Chairman's Desk

Unless our political climate improves, the case of George Santos will be the rule

It’s that sense of identity as so thoroughly mobile and the fact that it can be successfully engineered to win that is so deeply unsettling.

If you sat across the table from him on a date, you would run away before your drinks arrived.

If you were his employer, you would fire him before he had his coat off.

And yet, try as you might, you simply cannot un-elect him.

By now, you know I am talking about none other than the odious George Santos. New York’s latest, as he puts it, “embodiment of the American dream.”

Problem is: it ain’t no dream. It is somewhere between a detached-from-reality fantasy and a nightmare.

It’s one thing for literary fabulists like Gatsby, Ripley, and Draper to construct their own creations for their own purposes. It is quite another for someone who is seeking a position that has at its essence, at its core, a covenant of public trust, to try the same. Disturbingly, this creation, evidently politically calculated to secure victory in New York’s 3rd congressional district, worked.

I won’t recite the litany of Santos’s well-publicized falsehoods but suffice it to say that most revolve around the details of his identity. And let’s be clear: his lies are not minor embellishments but whole-cloth constructions.

It’s that sense of identity as so thoroughly mobile, so readily fungible, and the fact that it can be successfully engineered to win that is so deeply unsettling. The old, now demonstrably naïve, expectation was that people go into politics for honourable reasons, to fight for someone or something. Santos’s case underlines the danger of that assumption, and shows that people do, in fact, go into politics for all the wrong reasons and, what’s worse, win.

Worryingly, successful liars often inspire and embolden imitators. To be sure, Santos’s situation is, at best, a relative success, he’s been caught but not criminally charged, made tepid apologies but not resigned. Indeed, a sharper downfall might still await him. And yet, there is an emerging sense of an attention-seeking, near nihilistic, air lurking underneath, that all he ever wished for was his name to be on the front page, good or horrifically bad. And so it is.

I tell young people as often as I can that motivation is for amateurs, discipline is for professionals. That credo’s power rests in its reminder that it’s our actions over time that define us. We can be motivated to do both very good and very bad things temporarily. But it’s the discipline of what we do every day that tells us and others who we truly are.

I say this to young people because they are most frequently confronted by that temptation: to take the short view and corresponding shortcut, to tell the easy lie about who they are or what they’ve accomplished.

But, of course, that temptation does not exist for young people alone. Nor does it exist in a vacuum.

So what motivated Santos to lie so spectacularly? It’s easy to say he’s an unqualified loser. It’s harder to turn inwards and look at our own culture to ask what type of person our political climate is selecting for.

I’ll try.

Who is willing to face the culture of toxicity and harassment (especially pronounced for women and visible minorities) our leaders face? Who is willing to confront the inevitable mudslinging campaign? And who is willing to work a profoundly demanding job for only a fraction of what they could command in the private sector?

There are still many good people, I’ll go so far as to say most, who remain in politics for whom such questions are not questions at all. Their strength of character and conviction simply drowns out the concern.

Yet make no mistake, George Santos is a wake-up call. Sure, there’s been many like him and there will be more to come. But unless we meaningfully improve our political climate, the issue is his astonishing level of deceit won’t be the exception but will become the rule.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on January 17, 2023.