It’s only fitting that George Santos should be a 10.0 on his own scale, though it is not out of the question that an even bigger, bolder liar may come along in due course.
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Rest easy — I’m not about to present a catalog of George Santos’s lies. Anyone who wishes to take a guided tour of his fabricated life can find a reasonably comprehensive account — at least of what has come out so far — here and here.
I’m interested instead in the impact of Santos as a phenomenon. We have long witnessed politicians, celebrities, and various other public figures covering the hardwood floor of truth with throw-rugs of various size, color, and texture — a trove of embellishments, pufferies, evasions. But Santos has laid down wall-to-wall carpeting: Pretty much everything significant or appealing about his life he just made up.
This has naturally spawned much gleeful mockery among political enemies and comedians; outrage among voters and local Long Island power-brokers who feel duped; and very fancy dancing among those, like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who see Santos as nothing more than a vote in a superslim GOP House majority. WhoWhatWhy joined the fray with a droll “Guest Opinion” Santos himself might have submitted in his defense.
I laughed, albeit bitterly, along with that piece. But here’s what I’m not laughing about: the newly minted Santos Scale. It’s a logarithmic scale, like the one named for Richter that we use for seismic activity, each whole number from 1 to 10 being 10 times as powerful as the one before. This makes it a very long scale, with lots of room in it, from barely a shiver to a devastating quake.
It’s only fitting that George Santos should be a 10.0 on his own scale, though it is not out of the question that an even bigger, bolder liar may come along in due course. For now, though, Santos has laid down a formidable marker, one that would have been instantly fatal politically before the advent of Donald Trump and his 30,573 documented in-office falsehoods, nearly half of which came in his final year as he ramped up his efforts to hold onto power.
In so doing, he made room for a Santos, because Trump’s base and virtually the entire GOP and right-wing media gave up wholesale on facts that had the nerve to stand in the way of something they wanted.
Now Santos is doing his part, because fabrications, misrepresentations, and lies, going forward, are going to be measured on the Santos Scale. They already are. Not in decimal fractions but in something just as telling: our general impression of how serious a given falsehood or collection of falsehoods is.
Take the case of Anna Paulina Luna, the newly elected GOP representative of Florida’s newly redrawn 13th Congressional District. Luna, nee Mayerhofer, is the subject of a recent article in The Washington Post revealing that numerous friends, family members, and colleagues recall a biography markedly different from the one Luna put forward as a candidate. The piece — which reads for all the world like the Post’s answer to The New York Times’ explosive takedown of Santos — is titled “The making of Anna Paulina Luna” and is summed up by Post editors thus: “Luna’s sharp turn to the right, her account of an isolated and impoverished childhood, and her embrace of her Hispanic heritage have surprised some friends and family who knew her before her ascent to the U.S. House this year.”
The details of Luna’s alleged biographical emendation are of more than passing interest, but even more significant to me was the attitude I found myself bringing to the Post’s story. It was, frankly, impossible to view it in its own spooky light with the hot glare of Santos in my eyes.
Key features of Luna’s “dramatic life story,” which the Post noted was “central to Luna’s political identity,” didn’t quite add up: An upbringing described by a relative as “kind of coddled” became a lonely, isolated, and deprived struggle that left her “battle hardened”; a break-in that occurred when Luna was not at home became a “traumatizing home invasion” (incidentally leveraged in her staunch advocacy for expanded gun rights); a late embrace of a long-ignored Hispanic heritage; a useful name change, etc.
Although there’s a fair amount of he-said-she-said in the Post’s account, there is also a good deal of factual reporting; in the end one is left with an unsettling impression of self-serving shape-shifting. As a former roommate put it, “[Luna] would really change who she was based on what fit the situation best at the time.” This seemed to include surname, religion, ethnicity, and political expediency.
But I found it hard to read the Post’s inquiry into Luna’s life story without a shrug, a yawn, and even a hint of an eyeroll. After all, unlike Santos, she has not claimed that she attended a college she did not attend; or, for that matter, an elite high school (which happened to be my alma mater); or that she worked for blue-chip employers who never heard of her. Nor did she tell building-leveling whoppers about her ancestry (although she did muddy things somewhat in that department), finances, charity work, or campaign funding.
In short, Luna is no George Santos. She might be a 4.2 on the Santos Scale but here in California, we brush off such little wobbles, put the vase back on the mantelpiece, and go about our day.
And so with Anna Paulina Luna, who seems to have shape-shifted and misrepresented pretty shamelessly, but didn’t make everything up. I suspect I was hardly alone among readers almost ready to give her a half-pass because she’s “not as bad as that Santos” (and it probably doesn’t hurt that Luna is eye-candy to Santos’s eye-cough medicine). Although when I read Luna’s world view at the end of the Post article — “I always tell people that you have two options in life: You can either choose to be the victor or the victim. I chose to be a victor” — her Santos number jumped to 7.6. Kill or be killed? Binary, Darwinian, scary.
I think it’s no stretch to say that Luna is likely in good (or bad) company. With Trump and Santos as their wingmen, the sky is now pretty much the limit for liars of the right. Whether the Santos Scale will apply to and protect any liars of the left remains to be seen.