In retrospect, as it often seems to go in these cases, the evidence appears to have been so glaringly obvious, it’s a wonder we were ever taken in. George Santos – like Anna Sorokin, the “fake heiress” – even had the Scooby-Doo, black-rimmed glasses that might have come from a joke shop selling disguises. When the representative for New York’s third congressional district entered the House last November, he was briefly notable as the Republican’s first openly gay non-incumbent to win a seat.
Now, his fame resides elsewhere. So wild and untrustworthy have statements made by Santos proved to be – Did his granny really survive the Holocaust? Was his mother’s death really related to 9/11? Did he ever appear in a movie alongside Uma Thurman? – that it would come as no surprise, at this stage, to discover that rather than a 34-year-old man, Santos is actually four children piled on top of each other beneath a trenchcoat.
The fascinating thing about Santos, and other practitioners of these kinds of fabrications, is how easily disprovable their falsehoods turn out to be. If compulsive lying has its roots in something deeper and more complicated than mere self-advancement, you assume the risk-taking is part of the appeal. Psychologically, Santos’s claims appear akin in scale, impulse and thrill-seeking to a man running across a football field naked, each more lurid and exposing than the last.
Let’s start with the small stuff, like where he went to school and what year he graduated. Per Santos’s claims, he attended Horace Mann, a prestigious private school in the Bronx (a representative of the school told CNN it had no record of him ever attending).
After school, Santos claims he studied at Baruch College in New York, graduating with a degree in economics and finance in 2010. (Baruch College has no record of him graduating that year.) He claims to have gone on to study for an MBA at New York University (no record), to have worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs (no record) and Citigroup (no record). All of these lies were itemised in a comprehensive list in New York magazine last week, with citations for where Santos made the claim and where it was later rebutted.
The New York Times, meanwhile, has also handily uploaded a copy of Santos’s two-page CV, which even in the weeds between his biggest tent-pole lies, will make your own CV claim to be “fluent in French” look like a modest inflation.
And that’s just the professional stuff. The personal fabrications are, if possible, even weirder in their overreach. Santos appears to have the recognisable, attention-seeking syndrome of claiming association with historical events that on closer inspection he had nothing to do with. His claim to be of Jewish heritage and have grandparents who survived the Holocaust has been thoroughly debunked, as has the claim he made on Twitter in 2021 that his mother was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. (Evidence suggests that, in fact, his mother, Fatima Devolder, was in Brazil in September 2001.)
He has claimed, simultaneously, to own property in Brazil worth up to $1m, to own 13 rental properties – no record of these properties has so far been found – and to own no property at all and be living with his sister. The claims and reversals have reached a pitch so chaotic that it’s tempting to regard Santos as a conman approaching the level of satirist.
And yet. Before we get carried away by the sheer entertainment value of all this, it’s worth reminding ourselves that beneath the improbably fanciful claims, there are suggestions of extremely banal, entirely predictable and straightforwardly self-interested financial impropriety on Santos’s part, all of which are now being investigated by federal prosecutors. A complaint has been filed with the Federal Election Commission about his alleged misuse of campaign funds, and the source of that funding, which is also under criminal investigation by the Department of Justice. And, less than a month after being sworn in, there are, of course, calls for the man to resign. Meanwhile, the most Santos has admitted to is “embellishing” his résumé.
It’s a serious thing to mislead the electorate and lie to members of Congress, with a much more damaging fallout than the lies of a fake heiress trying to score a free holiday. Still, in both cases, the fascination with the workings of compulsive liars is the same. Scrutinising photos of Santos’s blank and babyish face triggers the vertiginous possibility inherent in all really big grifts – and one, possibly, deserving of sympathy, although who knows – that he has come to believe all this stuff himself.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist based in New York
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