blake
Edwin Blake
7 months ago

Thinking the same. How far is fantasising your new gender removed from this?

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
7 months ago
Reply to  Edwin Blake

Not far at all. Just another iteration. Does anybody here remember Pippi Longstocking by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren? As a child in the 80s, I recall watching a TV series about Pippi’s fantastic adventures in her make-believe world. It was charming then, especially because Pippi had an innate sense of morality, but when done by an adult holding a position of authority and responsibility, it is in very poor taste, but oddly fitting for today’s society where facts are not always facts.

0 0
0 0
7 months ago

A relativistic conception of truth is at the heart of wokeness.

Last edited 7 months ago by 0 0
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

Mythomane
Thanks KS, another fine word you’ve got me into.
On the scale of 1-7 lies per day, what’s my/your average?
Unleashing us from the confines within which most of us have hitherto lived our lives, the internet provides a kind of rocket fuel for those inclined towards the “liar, liar, pants on fire” end of the spectrum.
Unless we’re very careful, mythomania may become the norm, and where would that leave the concept of the self?

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0 0
7 months ago

Just like Joe Biden, but on the opposite side of the fence. But Biden possesses some more self discipline and awareness, but not by much. The reason why Biden gets away with it and doesn’t suffer any consequences is because he’s useful to the powers that be, they see a vein Petty insecure little man who can be controlled and manipulated, is very much a coward and willing to sell himself to the highest bitter to desperately climb the social ladder. Santos doesn’t have any powerful backers to protect him or clean up his messes when he screws up. Like this guy, Joe Biden is a third rate person trying to look like first-rate one, but never doing it very convincingly, but never suffers for it because no one ever calls him out on it.

Last edited 7 months ago by 0 0
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 months ago
Reply to  0 0

Precisely. Biden’s lying is like Tourette’s Syndrome, but he’s their creature, so everyone just clears their throats and ignores it. But Hillary Clinton is also pathological in this. I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said, in his book “No One Left to Lie To”, that she lied when it was utterly unnecessary: it had simply become a habit she didn’t want to kick. She is like the girl in the fairy tale “Diamonds and Toads”, spewing frogs, snakes, and spiders whenever she speaks.

How to spot a pathological liar? Very easy. They run for and unfortunately win public office.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
7 months ago

Rubbish.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
7 months ago

One lie per day. That’s quite sobering; it’s 08.48 and I definitely haven’t lied to anybody yet. Or have I already lied to myself in some way? Perhaps a commitment to a task I won’t complete. This will be an interesting experiment, except I’ll probably forget I’m running it.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

It’s still early; think i’ll have a lie-in.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Good one!

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
7 months ago

I’m involved in deception by reading this while pretending to work.

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
7 months ago

Best to get it out of the way early.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
7 months ago

This chap sounds a lot like a rather obscure US politician, name of Joseph Robinette Biden.

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0 0
7 months ago

Hell yeah

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
7 months ago

I am amused by the revelation that Biden’s middle name is basically “lady bath tap”.

Jan Brogan
Jan Brogan
7 months ago

According to some research, one out of 25 people is a sociopath ( not a serial killer just no empathy) which allows them to lie for gain with abandon. Once I read this research, the world started making a lot more sense to me. What’s interesting not is why they do it, but why we are so unwilling to call them out

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago
Reply to  Jan Brogan

It’s because of the woke mind virus (invented in Bill Gates’s lab), the Clintons and Biden.

Last edited 7 months ago by Dominic A
0 0
0 0
7 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

The Clinton’s and the Biden’s are not genuinely woke, they’re opportunistic conformist adhering to the dominant dogma out of self-interest and ambition. I don’t know what they actually believe in, they probably don’t believe anything cuz they spend much of their lives trying to please everybody around them in order to manipulate them, the Clinton’s being far more successful. If they do have genuine beliefs, they basically mean nothing cuz they’ll sell them out to the highest bidder. In some ways they’re worse than the woke fanatics because they know it’s a irrational and untrue but go along with it anyways because they have something to gain from it.

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago
Reply to  0 0

The Clinton’s and the Biden’s [sic] are not genuinely woke
They got the beta version of the virus – the latest strain has been perfected. Although the effects on Republicans are still unpredictable – hence Santos’ antics.

Last edited 7 months ago by Dominic A
Richard Ross
Richard Ross
7 months ago

Excellent.
Completely unrelated to the excellence factor is the striking description of a certain holder of high US office – “There is sometimes a short distance between bold self-reinvention and starting to look slightly bonkers as the deep-seated fantasies take charge”.

Juan Manuel Pérez Porrúa
Juan Manuel Pérez Porrúa
7 months ago

Of course George Santos “is no” Gatsby! For one, George Santos is a flesh and blood man, whereas Jay Gatsby (and Nick Carraway and Daisy Buchanan) character from a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s because of stuff like this that the philosopher Plato was so critical of the imitative arts. Imitative art, which includes novels like The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice are nothing but shadows of shadows, mere imitations of imitations of what is real and true, and it is incredibly foolish to let oneself lose perspective to such a degree that these literary or artistic confections are confused, equated, or substituted for reality, for the truth.

0 0
0 0
7 months ago

.

Last edited 7 months ago by 0 0
Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago

Just another SNAFU from Biden and the Democrats.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago

;. . . a dog called Patch.’

I am – officially – destroyed. LOL!!!!

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
7 months ago

I dont think there is anything wrong with making up tall stories to regale your friends. For instance, Id rather have a drink with a mytomane then a pedant.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
7 months ago

Well, that was a bit of an anti-climax, I must say. I was expecting something a bit more juicy from Stock. I’m feeling distinctly unsatisfied!

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
7 months ago

George Santos got kicked out of Congress because politicians know Santos is the extreme if you take the mindset of politicians to its logical conclusion: they say anything to win elections and to maintain their offices. They set the stage for him.

Stephen Barnard
Stephen Barnard
7 months ago

Walter Mitty minus the charm.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
7 months ago

Love this work, thank you.
Has anyone else had the experience of meeting such people? I have, including when I had to investigate a Tier 1 assurance staffer whose cv should have shouted warnings to her employer all over, as well as various crooks, and a couple of associates who were slightly ‘schizophrenic’. Sometimes they will charm you with even the most absurd stories for a few moments when you’re engaged in their well-told stories, so convinced are they of ‘their truth’, and only when the cold air hits you moments afterward, or they stray over the edge into something quite obviously silly, are you shaken out of their fascinating confabulations. It’s the darndest thing. We’re such suckers for stories at large, and so used to films and novels, let’s not even start on the allegories in our religious texts, and not really expecting to be lied to, are we not preconditioned by all of that?

0 0
0 0
7 months ago

The perfect Republikkklan.