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Opinion Like all good con artists, George Santos knew his marks

George Santos, a Republican from New York, outside the House chamber during the opening session of the 118th Congress on Tuesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
5 min

Outrageous, contemptible and — let’s face it — endlessly fascinating, the lies of Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.) are also instructive, about both human psychology and American culture.

Like all astute con men (and women), Santos did not fabricate randomly. He supplied his various audiences with a preexisting narrative they were accustomed to believing, modified by the insertion of himself into the story line.

As psychiatrist Charles V. Ford explained in “Lies!, Lies!!, Lies!!!: The Psychology of Deceit” — a 1996 book that seems destined for perpetual relevance — phonies like Santos exploit people’s tendency to treat familiar stories less skeptically than original ones. “The con artist convinces the victim of the former’s version of reality,” Ford wrote, “by playing on the latter’s stereotyped expectations of reality.”

In other words, grifters work with the grain of popular culture, or its component subcultures.

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Accordingly, Santos offered GOP base voters an even Bigger Lie about the 2020 election, in which not only former president Donald Trump but also Santos — who lost a House race to then-incumbent Democrat Tom Suozzi by 12.4 percentage points — was defrauded.

“When they were too busy printing 280,000 ballots in my district and shipping them to Pennsylvania they sneaked in a few for my opponent,” Santos claimed, outlandishly, at a pro-Trump rally in Washington on Jan. 5, 2021.

Marc A. Thiessen: Santos must have learned from Biden how to make up details about his past

Running in 2022 in a redrawn congressional district whose electorate favored Joe Biden by nine points in 2020, Santos recalibrated his far-right pitch, weaving themes into his campaign biography that might make him more acceptable to swing voters.

Not only did he play against type as a gay Republican, Santos also held himself out as a grandson of Ukrainian Jewish Holocaust survivors. He claimed 9/11 victim status, saying at various times that his mother had died in the attacks or that both of his parents survived the ordeal. . The stories dovetailed with his assertion, during the 2020 campaign, that he was biracial (“Caucasian and Black,” he tweeted).

Fact-checkers have so far been unable to confirm or debunk the last of these; given the intermingling of races in his ancestral Brazil, it could even contain a trace element of truth. The others, though, seem to be baloney.

And Santos would hardly be the first person to lay illegitimate claim to these particular victim identities, and hence to the moral authority our culture, for valid historical reasons, has assigned them.

Impostors have repeatedly claimed to be Holocaust survivors; Binjamin Wilkomirski published a critically acclaimed 1995 “memoir” of childhood in Auschwitz, even though, as it later emerged, he spent World War II in neutral Switzerland. “Tania Head” told of stumbling out of the twin towers, badly burned, on 9/11, and became prominent in survivors’ groups; in truth, she was Alicia Esteve Head, a Spanish citizen who was not even in the United States on the fateful day.

Santos might, however, be the first grifter to pose as both simultaneously — a stolen victimhood twofer. Who knows? His brazen ruses might have benefited him politically, at least at the margins; Santos’s eight-point victory last fall in an otherwise Democratic-leaning Long Island district implies that numerous Biden 2020 voters backed him over Democrat Robert Zimmerman.

Alexandra Petri: I am George Santos, and I would never lie to you

Santos was certainly wise not to try falsifying military service — the “stolen valor” ploy. Or so the experience in November of Republican House candidate J.R. Majewski suggests. He lost an Ohio race after his claim to have deployed to Afghanistan while serving in the Air Force was debunked.

Majewski’s was a relatively mild version of “stolen valor,” of which false claims to have served in elite special forces units are both a particularly repugnant and remarkably frequent variant.

In a 2016 interview with a Keene, N.H., newspaper, Don Shipley, a former Navy SEAL who specializes in debunking SEAL wannabes, said that he dealt with 12 to 20 requests to verify such claims on a typical day.

Some are blaming Santos’s election win on insufficient local media coverage or opposition research. Maybe — but both the North Shore Leader, a newspaper based on Long Island, and a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee report documented multiple red flags in Santos’s biography well before Election Day.

Santos skeptics would have had to prove a negative — multiple negatives, actually. They would also have had to overcome another aspect of human nature that, according to Ford, renders us vulnerable to deceit: Quite simply, he noted, “people are reluctant to challenge another person’s honesty openly.”

The good news, according to Ford, is that con artists’ success at duping others tends to make them overconfident, so they “often engage in self-defeating behavior that ultimately trips them up.”

With prosecutors and the media — belatedly — bearing down on him, George Santos seems to have reached that precarious stage.

Santos’s best hope is that the badly divided House Republicans will be more interested in salvaging their slender majority, or pursuing internal quarrels, than purging their ranks of an apparent charlatan. Don’t count him out yet.