The George Santos story is truly emblematic of our times. He arrived from Brazil full of ambition and running fast from creditors. A man of modest means and talents, he soon sought to increase his status and became involved with the Republican Party. He ran for Congress as a married, Catholic Republican a few years ago, but lost to an incumbent. Determined to win, he then reinvented himself as a gay, Jewish Republican and won the now-open seat.
It turned out his opponent and the media were both asleep at the switch. His prior-claimed jobs at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, his college degree, his religion, and even his sexuality may have all been invented in order to win. In other words, he is a liar and fraud on a grand scale, a fabulist, and now his scandal is being used as a cudgel to pressure the Republicans to remove him from Congress.
While we are supposed to be astounded, what exactly is unusual? There have been innumerable scandals involving politicians’ dishonest behavior going back to Grover Cleveland. More recently, we have seen politicians disgrace themselves by lying about their Vietnam service, their Indian heritage, their use of a private email server to hide classified documents, raping their coworkers, raping kids and bribing them to be quiet, and, in the case of Joe Biden, lying about his kids’ influence peddling, his own academic record, and the circumstances of a family tragedy.
Among the many “in kind” benefits gifted to Biden in the 2020 election, the media did a remarkable job of forgetting how he withdrew in disgrace from his 1988 presidential bid because of proven plagiarism. This is why all the talk of Trump’s “lies” was hard to bear.
Trump exaggerated, no doubt. But he also told hard truths about China and the border and poked at sacred cows like American foreign policy. His plain talk about matters everyone else lied about due to political correctness was a big part of his appeal.
Most politicians today lie about matters great and small. They make promises they do not intend to keep, and they lie about their own personal stories and credentials, as well as their self-reported beliefs.
As everyone has learned from relationship literature, these are the traits of malignant narcissists. Big on the outside, but empty on the inside, they lie habitually, instinctually—about everything—even when there is no real benefit from lying. It’s just a deeply ingrained habit, part of a broader tableau of manipulative behaviors designed to obtain whatever it is they want with little regard for the feelings, interests, and rights of others.
For all of Biden’s blowhard praise of democracy, it’s somewhat debatable whether democracy does a great job of selecting leaders, at least as currently structured. Consider all the congressmen who have completely undistinguished biographies. People hate on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for her former life as a bartender, but what exactly have hacks like Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) or Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) done?
These are the mediocre people who select themselves to become politicians. Before politics, they hung around, accomplished little, had rich and powerful parents or patrons, and eventually failed upward. Judging by how aggressively they hold onto office, they apparently have one of the easiest and most enjoyable jobs on earth.
Once there, they all get filthy rich through a combination of bribes, insider trading, and the semi-bribe of hiring family members. Through the mechanism of “self-selection,” we get some of the worst people imaginable in politics.
This is not how it is in other contexts. In small private companies, employees and managers are selected by one person, the boss and owner. In partnerships, the partners select among their own who will be the leaders. The partners’ right to vote is proportional to their ownership stake. Because leading the group is hard work, people sometimes have to be pushed and cajoled to do it.
This is even more apparent in volunteer roles. No one wants to be on the homeowners association board, and if someone did seek the job, he would probably be the worst person for it. In other words, constraints on electioneering do a lot to weed out the sociopaths and narcissists from higher office. And these constraints are almost entirely absent in American politics.
The father of our country, George Washington, set the example of an austere, dutiful, and public-spirited leader. His renunciation of the many trappings of office, his refusal to engage in self-dealing and self-enrichment, and his establishment of a two-term tradition exemplified the culture of restraint and humility of early America. While more noticeable in the breach, he did provide an aspirational example to politicians that held sway until fairly recently.
Now the old America is a distant memory, the heroes no longer known or studied, the statutes torn down, and new flags and new people have taken their place. Is it any wonder that “men” like George Santos now rise to the top or that they lack the shame to resign in disgrace when they, in fact, have disgraced themselves?