The Man Who Invented Himself
11:11 AM EST on February 10, 2023
There is a perspective on the world that only comes through the windows of a car. There is what's inside, and what's outside; there's the world and the people in it and their lives, and then there's the person watching it through glass. Passing in climate-controlled comfort through all that disorder and non-control—or, anyway, through whatever those people are doing on the other, less-understood side of things—the person on the inside is in command, but also at the mercy of all those obstructions waiting to happen. They are at the very center of reality, and hopelessly surrounded.
The narcissism of this is not necessarily what you want, although envisioning yourself doing John McClane wisecracks while being hunted through your day by hordes of assassins is by now something like the resting American state of being. But there is a deeper and more global derangement to it, something that can, if left untreated, develop into a worldview. Spend enough time like this and everything on the outside, simply by dint of being where it is, starts to look like an enemy. That threat assessment, over time, can expand to enfold every other person, place, and thing on the other side of the glass. Best to keep moving, out and away, over and if necessary through whatever is in the way, towards the more defensible perimeter of home. What is a red light or a stop sign, to someone who inhabits the world this way, but a trap? What is a bill coming due but a brutal extortion attempt? What is the place you are but, as one adherent of this mindset put it, your "assassination coordinates?"
It's hard to know what to do with this. It is strange to know that some of your neighbors are constructing or currently inhabiting a reality in which you, and everyone else, are an urgent threat to their safety. They are in fear of their lives, and as such feel entitled to do whatever they need to do to keep themselves safe from a world that only ever shades further into a state of urgent and omnipresent risk; they melt the enamel off their beings because they believe that's what it means to be informed and aware and engaged. And it is stranger still when you look at how these people act, and what they do with the license that they believe this fear gives them. That duality is what contemporary American conservative politics is. It is about creating a list of enemies, and fantasizing about all the things that might justifiably be done to them, and building the necessary fortifications; about turning on the TV and never turning it off. But also it is about having fun—expressing yourself to the fullest, getting as much as you can of everything you want, never apologizing and never going to bed.
The wreck that this has made of the culture—which is atomized, simultaneously cynical and credulous, blithely predatory and outraged at its perceived victimhood, bottomlessly thirsty and generally too angry and lonesome and scared to think straight—is all around. There are a number of things to say about people who experience the world this way, but one is that their confusion and fear, and the fantasies of retribution and impunity that grow from that, and the fake-it-til-you-make-it recklessness that grows from that, make them not just reactive and jumpy and distractible, but extremely easy marks.
Someone out to enrich or empower himself at the expense or just through the credulity of such people wouldn't even have to be an especially artful liar. Such a person would need only to tell those people the types of lies they like, and then just keep doing it. The problems can never go away; the problems are the only thing holding this curdled worldview and constituency of crabs in a barrel together; the terrifying/titillating lawlessness of the world outside is what justifies the giddier lawlessness that applies for those on the inside. So the sales pitch is merely a matter of reading The News back to the people who have made themselves its captives, and doing so in a way that suggests that you also believe it. If they hear the right tones of distaste and delight, these inside men and women will vote for that candidate, and for the problems that order their lives. Of all the many, many lies that George Santos told in hustling his way into the House of Representatives, these were surely the easiest.
During the months before 2022's midterm elections, when the Republicans and the media apparatus that leads the party around were hammering away at The National Epidemic Of Crime, the dread was relentlessly dense and doomy without ever resolving into anything more concrete, or even coherent. This was sort of by design and sort of by default; the disgust-driven messaging that the Republicans leaned on during the midterms remains their strategy to the extent that one is legible, but it's also both the style and the substance of conservative politics. As a national electoral strategy, it should be noted that it didn't really work; persuadable voters seemed less worried, on balance, about transgender high school athletes or organized shoplifting gangs than they were about the possibility of being governed by the seething goblins that Republican primary voters chose as candidates. But given that nourishing and validating and mirroring their voters' disgust more or less is conservative political culture, it's hard to see how the party could abandon it, or what they might abandon it for.
In the suburbs of New York City, this strategy worked unusually well. News of unprecedented chaos and carnage ran on a furious loop for months before the election, in shrieking tabloid headlines and prissy Times-ian locutions alike, without anything like rebuttal; the city's uniquely distractible mayor seldom speaks with any evident interest about any other topic. While the histrionic coverage of the crime surge putting your family at risk predictably dropped off in frequency and intensity after the election, it did what it was supposed to do in New York's third congressional district. "If you don’t feel safe," a new Republican voter in Santos's district told the New York Times after his win and before his exposure as a world-historic fabulist, "then it doesn’t matter what all the other issues are."
Beyond that media-driven panic, the number and scale of broader failures that led to Santos's election is both staggering and familiar. The only media outlet to notice before the election that everything Santos said was a lie was a small Long Island weekly with no social media presence; the state Republican and Democratic parties were both bizarrely blasé about the race, in the sense that the local GOP knew Santos was a fraud and local Democrats seemed not to care; the people running his campaign were known, brazen crooks, and the people who have filled out his staff are weirder, somehow more brazen crooks. The campaign itself barely existed, and Santos was no more convincing as a candidate than he was when claiming to have produced Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark. In a televised debate, Santos copied his opponent's answer more or less line for line on the question of "what do you like to do with your family?"
The Times, in one of its many stories about Santos, identified "one of the most vexing questions" about this whole thing as being "how did the gate-keeping system of American politics—Republican leaders, adversarial Democrats, and the prying media—allow a fabulist who boasted about phantom mansions and a fake résumé to get away with his con for so long?" In a country that just had Donald Trump as its president, this framing lands somewhere between quaint and infuriating. The question is indeed pretty fucking vexing. Its answer is even more so. We live in it.
If candidate Santos represented a stress test of the electoral process, then that process failed in precisely the way it has been failing for some time. His continued presence in Congress despite something like 80 percent of the people in his district wanting him to resign represents less a failure of the broader system than maddening evidence of the broader system continuing to dither and drift rather than fail outright. "While Santos’s behavior is both egregious and clear-cut," Matt Yglesias wrote at Bloomberg, "it’s not unusual for observers to disagree about which of a politician’s statements are lies and which are just normal rhetoric." (The last words of that column are "leave well enough alone.") Since being sworn in, Santos has done his job as it exists—showing up when everyone else does, going on friendly cable channels and blinking a lot, wandering into variously humiliating scenarios and looking flummoxed and then posting very strongly about it afterwards.
The critic Lionel Trilling's famous assessment of reactionary politics as "a series of irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas" has not gotten any less correct, but it has slipped out of balance, or just into a more gleeful expression of itself. The gestures long ago gave up the ghost of resembling anything larger. There is no longer any need for a conservative politician or reactionary TV pundit to justify what they say and do, but they absolutely cannot stop saying and doing those things. Politicians increasingly behave like influencers—not just always broadcasting, but always on, always upset, always ready to extrude some sort of response to whatever it is that is being responded to at that moment. In this sense, Santos is as fit and qualified for his position as anyone else.
The upside, for those with political or cultural power, is that their audience doesn't expect or even want them to fix anything; the downside is that the work of getting angry about all those bad things never stops. You already know how this plays out in the culture—as a fervid rolling panic attack, mostly, in which questions are raised but never answered, everyone is selling something and aiming to get over on everyone else, and every problem only ever compounds and compounds. Some creatures are better adapted for this luridly befouled environment than others.
The most and the least that can be said for Santos is that he has never quit. More or less nothing he says is true, his lies are witless and weird and easy to spot, but he stayed focused, never once told the truth when there was some lie around to tell, and knew enough not to stop, or apologize. The tidal currents of a lousy, stupid moment carried him on, and up, and he washed up gasping and pop-eyed on the further shore, victorious.
“He needs help,” Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said about Santos back in January. “This is not a normal person.” That is true, and yet it is hard to see Santos at work—hitting extravagant Mr. Bean faces on the floor of the House Of Representatives, blustering epically on social media and trembling on camera like a child who just skinned his knee, wandering around with an AR-15 pin on his blazer—and not see someone who is where he belongs, and with his people.
Beyond the freakish vastness of his dishonesty, what’s compelling about Santos is the extent to which his personal scuzziness, as expressed through his aspirational scamming and cheesy little grifts alike, so fully embodies the institutionalized lawlessness of his movement and its moment. Whatever Santos set out to do in arranging all this clutter and camouflage around himself—to make himself look bigger or to disappear, to get over on people or hide from them, honestly who cares—is ultimately less meaningful than the clutter he chose. All that aggro bluster and idiot cruelty and round-the-clock relentlessness is fundamentally a diversion, both in the sense that it exists to deflect and in terms of it being a game. It’s also a fantasy, and his inventions lay that fantasy’s particulars out in a more comprehensive and revealing way than any candidate's actual life ever could.
It is possible to look at the long trail of fantastical lies that comprise Santos's biography and see him figuring this out. He starts by inventing stuff haphazardly, generally silly showbiz shit, to seem like the sort of fabulous and notable person he actually wanted to be; this was all infantile, and hard to parse for how illiterate it is. Later, during his Supermarket Sweep-style run through various aliases and identities, the signifiers that he claimed as his own were things that conservative discourse had held up as get-out-of-jail-free passes, and all of them—as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, as the son of a 9/11 victim, as the employer of multiple men killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting—were fundamentally things Santos believed would protect him from criticism.
In the buffed-up version of himself that he created for his scamming career, Santos was (quite literally, in the case of that improbable college volleyball career) just taking things that were true about his boss and claiming them as his own. He wasn't any better or more careful at this than he has been at anything else—"Every other day there was a message from him or from his peoples," a man that Santos tried to hustle told the Washington Post, "and I was like, ‘My man, who goes this hard?'"—but Santos was learning the utility of reflecting the values of his marks back at themselves. An investor who claimed to have lost $625,000 to Santos told the Times that "they bonded over a shared 'old school' worldview and having families that fled the Holocaust." Of course these were weird obvious lies, but they were the right ones.
The last thing that Santos made himself, in his campaign, was the right kind of victim. The man who lived in a humble rental apartment, one step ahead of the consequences of a decade of uninterrupted grifting, told his future constituents that he was in fact a wealthy landlord who had been victimized by the freeloaders living in the buildings he owned, and that he would smash the users who had been recklessly empowered by weak politicians. He raised money like this, and got elected in part by promising to bring people like himself to justice.
If there's something poignant there, it's by accident. One of the few things about Santos that seems demonstrably true is that he likes dogs, but even that is harder to credit because of how often he took money intended to help sick dogs and redirected it to his own accounts. He was not and is never thinking any of this through, but he knew enough. Trying to be what he thought the mark across from him wanted to see led Santos first to try to be Someone Interesting, and then Someone Important, and finally just to reflect the idle grievances and memetic horror and headlong heedlessness of those vain and furious marks back at themselves. He would not make them safe; they didn't want to be safe. But he would luxuriate with them in the daily offense of what they believed they had lost, and embody the higher lawlessness to which they aspired; he would, in the blankest and most implicating sense, be their representative. It might be the first time he's ever done what he said he would do.