When masquerading as someone else, one should never be sloppy. One must become a master of the alternative facts. Dress, for instance, as the other man would dress, practice his diction, and know his history as well as you know your own. The guide in these matters should probably be Tom Ripley, the hero of Patricia Highsmith’s creepy novels, who brings something supernatural to his manic overidentifications. Ripley is the king of prep. Excited by the possibility of ordinary doubt, he stuffs his characterizations with a level of detail so fine it begins to tickle speculation. In Ripley Under Ground, while impersonating the dead painter Philip Derwatt, he adopts the artist’s stoop, the artist’s whiskers, and the artist’s way of seeing the world, if only to darken it. “I cannot understand your total disconnection with the truth of things,” a tenacious collector and skeptic later says to Ripley at his house in France. When we read this remark, we know the collector must die.

Fiction appears to have had some sort of mad purchase on the world of former Republican congressman George Santos. A man in perpetual flight from reality, he invents short stories about himself that double as shortcuts, getting him to where he wants to be with no foundation having been laid for believability. The most moving thing about Santos’s lies is how many of them could be disproved in seconds. He doesn’t care about the truth, and it may be that his lack of prep is consonant with the radical style in populist politics today, which runs on the idea that everything can be brazened out, everything can be believed, as long as one subscribes to the use of a magical verbal currency in which statements are beyond proof and somehow truer than truth.

Santos hoped—rather sadly, when you think about it—that he could build his own story and that the details would simply fall into line. That’s how it’s done, and it usually works. The Trumpian audience knows what it wants, and its need for the right message can be relied upon to destabilize the most basic considerations of reality, which will duly be written off, in any case, as a parade of liberal constructions. Even Ripley, in his duskiest imaginings, could never have hoped for a life so denuded of accountability, but nowadays one might travel quite far (all the way to the White House, in fact) by proclaiming false things about oneself while accusing the fact-checkers of political bias.

Santos is a comical and somewhat pitiable character who might also serve as a terrifying weather vane for the coming election season. He imagined that he could pick his own facts, invent his own biography—I went to Horace Mann! I was an economics major at Baruch! I’m Jewish (or “Jew-ish”) and my relatives fled the Holocaust! I worked at Goldman Sachs! My mother escaped from the South Tower! I owned thirteen properties! I lost four of my employees at the Pulse nightclub shooting! I was born at twenty-four weeks’ gestation!—and that it would be a matter of opinion, or deep-seated prejudice, whether these “facts” should be allowed to stand or not. Only evil people, he feels—politicians and media types much worse than him—are likely to conclude that his life as a grifter means that he is not suitable for public office. (Santos strikes the victim pose as if it were a regulation dance move.) But what if staid, insistent, boring old brute actuality comes to call?

In Santos we are confronted with the problem of a “seasoned Wall Street financier” who worked in a call center for twelve bucks an hour. (For a man with a galloping case of pseudologia fantastica, that was clearly a problem. He was an “unseen” aristocrat, and hell hath no fury like a footman suborned.) George Anthony Devolder Santos, son of two Brazilian immigrants, was already in the habit of enhancing his personal history, his education, his qualifications, his work experience, his face, and much else besides. He claimed to be the founder of an animal charity that didn’t quite exist. He’d enjoyed time as a drag queen in Brazil before maintaining a pretty horrible record on LGBTQ+ issues as a politician in America.

There has been a ton of fibs, and now Santos faces a twenty-three-count indictment alleging that he lied on federal disclosure forms, stole public funds, engaged in wire and credit card fraud, committed identity theft, and claimed false donations. Since his expulsion from Congress in December (only the sixth representative so honored), he has taken to the toxic airwaves to shout about “a witch hunt.” When people like Santos say that reality sucks, what they mean is: it fails. They turn to conspiracy theories because that way of thinking is much more satisfying than the news; as an excrescence of the paranoid sublime, conspiracy feels like true faith.


Wishing to be someone else is so ingrained in the American sense of virtue that it seems almost finicky to speak of those who take it too far. In The Fabulist, Mark Chiusano’s lively account of Santos and his fall from grace, one is startled not merely to find more detail on what the former congressman did but to discover the positives in his life that he judged to be too minor. “There may be heroes and boldfaced names in Santos’s family tree,” Chiusano writes,

a respected classical pianist, a distant ancestor considered a martyr in a revolt against the Portuguese. But his parents were people who worked onerously in whatever ways they could to support their families. They scratched and earned and took chances. They built a life. It’s the story of America.

But the wide-eyed George didn’t find their efforts commensurate with his own idle capacity for wonder, and that is his main problem. He appears not to value any of the facts of his or his family’s real experience. He wanted more than he could work for and more than he could afford, more than he could achieve or rightfully claim, and in that sense he carries with him one of the more reckless spirits of the age. Santos could easily misrepresent those he spoke for in the House of Representatives, because for him political life is not a service to others but a means of rising above them, of separating himself from everyday limitations and consequences in order to feed his own vanity. “He had spent his life pretending to be a bigger deal than he was,” Chiusano writes.

Now there were other people calling him a person of substance…. Santos, with all his lying and exaggerating and bumbling and scheming, had made it. Or faked it. But if you squint, how different was he really from his peers, after all? He had become, or nearly become, part of “that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life,” as Joan Didion described it in Political Fictions.

Let’s take a closer look at this band of brothers. In 1954 Douglas Stringfellow, a Republican congressman from Draper, Utah, was caught lying about his war record. In 2006 the mayor of Atlantic City, the Democratic stalwart Bob Levy, was found to have done the same. Wayne Shelby Simmons, a pundit from Maryland who claimed to have spent twenty-seven years in the CIA, who supported George W. Bush and promoted the administration’s position on Iraq as part of the Pentagon military analyst program, was revealed in 2015 to have been living a fictionalized life. Far from specializing in foreign sabotage, he had in fact worked at an adult hot tub business (precise duties undisclosed).

Forgery, financial fraud, and bribery are never strangers in any political assembly, and in America the tradition of self-interest is as ripe and glorious as may be found in any imperfect democracy. In 1871 Connecticut state senator Elbirt Almeron Woodward managed to avoid prison after being caught in a ring of Tammany Hall fraudsters who screwed New York City out of tens of millions of dollars. “The bearing of this man before the Committee was simply revolting,” reports the special committee of the Board of Aldermen in January 1878. In 1996 David B. McCall Jr., the former mayor of Plano, Texas, was convicted of having created $25 million in false loan records and served part of a five-year prison sentence. (He was later pardoned by George W. Bush.) Then there was Katie Hall, a Democratic congresswoman from Indiana who was indicted in 2002 by a federal grand jury on charges of mail fraud and racketeering.

In the pantheon of corrupt American officials, Santos is not alone, but he will be remembered for his singular way of dealing with his own culpability. He blames everyone he can and would now devote his passionate imagination to destroying Congress, if he could. It almost makes you feel sorry for Santos: the size of his need and the corresponding magnitude of his denial, the depth of his anger. Even Duke Cunningham, the Republican who represented California’s Fiftieth District for fourteen years beginning in 1991 and was given a prison sentence for taking $2.4 million in bribes and cheating on his taxes, managed, at a similar point in his indictment, to show a summary acceptance of basic realities. Cunningham, it might be said, was toxic in most of the ways that it’s possible for a man to be toxic, but as a graduate of the University of Missouri who had served on the USS Constellation and won plaudits as a fighter pilot, he had at least lived a more or less verifiable life, which distinguishes him somewhat from the cosplaying universe of George Santos. Both have fans. Cunningham was pardoned by Donald Trump in 2021.


Most liars, when they speak about their lives, will grab for the security provided by truth’s general framework. The indicted George Santos, however, seems devoted to the bogus freedoms and the charmed life of the pure self-inventor. Like Mar-a-Lago’s rabble-rouser and pardoner in chief, he inhabits his own fraudulence like an ethics-free demigod of the entertainment industry, creating disorder all around him while volumizing his unblushing self-certainty as if it were a kind of superpower. It’s good TV, and in the untrusting territories of post-Covid America, in places that want to be great again, it can be relied on to play like a sort of resistance, the latest stand being taken by “nonpoliticians” against realities that appear both unfair and unconstitutional.

Santos is not required to hang his head like any of the previous malefactors, no more than Trump did after the armed attack on the Capitol of January 6, 2021, which he incited. Looked at through a certain lens, Santos is not an embarrassment but a hero, telling a few lies, sure, but seeking to turn over some bigger ones; helping himself here and there, yes, but highlighting the much deeper “steal” that his supporters believe is undermining democracy in the United States. Santos is a dog-whistler with a talent for rehearsing, even in the face of his own prosecution, the powerful, menacing fabulations that already define America’s battle with itself.

On Saturday Night Live, Bowen Yang, playing Santos, offered up a raft of current anxieties as flawless satire. “OK, enough. Enough,” he declaimed during the show’s now famous cold open on December 2:

This entire country has been bullying me just because I’m a proud, gay thief…. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s for loving too much slash fraud…. America needs closure. One of their favorite sons, me, has been cut down in the prime of his life at seventeen years old. And for what? So the government can go back to “business as usual”? Well, I don’t do “usual”…. And in terms of history, I know how I’ll be remembered, as a martyr, as a champion of the people.

Santos is an excellent target for comedy, mainly because he supplies all the best lines and postures himself, but also because he possesses such an obvious blindness to his own moral flimsiness. He just can’t stop: he bears false witness even to his previous false witnessing, which is kind of awesome. On CBS’s The Point with Marcia Kramer, we saw him speaking mournfully of people who put him in “a bad position.” He is now auditioning to be a national beacon for “the plain truth,” a scourge of the same Congress he broke his back trying to get into, proclaiming, from his lofty position as an accused felon, that “we need to seed out corruption in public office.”

“Some people would say this is like the pot calling the kettle black,” Kramer offered. “I saw how the sausage is made and I have receipts,” he replied, demonstrating a merciless command of metaphor. “I’m willing to show the American people. You don’t need to believe me, believe the proof and the evidence.”

For Santos, shamelessness is obviously a branch of performance art. But in stronger moods he can offer it as a kind of ethical jujitsu, as he did during a recent face-to-face interview with Ziwe Fumudoh on her YouTube channel. “I wasn’t there to play nice,” he said of his eleven months in Congress, as if he’d been winkling out corruption the entire time as opposed to manifesting a fresh strain. “I can probably make a black baby on my own,” he then suggested, still putting himself out there as one of life’s role models. And later: “Nancy Pelosi had a big hand in the riots in January,” repulsing everything the world knows. All the while, as Fumudoh danced around his emptiness and his opportunism—“This is so menacing,” she said, “I feel threatened and I’m not even in the House of Rep”—he looked at her with the lost smile of the soap opera antihero, as if finally knowing the joke was on him. “Who the hell is James Baldwin?” he said, adding his ignorance to the list of things that must be other people’s fault. But it wasn’t all bad. He visibly lit up when Fumudoh asked him which members of Congress he would beat in a lip-synch battle, the sort they perform on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “All of them,” he answered. And his song of choice? “I Will Survive.”

Among the high points of its reporting, The Fabulist paints a picture of someone who really doesn’t know what survival means. He should have asked his mother. “Her introduction to American life was more Grapes of Wrath than Gatsby,” Chiusano writes,

far from the life of wealth and privilege Santos pretended she’d led. Fatima’s paperwork for legalization says she spent 110 days picking beans and squash on David Jones’s farm in Goulds, Florida. Steve Jones, son of the namesake farmer, told me the fields were full of immigrants then, working sunup to sundown, in the 90- to 100-degree Florida heat.

In a sense, Santos has been escaping from that heat all his life, aiming for the cooler plains of pure invention. In the process, he fails to see his family’s effort to make a better life, to improve reality, as opposed to cutting out the effort and making it all up. His mother later worked as a housekeeper, but in her son’s account she became a financial wizard who worked her magic on Wall Street.

The depressing thing about fantasists is how much genuine human effort and imagination they miss out on. Santos was doing quite well with a few local companies in Queens, but he had to say he was a news broadcaster, had to say he’d acted on Hannah Montana, owned a house on Nantucket, and was doing a Ph.D. at Harvard—because life is never enough. He had to say he had brain cancer, that he was a “proud American Jew.” He had to say that his mother was working on September 11 at the World Trade Center. “No, no,” she said to her son’s former roommate. “I sweep, I mop, I clean cabinets.” But that wasn’t enough for Santos, either. He is said to have texted a family group chat to say he’d decided to run for public office “after witnessing the invasions of undocumented immigrants.”

For those who want life to be bigger, to be totally otherwise, there is no such thing as betrayal. “For Santos, the cons and storytelling began long before his first encounter with the hustings,” Chiusano recognizes, “growing to encompass almost every aspect of his life.” As with certain of today’s oligarchs and reality TV graduates, existence is a sort of Ponzi scheme, a universe of “deal building” and opportunities that are as real as you want them to be. Donald Trump exemplifies the spirit of the “recount gambit,” the bad romance between the outsider’s wish for revenge and the insider’s petulance at not winning everything. “Trump was the archetype of the moment,” Chiusano adds, “and he pretended to be rich and powerful, until he was. Why couldn’t Santos?”

The answer to that question may lie too deep for tears. In a life that might serve as a cautionary tale to all political fanboys, Santos appears to have missed the entire point of who he is in modern America. The border wall, the one he argues for, was intended by his hero to keep out the children of working-class migrants, just the sort of person whom Santos feels so compelled to remodel—himself.

Beyond the distractions of the law, and in the absence of a humorous God, can such a person blossom and grow? That might, strictly speaking, be a problem best left to the novelists, but in the meantime the chance of Santos becoming a martyr to a metaphysical cause—the cause of unreality—seems increasingly strong. He may go to jail, he may write a book, he may get busy lip-synching for his life, he may play himself in a movie that is more real than the original, he may join the cast of Dancing with the Stars or become the next ambassador to Greenland or, heaven help us, vice-president. But more likely, he will disappear into the miasma of low opportunities he always dreaded. When the cameras go cold, Santos may find himself alone with the person he had always wished to avoid. This wasn’t the case for his mother or anyone else in his family, but it will be for the man in the Ferragamo shoes, for whom life is never enough, in advance of its being too much.