opn George Santos
U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-NY) leaves the Capitol Hill Club as members of the press follow him on January 31, 2023 in Washington, DC. Amid ongoing investigations into his finances, campaign spending and false statements on the campaign trail, Santos is reportedly recusing himself from his House committee assignments. Image Credit: Getty Images via AFP

Never before in recent memory has the American media, along with the public it serves, obsessed over the saga of a lying politician as it has done over the last six seeks, that is, ever since the New York Times exposed the gusher of lies that one politician has told on the campaign trail.

The politician? George Santos. The lies? Humongous whoppers.

Pathological liars find themselves compulsively telling lies that all too often serve no obvious purpose. They lie for the sheer love of lying, driven as they are by an innate need in them to show a mendacious face to the world.

At times they lie even when it is to their advantage to tell the truth. And we call these liars pathological not only because of their strange compulsions but also because they go on, at one point or another, to believe their own lies.

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Enter George Santos

Enter liars like George Santos, whose lies are of a different order — natural lies told with a calculated intent to deceive others into advancing their interests, which clearly renders them morally worse than other forms of deception.

Save for the handful of people registered to vote in the affluent New York 3rd District of Long Island, who elected him as their congressional representative in November, no one in North America had heard of the guy. Yet today he is ... well, let’s see.

He went to elite prep schools. Earned a graduate degree at New York University. Rose in the ranks at Goldman Sachs. Ran his own successful business. Was an accomplished athlete and a “proud American Jew” whose grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine.

And, yes, his mother, who was a broker engaged in high finance (not a house cleaner in Queens as the media claimed) was busy working in her office high up in one of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks but, happily, managed to escape the carnage.

Penchant for telling whoppers

We all know by now that none of the above was true. The scale of the man’s penchant for telling whoppers is gargantuan — so gargantuan that we know little about who and what he is, including his real name, given the fact that had used several.

He has lied about virtually everything in his life — his education, his ethnicity, his upbringing, his career, his family, his religion and, well, name it, and he lied about it. But, most egregiously, he has lied to the voters who, having believed the lies he had told them about his putative accomplishments, elected him to public office.

Look, politicians routinely lie. Lying politicians are an archetype in American political culture — as they may very well be in other political cultures elsewhere around the world, which affirms the notion once put by Charles de Gaulle: “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians”.

They lie like there’s no tomorrow. Heck, the team working on Glen Kessler’s widely read column, Fact Checker, in the Washington Post, reported in January 2021 that former President Donald Trump’s false or misleading claims added up to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not total of 30,573 over four years.

But when the lies you tell go to lunatic extremes, such as those told by Santos, that is, lies that put you in the limelight and turn you into an unprecedented phenomenon in the annals of American politics, you become a national figure with a majority of Americans (62 per cent according to polls) taking the time and trouble to form an opinion of you, thus making you better known (again according to polls) than Hakeem Jeffries, the top Democrat in Congress — and a staple of late-night television comedy, including Saturday Night Live, the Sistine Chapel of late-night comedy in the US.

Well, maybe there’s something in us that loves lies, if not the people who tell them. Maybe we find truth to be a bore while lies appear seductive in the way they act as a tension-producing agent that propels us to imagine an alternate counter-factual world more inviting than the dreary one we inhabit. And maybe Nietzche was right, after all, when he declared, “It is the lie, not the truth that is divine”.

Defamation of character

And look again, the First Amendment, whose intent is to protect Americans’ right to free speech, allows people, including those in their midst who call themselves politicians, to lie to their hearts’ content, provided of course the lies do not result in defamation of character, financial fraud and the like.

In April last year, for example, a symposium sponsored by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, titled “Lies, Free Speech and the Law” tackled the question from a variety of perspectives, arguing against direct criminalisation of political candidates’ lies on the campaign trail.

Heavens, these folks were, you’ll agree with me, effectively trying to reinvent the wheel, for surely to criminalise lying, whether by elected officials or used-car salesmen, is to introduce society to an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth”.

There’s no telling where the George Santos saga will go next, given its ongoing twists and turns, but the cartoonish representative from the New York 3rd District in Long Island will surely escape punishment for the tall tales he has told and most probably serve his full term in office before he returns to the obscurity that had defined the world he came from. And clearly he has Buckley’s chance of being re-elected.by a constituency that harbours, for obvious reasons, deep resentment toward him.

“Barring the revelation that Santos has invented the cure for cancer, there’s little expectation that he’ll win another term, positioning him to become one of the most notorious one-term Congressmen in [American] history”, wrote Liz Skarka, a contributor to Huffpost, last week. “That might be exactly what he wanted all along.”.

And, let’s face it, nothing has been as commonplace in American culture, all the way from Jesse James to Donald Trump, than the wish to be notorious.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.