We curate our lives like an art gallery. We want to be more beautiful, more charismatic and more successful than we actually are. We imagine our lives to be a certain way and try to align reality with this idealised version of ourselves. But some people skip any attempt to fit fantasy into facts. They dive straight into fantasy.
I made a friend through social media when I was 18. He seemed glamorous, charismatic and intelligent. I thought he could be a future prime minister. I was an idiot. He claimed to have his own think tank, but it turned out to be simply a Facebook group. He claimed to be descended from an aristocratic Russian family; I now strongly doubt this claim. This might appear to be a problem of the social media age, in which we relentlessly hone our digital selves, but this is a bigger issue than narcissism on Instagram.
George Santos seemed to embody the American Dream. He is the 34-year-old son of immigrants from Brazil and in November became the first openly gay Republican to win a seat in the US House of Representatives as a non-incumbent. He studied economics and finance at Baruch College, New York, and became a finance whizzkid with a real estate portfolio of 13 houses. He also studied at New York University and later worked for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. The problem is that much of this résumé was fabricated. Rather than the hero of a Horatio Alger novel, Santos more obviously resembles Jay Gatsby or Tom Ripley.
There is no record of him studying at Baruch College or NYU. There is no evidence of him working for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. He is not a landlord. In fact, he owes thousands of dollars to landlords and creditors. An investigation last month by the New York Times’s Grace Ashford and Michael Gold exposed this litany of deceit (further alleging that Santos committed fraud by using a stolen cheque book as a young man in Brazil).
After a week of silence, Santos finally admitted on 26 December to lying about his background, telling the New York Post: “We do stupid things in life.” In his first television interview since the revelations, he told Tulsi Gabbard, a former Republican congresswoman, on Fox News: “I made some mistakes. I own up to them. And now I want to put this past me.” His apparent mea culpa underplayed the gravity of these “mistakes”. Santos didn’t turn up late to a work event or ask someone an insensitive question; he fabricated his CV to achieve elected political office.
There’s another side to Santos’s deception – his identity. He has claimed at different times to be Catholic and Jewish (or, as he put it after his background was called into question, “Jew-ish”). He is openly gay, but never disclosed that he married a woman in 2012 before divorcing in 2019. There are shades of Rachel Dolezal, the anti-racist activist who “passed” as a black woman – by darkening her skin – until she was exposed in 2015.
Santos illustrates that it is not just the left that is fixated with identity – some on the right are too. They want to cultivate an image of conservative parties as genuinely inclusive in contrast to an intolerant left. Many on the right in the UK view the fact the Conservatives have had three female prime ministers as a vindication of their approach to politics.
Other people on the right will claim to be neutral on race but care passionately about it in the case of immigration. The novelist and polemicist Lionel Shriver, for instance, argued in a 2020 Intelligence Squared debate that she grew up during the civil rights movement, and was a fierce advocate of its ambition “to break down the artificial barriers between us and to release us into seeing each other not as black or white, but as individual people”. Yet in a column for the Spectator in 2021, she bemoaned non-white immigration to Britain. “For westerners to passively accept and even abet incursions by foreigners so massive that the native-born are effectively surrendering their territory without a shot fired is biologically perverse,” Shriver wrote.
But lying about his professional qualifications and his history of alleged fraud is a bigger sin by Santos than his claims about his sexuality and ethnic background. We should be less fixated on policing someone’s identity, and more focused on establishing the facts. Identities are fluid; whether you attended university or worked at a company is not.
An additional reason we should focus on concrete truths is to avoid indulging Santos’s narrative. One claim is that he fabricated a life story because he is enamoured with the American Dream, and wants to spread this aspiration to all Americans from marginalised backgrounds. This gives Santos too much credit; his actions were entirely self-serving.
We curate our lives to reflect an idealised version of ourselves, but what should ultimately count are the verifiable facts – not the contested claims we make about our identity.
[See also: American hubris]