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These days, lying by MAGA politicians has become normalized. The new normal emerged in January 2017, when President Trump reportedly directed Sean Spicer, then White House Press Secretary, to tell reporters that the crowd witnessing the inauguration, which had been estimated at a comparatively sparse 200,000 people, was the largest in American history, period. Spicer added that “attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
When NBC News journalist Chuck Todd subsequently asked why Spicer lied about such an insignificant issue in his first appearance before the press, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway replied, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
“Alternative facts are not facts; they’re falsehoods,” Todd said. Because the mainstream media is hostile to the Trump administration, Conway shot back, “we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.”
In the ensuing years, social media platforms and partisan cable news stations have broadcast the falsehoods ‘halfway around the world before the truth has laced up its shoes.’ What is sayable has shifted. Facts are readily dismissed as “fake news.” Liars lie frequently, shamelessly, and are rarely held accountable.
During his four years as president, according to the Washington Post, Donald Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims, an average of 21 per day. Since Trump left office, his false statements — big and small — keep on coming. As he declared his intention to run for president in 2024, for example, Trump boasted, “I’ve gone decades, decades, without a war, the first president to do it for a long period.”
George Santos (R-N.Y.), the newly elected representative of New York’s 3rd Congressional district, is the latest — and lamest — product of this normalization of lying. Ironically, however, Santos, an election denier who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, has not fully implemented key components of the Trump World’s playbook.
The scale and scope of Santos’s falsehoods is stunning. Here is a short list: Santos claimed he attended the prestigious Horace Mann High School, received an undergraduate degree from Baruch College and studied finance and economics at NYU; was employed by Goldman Sachs and Citigroup; took the stage “at the largest private equity conference in the world” and berated Goldman executives for their approach to renewable energy; managed a real-estate portfolio of 13 properties; founded an animal rescue charity that saved the lives of 2,500 dogs and cats; “lost four employees” at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., in 2016; is a “proud American Jew,” who is a “descendant of survivors of the Holocaust.”
As criticism mounted, Santos failed to follow fully the 21st century version of liar’s poker: Admit nothing. Never apologize. Raise the stakes by attacking the “allegations” as a “witch hunt.” List lots of lies told by Democrats. Change the subject.
Instead, in an approach unlikely to elicit sympathy from anyone, Santos told the New York Post, “My sins are embellishing my resume. I’m sorry.” Admitting he never worked “directly” for Goldman Sachs, Santos regretted his “poor choice of words.” He explained that he had not paid $12,000 in back rent because his mother’s cancer treatments had depleted family finances, and admitted he had recently “completely forgot about it.” Santos insisted that he had declared he was “Jew-ish” because of his grandmother’s stories about her background.
In an interview with Tulsi Gabard, who was filling in for Tucker Carlson on Fox News, Santos complained “everybody wants to nit-pick at me.” His claim about employment at Goldman Sachs, he maintained, “is not false at all, it’s debatable.” Even Gabard found it hard to imagine that voters in Santos’s district “could trust your explanation when you’re not even willing to admit the depth of your deception to them.”
Santos also knows that prosecutors are scrutinizing the personal financial statement he filed when he declared his candidacy and his campaign finance expenditure reports. Santos has not explained how a person whose gross income was $55,000 in 2020, could lend $700,000 to his own campaign less than two years later. Or whether his campaign illegally paid $11,000 for rent on the apartment at which he lived. According to an election law expert, 800 reimbursement claims under $200 (30 at $199.99), the threshold at which receipts are required, would appear to provide “strong evidence that the violation of law was knowing and willful.” And Santos reportedly faces fraud charges in Brazil connected to a stolen checkbook.
George Santos’s political career is likely to be brief. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to deter the partisan proponents of “alternative facts,” who likely believe Santos’s attempt to explain and justify his false statements was the real mistake.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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