Opinion: Why Did We Believe George Santos?

In December, a scathing report from The New York Times revealed that George Santos, a newly elected Republican congressman from New York, had fabricated large parts of his personal biography. Throughout his congressional campaign, Santos professed to be the “full embodiment of the American Dream,” a claim which Santos’ carefully constructed resume corroborated. 

The child of Brazilian immigrants, Santos claimed to have earned a bachelor’s degree from Baruch College before working his way up the ranks of corporate America, earning prestigious positions at firms like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. This elaborate biography includes a long history of philanthropy: for example, he claims to have founded an animal rescue charity, “Friends of Pets United,” which allegedly saved the lives of thousands of cats and dogs. To top it off, Santos’ campaign biography boasted a real estate portfolio of 13 properties, which Santos – as a true representative of the American Dream – insisted he “worked hard for.”

Santos’ intricate personal narrative, however, was quickly tarnished. The Times’ report, published just one month after Santos’ electoral victory, unearthed new truths about the tale Santos offered New York voters. Neither Citigroup nor Goldman Sachs have records of Santos’ employment at their offices, and officials have found no proof that Santos ever attended Baruch College. Evidence of Santos’ real estate portfolio is sparse, and the Internal Revenue Service confirmed that “Friends of Pets United” is not a registered charity. If matters couldn’t get worse for Santos, The Times revealed that Santos faces unresolved fraud charges in Brazil.

Tale-telling & public scrutiny

Since The Times’ article was published, Santos has faced mounting calls to resign. In publishing their report, The Times has played a vital role as the mediator between America’s ruling elites and wider public, ensuring that political accountability remains robust in a country increasingly ridden by the false claims and fabricated tales of politicians. This is, of course, a reference to President Trump, whom The Washington Post estimates uttered over 30,500 false or misleading claims during his presidency. The telling of false tales for political gain plagues modern America, and Santos’ lies only perpetuate this problem.

George Santos poses for his official congressional portrait. “Official Portrait of Representative George Santos (R-NY) for the 118th Congress” by the U.S. House Office of Photography is licensed under CC0 1.0.

Yet, despite the crucial function performed by The Times, a number of Santos’ lies could have been easily uncovered by individual research. A quick check of the IRS’s charities database would have revealed that “Friends of Pets United” never existed, at least as a registered charity. A read of Citigroup’s online records would have shown that the firm sold off its asset management operations in 2005, meaning Santos could never have worked as Citigroup’s “associate asset manager.” But, from what it seems, no such research was ever performed until after Santos was elected. It took over a month after Santos’ election for The Times to publish their piece, and at no point during the campaign was Santos probed about his biographical statements. Admittedly, The North Shore Leader, a weekly paper from Long Island, did publish a piece in September questioning the rise in Santos’ reported net worth between 2020 and 2022, as well as his real estate portfolio, but the article received little public attention. Santos’ flagrant, easily disprovable lies therefore raise questions about who we believe and why we choose to believe them.

The gendered character of believability

These questions become more pertinent if we look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s experience in the 2018 midterm elections. Like Santos, Ocasio-Cortez was a congressional newcomer, having beaten Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in the primaries and, like Santos, her victory made American history. While Santos was the first openly gay non-incumbent Republican to win a seat in the House, Ocasio-Cortez was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

Yet while Santos faced virtually no questions for his self-reported resume until after his election, Ocasio-Cortez’s entirely truthful biography was subject to scrutiny throughout the campaign period. After making her Bronx upbringing a pillar of her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez faced harsh criticism for omitting her move to Yorktown Heights – a suburb in Westchester County – at the age of five. At once, conservatives accused Ocasio-Cortez of misrepresenting her past, of “selling” a false tale, and of duping the American public, though Ocasio-Cortez remained connected to the Bronx throughout her upbringing. Ocasio-Cortez moved back to the Bronx upon graduating from university and describes spending her childhood “shuttling between the Bronx and Yorktown” to visit her extended family. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a Venice Beach rally in 2020. “Nicole Tian – 2020-01-21 ” by NSPA & ACP is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Why was Rep. Ocasio-Cortez subject to scrutiny and inspection, while Santos wasn’t? Why were critics so quick to investigate Ocasio-Cortez and discredit her personal narrative, yet so slow to look into Santos’ past? The answer to these questions is far simpler than we would like to admit. In truth, the American public is far more likely to believe the stories told by male politicians – stories of living the American Dream, of reaching the highest echelons of American society – than those told by women. 

The mainstream media only fuels this problem. A 2018 study found that in the fall of 2016, Trump’s treatment of women received 25 per cent of the coverage that mainstream media outlets gave to Hillary Clinton’s alleged scandals. By mid-fall, the Access Hollywood Tape – where Trump infamously bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” – had already been released, its contents exposed to the American public. Nonetheless, mainstream media outlets chose to focus their coverage on Clinton’s alleged scandals and to discredit the platform that Clinton had built throughout her campaign. 

When pundits analyze Santos’ rise and fall from grace, they may focus on Santos himself or on the bounty of information that The Times’ article uncovered. Yet Santos was not a particularly talented liar, nor did The Times’ article unearth classified information. Ultimately, we chose to believe George Santos and we chose to accept the narrative he constructed. If, come November 2024, we learn that a male presidential candidate has lied about some aspect of his campaign biography, let us remember precisely why we chose to accept his tale. Was his story truly believable, or did we scrutinize his biography far less than we would for a female candidate? I, for one, believe that the latter is far more likely.

Featured image: “United States Capitol” by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Edited by Zach Brousseau.