How does someone like Rep. George Santos get so far in life?
January 23, 2023 4:54 PM   Subscribe

It's intriguing to me that our society doesn't filter out someone like George Santos from holding office at an earlier stage in his life. He seems to have a long history of telling a lot of people a lot of different things. Did people really believe him? Wouldn't he earn a reputation that preceded him? Not interested in judging his politics or his character. But I am curious what factors may have allowed him to get as far as he has in life because it might reveal something interesting about human nature for me.
posted by Gosha_Dog to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
“She was already learning that if you ignore the rules people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don't apply to you.” - Terry Pratchett

Pratchett’s character wasn’t awful like Santos, but the principle applies. If a person is willing to push things, very few people will hold them to consequences. I’ve seen this a lot in business, obviously to a lesser extent.
posted by jzb at 5:21 PM on January 23 [15 favorites]

You might be interested in truth default theory. People have a natural tendency to believe others.

I was very close to a compulsive liar for several years, and it took me a while to pick up on it because the lies came as naturally as breath itself. Most of the lies were so mundane that it never occurred to me that anyone would even bother to lie about them. There was no benefit, even -- this person was just lying because they didn't know how NOT to.

I'd argue that Santos really wasn't all that successful at this until VERY recently. Someone, somewhere saw a guy willing to say or do anything and funded him, knowing that in a conservative district no one would look too closely. And knowing too that in a post-consequences reality, when the truth came out no one would actually care.
posted by mochapickle at 5:44 PM on January 23 [23 favorites]

As a whole society has a very short memory as well as a very compartmentalized one. It’s quite easy to move from situation to situation with no history following you.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:48 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

We're chatfiltering here, but you could ask the same thing about Donald Trump. But there's a difference. Santos is basically dumb, and piled lie upon lie without a plan for what to do or say once it all caved in on him, which he had to know would eventually happen. Trump is closer to a con artist than a dumb liar. A con artist first gains your trust and confidence (hence the name). Trump built his whole career around building a personal brand that (some) people would trust and invest in. He transferred that trust into the political arena. It worked so well that his true believers ignored whatever falsehoods and outrages came out of his mouth. He knew this very well, going as far as to claim that "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?" But Santos is not a con artist, and he knows it. Trump, the con man, always has an answer that keeps his troops behind him (for example claiming that he had declassified those secret documents). Santos has no true believers, nobody who trusts or has confidence in him, and only the weakest of comebacks when challenged. ("I was young and I had fun at a festival.")
posted by beagle at 5:53 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

To put it succinctly, George Santos didn’t get very far in life, which is why he had to steal his “biography” from people who did.

But the question I think you’re actually asking is why nobody noticed he was not the person he said he was. And to answer that, it’s useful to understand Republican politics. Santos is a gay Latin American immigrant. That’s… not something you see very often in Republican circles. He checks a lot of tokenism boxes - he’s the “I'm not racist, I have black friends” argument in human form.

It also helps to know that Republicans have a serious box-on-form approach to demographics. They believe, with varying degrees of nuance, that all you have to do to appeal to a given demographic is to nominate someone who’s a part of that demographic. That’s why, in 2008, they nominated Sarah Palin for vice president: they thought she, as a woman, would win the votes of the women who had voted for Hillary Clinton in the demographic primary even though Palin has almost literally nothing else in common with Clinton besides genitalia. Then in 2012, when McCain’s nemesis Mitt Romney looked like the favorite to win the nomination, the McCain apparatus found Jon Huntsman, an otherwise unremarkable governor of a non-swing state without much observable personality, solely because of the fact that he fit the exact same demographic profile as Romney.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:12 PM on January 23 [10 favorites]

To tie up my last point a little more clearly: if you’re a local Republican party and a gay immigrant candidate drops into your lap, you don’t ask if he’s a drag queen dropout check fraud convict. You let the good times roll and wait for the minority votes to start rolling in, baby.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:18 PM on January 23 [9 favorites]

There is a long history of inveterate liars having long successful runs before being caught and called out.

Anna Sorokin was a recent example. If you have Netflix you can watch Inventing Anna to see her story dramatized.

You could also look to the world of startup investing. The Times just ran a great piece on How Charlie Javice Got JPMorgan to Pay $175 Million for … What Exactly? (spoiler: for nothing). As the article says, "Ms. Javice’s personal story...must have made compelling reading for angel investors and venture capitalists. Especially those who have little firsthand knowledge of how financial aid actually works."

I haven't seen studies of how these fabulists get away with it. Intuitively it must be some combination of chutzpah, charisma, and an ability to ignore the fact that eventually the house of cards is gonna fall. People like good stories, and they like to be in proximity of success. Once they've believed, they don't want to admit they were duped. So the con goes on and on.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:28 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Trump did have his father's wealth behind him, so there was more advantage in agreeing with his version of reality than there is in going along with George Santos.
posted by kingdead at 6:39 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

I guess I should also point out the modern Republican party’s, um, interesting relationship with truth in general. Imagine being the party functionary charged with telling Santos that he couldn’t run on a platform of Biden stealing an election, Hillary being a Satan-worshiping child sex trafficker, and Obama being a Muslim born in Kenya because Santos had fudged where he went to high school.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:48 PM on January 23 [9 favorites]

Maria Konnikova has a wonderful book on how con artists get away with this stuff. I agree that Santos doesn't quite fall in the con artist category, much less the category of con artist you can't help but admire, but I think that book explains a lot about why people are susceptible to lies. I highly recommend it if you want to dig into the interesting somethings about human nature that cons reveal.

She talks about how people are, at baseline, trusting; how con artists are good at telling people what they want to hear, particularly in terms of compelling stories; how people are more susceptible to cons in times of personal crisis or political and social upheaval; and how confirmation bias leads people to keep believing someone once they've started to believe them. People like to trust other people, and don't like to admit that they've been fooled. Basically what Winnie says in the last paragraph above.
posted by earth by april at 6:50 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

There was a good The Daily podcast episode on Santos - the Republican Party actually did dig up some dirt and find a lot of his stories questionable - but when he first ran in 2020, his district wasn't that competitive (it was lean Dem) and nobody really cared about him. Then in 2022, there was a new map, and all of a sudden the district became competitive - Santos was already there with a bit of a political machine built up, nobody ran against him in the primary, so he's who the GOP had - and of course they want to win every race.

And yeah, he hasn't really gotten far in any sustainable way - it seems highly unlikely he'll win again.

Also worth noting that local journalism broke the story, but because local journalism these days is under-funded, their initial story didn't uncover everything - they didn't have enough resources. So the story never broke into national attention until the NYTimes covered it.
posted by coffeecat at 7:14 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

I was very close to a compulsive liar for several years, and it took me a while to pick up on it because the lies came as naturally as breath itself. Most of the lies were so mundane that it never occurred to me that anyone would even bother to lie about them. There was no benefit, even -- this person was just lying because they didn't know how NOT to.

A now ex-friend of mine (guess why it's ex-friend?!) married a compulsive liar. I think he just made up shit in his head and he believed it.
Santos might be a compulsive one, or a pathological one.

There was an NYT article recently about a compulsive liar.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:46 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Oligarchic Russian Money?
posted by flamk at 11:23 PM on January 23

I'm not saying George Santos is on the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) spectrum, but it might be instructive to look to that world as you ponder this question.

It turns out that success can be viewed closely enough that an onlooker can distinguish something like "genuine success" from "window dressing that resembles' peoples' ideas of success while camoflauging internal turmoil." This kind of scrutiny is tiresome and hard to perform, though, so it can seem surprisingly uncommon. People on the NPD spectrum can take advantage of thiss. Since they aren't concerned with moral and ethical quandaries about relating to other humans in the same way or to the same degree as most of us, they can use people like stepping stools. A lie here, a lie there, a quietly burned bridge here, a bad faith alliance made with the enemy of another bad faith alliance, a meaningless handshake-and-smile agreement, a flexible relationship to guilt and shame when caught in these scenarios... one can climb and climb and climb. Add deep-pocketed party/investor financing to the mix and I think you end up with someone who looks a lot like the Santos profile.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:24 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

You might as well ask how someone becomes a tech billionaire or a celebrity influencer or any number professions where talent and motivation can only get you so far.

And the answer is: survivorship bias.

Santos got where he is because he's one of the very lucky few grifters who got as far as he did without getting caught. And until he resigns or fails to win reelection, it's kind of an open question as to whether he really did get caught.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:31 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Some of the way compulsive or pathological lying can survive so long is down to theory of mind, I think. People generally try to work out how other people's thought process work by analogy to their own. Even people with wholly different values can usually wrap their heads around what other people are thinking. For instance, on the subject of lying, most people can wrap their heads around small-to-medium-sized lies which benefit the teller: we've had the impulse to commit them ourselves, and some of us have, and some of us have been caught. It is a familiar and comprehensible mindset and we recognize it in others because it is part of ourselves. Our rich imaginations can also furnish us with scenarios where it is actually necessary to mount an overarching deception and fabricate a whole new life: spies, people on the run, etc. But outside of these scenarios which fit into our own "what would/might I do?" thought process, we're bad at really comprehending the dishonesty of others. So people who lie a huge amount have the advantage that people will try to slot their behavior into a comprehensible pattern, and lying about everything isn't part of that pattern. Individual lies often get caught because they are distinctive in not conforming with known reality, but if someone's entire story is a fabrication that doesn't seem to fit with observable facts, it's actually easier to believe that somehow the known reality is at fault than to try to comprehend a mind which shows complete indifference to the believability of its lies.

The tl;dr: we are used to seeing people try to square whatever they say with reality, even when what they say isn't true. Brazenly ignoring reality and just saying whatever doesn't correspond with our understanding of how minds work, so we assume that somehow, what they are saying must be at least trying to match reality and that we just aren't observing the real world quite right.
posted by jackbishop at 5:42 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Some casual googling tells me that a candidate for US Congress in NY needs 1,062 signatures to get into the primary. In Maine, Dems and GOPers will hold meetings where nominating petitions are circulated and signed; typically town party organizations. Most Dems I know will sign for candidates they know something about. Santos got funders to back him, and once he had funding, his credibility rose.

He appears to have some charm and the ability to pose successfully as something he isn't. Some people are facile liars. The Republican Party in his district and in New York has a lot of 'splainin to do. As well as the voters.
posted by theora55 at 7:35 AM on January 24

He really is a conman, his job before politics was getting investors for a Ponzi scheme, and he got extremely lucky and got out of it without an indictment. He used his connections in the extended Republican griftoverse to move into politics.

The impression I get is that he convinced various power centers of the Long Island Republican party that he was on their side. Even if they knew he was a liar they may have decided he was useful and assumed he was mostly going to be lying to other people. In an environment like that, I doubt lies are that uncommon and finding one or two lies in a politician's story would not have raised any red flags at all.

In other words I suspect he camouflaged himself as an ordinary sort of politician, one with a few embellishments but a team player. I also suspect he is very charismatic and convincing in person, since that's the skill set he would have been hired for as a Ponzi scheme salesman.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:40 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

And until he resigns or fails to win reelection, it's kind of an open question as to whether he really did get caught.

He didn't get caught. Doesn't 'caught' imply punishment? Any Republican laws passed over the next few years will be with his help, so his legacy will probably have a pretty long tail.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:45 AM on January 24

If the people with the power to punish you refuse to do so (which is where we are w Santos) then it doesn't matter. I'm not versed enough in law to know if anything he did could still get him prosecuted, or if even that would be enough to get Republicans to dump him. They need his vote.

Now, if he was foolish enough to do something that caused trouble for other Republicans or their donors, they'd find a way.
posted by emjaybee at 8:21 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

I guess I should also point out the modern Republican party’s, um, interesting relationship with truth in general.

This is definitely a huge part of his success- he is being enabled by a giant grift machine.

This is on display all over the conservative political landscape, but a prominent recent example is Steven Crowder.

If you don't know who Steven Crowder is, he's a discount Alex-Jones-type pundit, fired by Glenn Beck's "The Blaze" network last year.
He's having a contract spat with an unnamed "online media network" which has since been revealed to be Ben Shapiro's "Daily Wire".

Crowder decided to put them on blast and reveal to the world their "exploitative contract" terms which would penalize him for boycotts (*SIDE NOTE* boycotts work?) levied against him and getting him de-platformed off major networks like YouTube.

The thing is, Crowder is guilty of "exploitative contracts" to his own former employees.

And more importantly, this dispute is over his contract being for $50 Million instead of the $120 Million that Crowder believes he is worth.

This grifter ecosystem is incredibly well-funded because of grifty bad actors like the Koch brothers and Peter Thiel, and are pushing an agenda that a lot of people are glomming onto. It's aspirational to be one of these incredibly well-compensated shits.
posted by ishmael at 8:31 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

To borrow another term, some people are just very good bullshitters. And Santos was one of them. Our recent ex-president was another one.

The bullshitters have five characteristics in common:

1) People are generally afraid to challenge you, esp. if you act tough and confident

2) Point to you "legitimate" successes or bonafide, even if they were faked (or you have to fake some now)

3) Act arrogant , never admit any weakness in public, even if it makes you look comical

4) Claim esoteric knowledge or techniques that nobody else has

5) Delay the day of reckoning (till the end of time), keep pushing it back via any means necessary
posted by kschang at 1:35 PM on January 25

Our current President has also been caught many times fabricating his past and/or plagiarizing someone else's stories. It seems to be a problem with people blindly trusting those in power, I think. It is harder to get away with in the Internet age - if a politician told a lie at a campaign stop in 1994, it would be incredibly time-consuming to fact-check it, but now we can find accurate information almost in real time.
posted by tacodave at 4:00 PM on January 25

He's relatively clean-cut and middle-class-presenting, and that's definitely part of it. I think it's also that a lot of his lies were the kind of semi-plausible ones that a lot of people wouldn't bother to fact-check. Like, if you were chatting to someone in an airport bar and they said they'd won a Nobel prize for physics you'd probably call bullshit, but if they said they played volleyball for Baruch College? Like, I don't know anything about volleyball or Baruch College, and that seems like a weird thing to lie about, so, sure, OK. Winning a Congressional seat comes with a lot more scrutiny than being a private citizen, though.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 7:06 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]

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