Shortly after his November election to represent New York’s 3rd Congressional District, Congressman-elect George Santos’s serial deceits and misrepresentations have been exhaustively cataloged by the mainstream media. On New Year’s Eve, the Washington Post detailed reporting by the New York Times and other outlets published since the midterm elections that paint a damning portrait of a man who can (most charitably) be termed a compulsive liar.
Falsehoods of the breadth perpetrated by Santos cannot be attributed to mere “embellishments” (as he initially described them), nor waved away with a sigh of resignation that all politicians lie. Santos alone is responsible for his misdeeds and the web of deceptions spun about his identity, family history, and educational and professional profile.
Far more revealing, however, than the shamelessness and sheer volume of such deceits is their nature. The stories that Santos decided to tell are of a type that would have been unfathomable as recently as a decade ago; they are reflective of this social and political moment.
In electoral politics, and human activity generally, exaggerations and “white lies” abound, deployed to burnish reputations and create narratives. As moral relativism has gained a greater hold over society, the cultural guardrails traditionally limiting the scope and degree of such deceptions have eroded considerably. More alarmingly, even as such misrepresentations have become more expansive and boldly expressed, their underlying character has evolved. The stories we tell, whether true or invented, reflect our collective values.
One can look to earlier generations of politicians and other public figures to reveal the values contained in their myriad fabrications and exaggerations. Senator Dick Blumenthal of Connecticut misrepresented having served in Vietnam. President Biden claimed to have confronted a gang member named Corn Pop while working as a pool lifeguard, backing him down with the help of a six-foot chain. President Trump told (or had told about him) myriad stories of his personal generosity, many of which cannot be confirmed.
What these tall tales have in common is that they are meant to illustrate the heroic and moral temperament of their subjects, or to amplify his or her accomplishments. Heroism, morality, and achievement through merit were uncontroversial twentieth-century American values, and these examples all fit neatly within a cultural consensus as to what personal attributes are unambiguously meritorious.
Heroism, morality, and achievement still have a place in the pantheon of American ideals, but they’ve been joined recently by values more highly prized by millennials and Gen Z. And what are they?
Santos offers an answer. While his deceptions continue to mount, they generally fall within one of three categories. Call them the three Vs: validation, virtue, and victimhood.
Validation, or credentialism, is the interposition of certain associations, affiliations, and branding in order to demonstrate competence or societal rank in lieu of demonstrable and objective achievement. Santos carefully crafted a faux credentialist narrative well-suited to the 2020s, including educational affiliations with Horace Mann Prep, Baruch College, and New York University, employment with Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, and an experience of doing business with the Trump Organization, none of which appears to be true.
Virtue (or virtue-signaling) constitutes aligning one’s experience or identity with current fads—such as causes that one must support in order not to be deemed a bad person. The idea is not to convey that one genuinely cares about or is involved with a given endeavor of merit; rather, it is to associate with a cause championed by trendsetters on social media, and preemptively to inoculate oneself from criticism.
On this criterion, Santos presented himself not only as Jewish (more on that below) but also as a Ukrainian descendant of Holocaust survivors. He also claimed that the events of September 11, 2001, took his mother’s life. (She died, as it happens, in 2016.) In touting his professional and business success, work in financial services alone wouldn’t do; he claimed to have helped develop “carbon capture technology.” Ukraine, international terrorism, climate change—the only items missing from his list are mask mandates and elective vasectomies.
Victimhood might be the most novel of the three. Useful lies told in eras past have typically sought to align the teller with life’s “winners,” or those most favored—invented royal bloodlines, say—but today, one can gain far more social clout through association with a perceived victim group. Leaving nothing to chance, Santos sought to medal in the intersectionality Olympics, checking boxes by asserting at various times (with questions arising as to the veracity of each) to be multiracial (part black), gay, Jewish, and poor. In today’s America, victimhood serves as a sort of protective armor, shielding the wearer from all judgment.
Santos’s fabrications are breathtaking in scope, but what they say about contemporary America is even more disquieting. As pundits lament a Republican congressman-elect brazenly lying for electoral advantage, they ignore the disjointed and bizarre untruths that President Biden utters in nearly every public forum in which he participates.
In truth, Biden and Santos are two sides of the same coin. On one side, we have the relativism and moral bankruptcy of the baby boom generation at its apogee. On the other, we have the fabrications of a 34-year-old member of a rising millennial generation, weaned on that same relativism, with values appropriate to the kakistocracy that rules us.
Sometimes, lies reflect only on their speaker or subject. Sometimes, as in the case of George Santos, they say as much about the audience as the liar.
Photo by David Becker for the Washington Post