What George Santos reveals about our democracy
And how what's happening in America is too similar to Vladimir Putin's Russia
Has lying become too easy, in both the America of George Santos and Vladimir Putin’s Russia? (Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash)
You may see George Santos as the inevitable product of Donald Trump’s Republican party — the unlikely congressman who made up his life story being, in that view, just gooey flotsam in the backwash of a White House that itself floated on fabrications, ranging from the Inauguration Day weather to the president’s body weight.
True enough, but the longer Santos hangs around Washington, the more clearly we realize that he’s not just an heir to Trump’s malignancy, but also a disciple of Vladimir Putin’s strategy. Consider: Both Putin and Santos are pushing forward, never mind the criticism based on morality or legality, and both wager they can win by outlasting their adversaries. Really, if Putin’s Russia wasn’t so anti-gay, Santos would fit right in at the Kremlin.
It has become clear that the Russian strongman and the American flimflam man are now following the same playbook. Putin assumes he can prosecute his war in Ukraine longer than the West can sustain its united stand against him; Santos figures he can stay in office after the novelty of his story wears thin and the mainstream media turns its attention to pressing matters elsewhere. And just as Putin can count on support from other anti-Western powers, Santos knows that what matters to his party is not who he is, but who he stands against.
That’s why Santos isn’t just a shake-your-head sideshow revealing how far American conservatism has fallen from the standards of integrity exemplified by the likes of Dwight Eisenhower and John McCain. He actually represents the broad threat that is posed by a major political party’s unmooring from truth.
Yes, Santos may be brought down eventually by his alleged financial crimes. Prosecutors seem to be interested in how a guy who couldn’t pay his rent found $700,000 to lend to his campaign. But what if he hadn’t needed money? The embrace of Santos by Republican leaders who matter, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, suggests he could skate through to success. In fact, a well-funded fabulist might see in George Santos the very model of the modern-day successful politician.
So worry about this: Santos could be the future of our democracy.
In fact, Santos is these days behaving largely as any freshman lawmaker would — putting his name on legislation that might be popular with his constituents and standing wherever a spotlight might shine upon him favorably. New York magazine noted this week that Santos seems to be actually enjoying his notoriety, a notion that led the article’s author, Shawn McCreesh, to conclude, “Sometimes you’re famous just for being infamous, and that is enough.”
To be sure, Santos seems unlikely to outrun everybody who is chasing him down for the astounding web of lies he created. The Justice Department has opened an investigation of his campaign finances, and this week the House Ethics Committee launched its own probe. Based on what has already been uncovered by aggressive journalists — which seems to point to perjury, financial fraud and theft — it’s hard to imagine that Santos will be out on the campaign trail in 2024.
But none of the investigations are touching the elements that made Santos the only freshman member of Congress known not just in his own district, but nationally. He has gotten widespread attention not for his seeming flouting of the laws governing campaign finances, but for the brazen misrepresentation of his personal background. And while that seems to hardly trouble the leaders of his party, it has made him a genuine celebrity on the far right.
Lots of politicians commit financial crimes, after all, and we remember few of their names. We know Santos, though, for the fabrication of a backstory, which is arguably what got him elected: He made up where he went to college (and he wasn’t a star on their championship volleyball team), where he worked (not for big Wall Street firms), heart-rending connections to 9/11 and the Pulse nightclub shootings (respectively, in fact, probably none and almost none) and that he was the grandson of Jewish Holocaust survivors (his grandparents were born in Brazil).
So an ambitious young politician might reasonably conclude that you can lie absurdly and still get ahead in politics, as long as you don’t break the law. It’s not a crime to lie to voters; indeed, it has come to be a mark of belonging in today’s Republican party. Santos represents the evolution of the party that once rather ostentatiously stood for rectitude and virtue, but which now has habituated lying.
The course of that Republican devolution is charted by Dana Milbank, a columnist for The Washington Post, in his book published last year, The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party. Milbank tracks the through-line from Newt Gingrich’s strategy to win the House for Republicans in 1994 by hyperbolically portraying Democrats as traitors to America.In addition, I’d point to the media enablers and enforcers: Rush Limbaugh, whose daily talk show made its national debut in 1988, and Fox News, which from its 1996 launch set out to intentionally distort its news report by an overt conservative bias.
The peril this presents is embedded in human nature — or, specifically, in the portion of the brain known as the amygdala. Sophisticated imaging experiments at University College London have shown that the amygdala — which controls our behavioral and emotional responses — adapts to dishonest behavior. Thus, small lies over time make bigger lies easier for our brains to accept, the researchers concluded, and minor acts of dishonesty more easily escalate into larger ones.Science thus shows us how, for example, Donald Trump’s Big Lie — that he actually won the 2020 election — can be embraced by so many people: they have grown accustomed to smaller lies.
The same effect the researchers found in individuals is apparent throughout the party of Trump and Santos. Now we have Republicans setting up a subcommittee to probe imagined “weaponizing” of the federal government, which is itself a weaponizing of Congress for partisan ends. We have Stefanik, whose ambition has clearly outrun her conscience, falsely characterizing poll data to claim that the 2020 presidential election results — which she voted to overturn, based on the false claim of fraudulent ballots — would have been changed if voters had known what was on Hunter Biden’s laptop. We have Ron DeSantis, supposedly a less divisive character than Trump, falsely claiming that the bivalent booster vaccine increases the chance that people will get Covid-19.
Nobody who has any clout in the Republican party is calling out these or countless other lies by Republican officials — any more than you hear politicians in Russia disputing Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia invaded Ukraine to liberate the people from a Nazi government, or than his troops are not targeting civilians, or that Russia is winning the war. A pattern of lies has in both cases led to a tolerance of more lies, with potentially tragic results on both sides of the East-West divide.
Ironically, it is the reality of the Republican decline into chronic dishonesty that best argues for the party’s rejuvenation in our political scheme. Putin’s easy deception shows what can happen when a society lacks a strong political opposition, and why we must fight that prospect here. America needs two parties that openly and honestly compete on the same field, so that citizens can choose the nation’s course. If one party doesn’t play by the rules — which surely must include a basic respect for facts — then we are aimed toward the sort of imbalance that allows the public will to be distorted and perverted by those who care less about the basic human right to self-government. (Citizens’ power is similarly hobbled if they don’t get access to truthful reporting on public officials, which is why the right-wing propaganda of Fox News is so toxic. But that’s another column.)
The fact that Kevin McCarthy and his enablers won’t do anything about the perfidy of George Santos reveals that a quarter century of distortion of truth, year by year and issue by issue, has yielded a discernible and dangerous wave of disrespect for democracy. It may be no easier to reverse the current that has yielded such an apathetic response to the epidemic of falsehoods than it will be to turn aside the Russian assault on self-determination in Ukraine. Santos, no less than Putin, reveals that the fight for truth is always one that demands more perseverance and energy than we might have imagined.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Selma, Ala. (Tuscaloosa News, tuscaloosanews.com)
Conrad, Mont. (Great Falls Tribune, greatfallstribune.com)
Akron, Ohio (Akron Beacon Journal, beaconjournal.com)
Burlington, Vt. (Burlington Free Press, burlingtonfreepress.com)
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Aging presents extra challenges in the rural South
Older adults are disproportionately affected by chronic conditions, and people in rural areas find that medical care is more challenging, often because of financial stress and the lack of specialists. Hadley Hutson, who reports on the rural South for three Alabama newspapers, found while reporting a three-part series published by the USA Today Network that aging and caregiving are both arduous tasks. “The people at the bottom have often experienced the cumulative impact of disadvantagement across their life. So the poorest people have the worst health and the least access to the resources they need to meet those needs,” noted one expert at the International Longevity Center.
OPINION: Why some ranchers don’t welcome oil and gas exploration
In an opinion essay in the Great Falls Tribune, rancher Lisa Schmidt explains why she is upset by the notion of drilling on her land — even if it will bring her some money. “If fracking cracks the fragile shale, my springs will either be contaminated with deadly chemicals or disappear. Without water, this ranch won’t survive. The damage the explorers caused to my land in 2011 — a dozen years ago — is still visible,” she writes. “The potential lease is legal, rational and completely unjust.”
Students condemn proposed cellphone ban
Students at several schools in Akron will have their cell phones locked up through the school day, in a pilot program aimed at improving education and lessening school violence, reports Jennifer Piglet in the Akron Beacon Journal. But students complained to a school board member that they might need their phones in case of an emergency. And they noted that during 90-minute classes, teachers often give up on teaching because students can’t maintain their interest that long, leaving the kids free to use their phones then. “The phone is a need,” one student said.
Illegal border crossings up dramatically in Vermont
Border officials report a massive increase in the number of illegal border crossings and apprehensions during the last quarter of 2022, according to reporting in the Burlington Free Press by April Barton. In January, there were more border crossings than in the previous 12 years of Januaries combined. Many are being dropped off by car and then arriving at the border on foot, officials say. Most of those apprehended come from Mexico — but officials don’t know how they got to Canada, or why there has been such a sharp rise in the numbers recently.
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Take time for joy
Because I often write about politics and issues in public debate, and because those topics often involve conflict, my thoughts are often deeply engaged by the troubles of our time. It leads me to worry that my words, in The UPSTATE AMERICAN and on the radio, are adding to the distress and anxiety that is too present in our society.
There’s respite for me in so many other areas of my life — and I hope that’s so for you, too.
This weekend, for example, I’m singing with Albany Pro Musica — a terrific choral ensemble that I’ve been a part of for 22 seasons — in a concert featuring Star Song, a multi-movement work by New Mexico composer Bradley Ellingboe, our current composer-in-residence. Star Song reflects musically on the idea that we are all, in the words of Carl Sagan, “made of star stuff” — composed of atoms that are unfathomably old and formed at the moment of creation. The music is at once bold and comforting, bridging cultures, faiths and historic periods. I’m grateful to Brad Ellingboe and to Maestro Jose Daniel Flores-Caraballo for this extraordinary gift.
But writing about music isn’t the same as experiencing it. So I can’t do much more here than urge each of you to do what you can, too, to grasp joy and beauty in this life. That’s especially important, I think, for those of us who care so deeply about the areas of conflict in our communities. We need respite from the fight for justice and truth-telling, and it can often be found in the arts, as well as in recreation and in the company of those we love.
My columns often exhort us to not give up on the important task of making America live up to the ideals expressed in its founding. That’s tiring and often frustrating work, whether you’re engaged in activism, organizing, writing or simply providing support for those who take a more direct role. Rather than tiring of the effort, I hope we all can take what chances we are able to find to grasp the beauty and wonder of the world around us, as I surely will in many ways — including, this weekend, through the music I’m honored to be asked to sing. And then, refreshed, we return to the tasks at hand.
Ever onward, friends.
Thank you for reading, and for joining me in looking at *our common ground, this America. If you’re a paid subscriber, special thanks to you — and in the middle of next week, you’ll get The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, exploring the creation of the essay above. If you’d like to join the ranks of the paid subscribers and get our second weekly newsletter — along with access to our archives and the chance to be part of the commenting community — click below.
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HL Mencken was prescient on the public’s embrace of fools and monsters. That Santos would rise from the fever swamp is not a surprise.
Ah Yes! Balance! Thanks for your final exhortations! Hope to make it Sunday