The Very Good Reason People Like George Santos Lie About Nonsense

All politicians lie. So many people consider that idea self-evident that I’ve heard it deployed as both a defense of lying and a reason to disengage from our democratic system entirely.

There’s a class of lying so extreme, however, that it exceeds either analytical framework. These aren’t lies about what a politician will do for voters; they’re lies about what the politician had for breakfast, what book he’s reading, whether he played on his college volleyball team. And I’m not talking just about George Santos.

But I am absolutely, definitely talking about George Santos. Last week, a report by the House Ethics Committee found that the 35-year-old (as far as we know) congressman from New York had misused his campaign funds, spending some of the money on designer clothing, Botox and the not-safe-for-work platform OnlyFans, among other things. His lies are so extensive that a very long list of them compiled by New York Magazine under the heading “Here’s Every Single Lie Told by George Santos” may need to be updated by the time you finish reading this essay. He lied about his mother dying as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, about starting an animal welfare charity and about being a producer on the failed Broadway production of “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.”He says the report, which he called biased, shouldn’t have been released, which is also a lie.

Among the ranks of people who have been caught in unnecessary lies, Mr. Santos’s fellow New Yorkers are overrepresented. New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, said that he had long carried around a photograph of an officer who was killed in the line of duty. But the photo he displayed turned out to have been printed only days before and altered with fake signs of wear. Despite being hailed as the city’s “first vegan mayor” — the author of a vegan cookbook! — he eats fish.

And Donald Trump, where to start? An acquaintance of his once said he’d lie about what time of day it was, just for the practice.

The comedian Suzy Izzard has a bit about moral depravity on an epic scale. “Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people,” Ms. Izzard says. “We can’t even deal with that. We think if somebody kills someone, that’s murder, you go to prison. … Twenty people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can’t deal with it. Someone who’s killed 100,000 people? We’re almost going, ‘well done!’”

Something similar happens when lies pile up. Some of the lies are so petty that they’re funny.(I don’t know who started the rumor that Mr. Trump graduated at the top of his class at Wharton, but surely no one believes it.) But the sheer number of them make us numb to the offense — and, potentially, to more serious ethical infractions. No one reacts when Mr. Trump tells a lie because explaining ethics to Donald Trump feels like explaining existentialism to a chicken. And if you didn’t know he was a liar already, that’s your fault.

Tucker Carlson’s lawyers used this exact defense in a libel suit a few years ago, when they said everyone should understand that what Mr. Carlson says isn’t always factual. The judge in the case agreed, noting that “given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer”arrives “‘with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statement he makes.” The idea is that Mr. Carlson’s propensity for saying things that are false insulates him from the consequences of saying things that are false. The onus is on the listener to determine what’s true, and not on the liar to tell the truth.

That is obviously backward, both morally and as a system for healthy civic life.

An opposition researcher once told me that politicians who hold office at the federal level are invariably a bit delusional. In campaign mode, they’re forced to tell a story about themselves that is idealized and laundered of flaws; eventually they tell that story so many times they begin to believe it. Some slip down the slope into bigger lies.

That’s an unfortunate and all too common arc, but the difference between those people and men like George Santos is that Mr. Santosnever even started out with the truth. It’s reasonable to be skeptical of what all politicians say, in the same way that it’s reasonable to be skeptical of promises in advertising or impressions on a first date where both parties are on their best behavior. But the kind of lying we’re talking about here is toxic to the body politic. It fosters not healthy skepticism, but cynicism, and normalizes the idea that dishonesty is just the cost of doing business in politics.

There’s nothing wrong with having a laugh at the expense of these liars, especially when the lies are so absurd. Any parent who’s snickered when their child told an epic whopper understands this impulse, but we don’t let our children off the hook when they do it. It’s worth mustering up a little more outrage for the adult liars who’ve been elected to office and are custodians of their constituents’ welfare — and, when applicable, grounding them from public life.

Elizabeth Spiers, a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist.

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