January 27, 2023   6 mins

After the latest batch of revelations about his hidden history and penchant for patent falsehoods, Americans are struggling to make sense of New York Representative George Santos. Even before he was able to take office in January, several newspapers began to reveal that Santos’s professional and political CV was substantially invented. The lies ranged from the conveniently fictional to the comically fraudulent. But how could such a candidate have risen so far, so fast? Turning to a comparable work of fiction (one no less fanciful and entertaining than Santos’s resumé) may hold some answers.

In the 1979 film Being There (based on the 1970 novel by Jerzy Kosiński), Chauncey Gardiner — memorably played by Peter Sellers — is an illiterate, mentally stunted, middle-aged man. Owing to his lifelong isolation in the townhouse of an elderly patron, he knows only two things: gardening and television. He dresses in Thirties-style double-breasted suits and speaks with an upper-class accent. But when his patron dies, Chauncey is unleashed in the streets of Washington DC and by a series of accidents soon rises to the heights of power, his mundane gardening commentary eagerly interpreted as sage advice by politicians and the press. Released in the year before the election of actor-president Ronald Reagan, the film has been seen as a harbinger of the postmodern turn in US politics, given expression by the likes of Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan: when appearance came to subsume substance in seemingly new and radical ways. Santos makes sense when viewed as a product of this distinctly late 20th-century, media-driven descent toward a fetish for the fake and superficial.

Meditations on the centrality of image in politics, however, also have a much older pedigree, stretching back to Machiavelli and the classical histories he drew upon. In contemplating what it took to hold power in a corrupt world, the Italian famously wrote in the passage on “the lion and the fox” that “the prince must be a great simulator and dissimulator”. Indeed, the same events in the story interpreted differently (“What if Chauncey was not the dumb beast of burden we were led to believe but was conscious of what was happening?”) would make Being There the ultimate tale of Machiavellian cunning and Chauncey Gardiner the ideal prince.

Santos, of course, knew what he was doing when he, for instance, claimed to have developed new carbon capture technologies or to have been the victim of an assassination plot. Taking the view of him as a calculating con-man would seem to confirm another comparison made of the legislator with a fictional character: Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. But even this is off, for there is nothing of Ripley’s grace, nothing of the subtle or the suave, about Santos. And it is in any event hard to imagine Matt Damon (or a young Alain Delon) playing him in a film. More likely, it is this very tension between the possibility of his being either a Chauncey or a Ripley — a moron or a Machiavel — that makes George Santos such a frustratingly opaque and therefore fascinating figure. That he was found out so soon and so spectacularly suggests the former, but the fact that he is now a national figure who is set to gain more influence (thanks to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s gift of two plum committee assignments) hints at the latter.

Yet for all his mysterious airs, Santos did not materialise in a vacuum. And as easy as it would be to single him out for ridicule, there can be no full accounting of the man and what he represents without acknowledging the context that made his ascent possible. Just as Chauncey could not have risen without the many cues of encouragement and support, unwitting or otherwise, given by his elite benefactors, so too should Santos’s career be seen as rooted in the broader culture and example set by the political class to which he now belongs. While Santos may still shock by the sheer volume and brazenness of his deceptions, he essentially broke no new ground. The content and pattern of his lies closely tracks those made by his predecessors in the political arena. And while Santos’s false claims are evidently more flagrant — and admittedly distant from the artful manipulation recommended by Machiavelli — they are only the more exaggerated renditions of the exact same narrative material provided by others.

In his attempt to inflate (or rather invent) his academic record, Santos carried on where Joe Biden left off in 1987, when the then-first time presidential candidate famously lost his temper after being asked about his grades, challenged the reporter to seeing who had the higher IQ, and bragged of law school honours that could not be verified. (This was also when Biden was caught plagiarising a Neil Kinnock speech.) In his effort to burnish the scarcely existent business career he supposedly had in the top firms of Wall Street, Santos echoed Donald Trump, a flailing businessman with a history of major bankruptcies who parlayed his outsize image into a reality show and then a political career — no less premised on his skills as a huckster. Santos even parroted a signature Trumpian expression when he pointed to his (fictional) experience handling “billions and billions on spreadsheets”. In both instances, Santos played to the most seductive of American myths, meritocracy, beloved by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Santos offended many after he claimed to be descended from Holocaust refugees (in addition to having a mother who died on 9/11), and this was shown to be false; later, he had to revise his identification as Jewish to “Jew-ish”. But his was only an especially crude take on an old trick favoured by American elites — claiming ancestry from an oppressed group to gain admission into a prestigious institution. Senator Elizabeth Warren once pulled it off and so do countless college applicants every year across the country’s best schools. The footage that emerged recently of Santos dressed in drag in is innocuous enough, but running as a conservative Republican at a time when “Drag Queen Story Hour” has become a flashpoint in the culture war makes such a sight more politically compromising than it would otherwise be. And Santos is by no means the first Republican to run on a wholesome, straightlaced image in public only to be revealed as having a far more colourful private life.

But even more than internalising the elite’s instinct for lying about their ethnic identities or private proclivities, Santos has excelled in adopting their appetite for the oil that greases the wheels of US politics: big money. Asked by another “colourful” Republican, Matt Gaetz, where he got $700,000 in self-donated campaign funds, Santos responded like a pro: he quickly deflected to an attack on partisan enemies and appealed again to his “self-made” credentials. “Well I’ll tell you where it didn’t come from. It didn’t come from China, or Ukraine, or Burisma… I’ve lived an honest life. I’ve never been accused, sued of any bad doings. So it’s the equity of my hardworking self that I invested inside of me.” Among the allegations levelled against Santos, the ones having to do with campaign finance violations are the most serious and could potentially bring him down. But whatever Santos may have done (he has since revised his claims), he would be punished for breaking the rules of a campaign finance system that is already known as among the most nakedly venal and dysfunctional in any major democracy.

Machiavelli scandalised Christendom with his blunt take on the “mirror of princes” genre, in which he aimed to instruct the power-seeker on how to mantenere lo stato (“maintain the state”). Santos appears to be playing a similar role in modelling, perhaps a little too well for anyone’s comfort, the principles and methods by which the rulers of the American state gained and maintained their power. In his lies can be seen reflected back the pathologies of elites at the helm of both parties. To invoke the memory of yet another fictional character who embodied the moral and political zeitgeist of his era, Santos may steal a line from Malcolm Tucker and say to the whole political class: “I am you, and you are me.”

At the very least, then, we may ask: can there be anything of the redemptive or even the heroic in the Santos saga? Does beating the elite at their own hypocritical game and showing them up on their own turf count as a commendable instance of princely virtù in Machiavelli’s book? If the ghostly wraith of the Florentine philosopher wandered the halls of Congress, would it descend upon the New York delegation and give George Anthony Devolder Santos a pat on the back?

For all his centuries-long reputation as a teacher of amorality, Machiavelli was never a mere cynic or nihilist. He was so unscrupulous with the means precisely because he was so terribly devoted to the ends. As he confessed to a friend, “I love my country more than I love my soul.” He was clear that the object of power was not self-preservation alone but the restoration of good government, not to enlarge the cesspool of vice but to drain it. As he wrote in the Discourses on Livy: “And truly, if a prince seeks the glory of the world, he ought to desire to possess a corrupt city, not to spoil it entirely as did Caesar but to reorder it as did Romulus.”

George Santos will have neither the glory of Romulus nor the infamy of Caesar, nor even the innocence of Chauncey Gardiner. Nevertheless, in his farcical mediocrity, he stands as the symbol of his time.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.