New York (AFP) – Republican George Santos admitted to hamming up his life story and is under investigation in America and Brazil, but he still went to Capitol Hill this week for his swearing in.
The 34-year-old has defied calls to stand down and if rebel Republicans hadn’t repeatedly blocked the election of House Speaker then Santos would be a Congressman by now.
For some experts, the lawmaker-elect from New York is an example of what politicians think they can get away with today in the deeply polarized United States.
“There is no getting around the fact that Mr. Santos’s con game is a manifestation of a growing political phenomenon of saying or doing anything, with no automatic consequences,” Santos’s Democratic predecessor, former representative Tom Suozzi wrote in the New York Times.
Joshua Tucker, a politics professor at New York University notes that “people have lied about their record forever.”
“(But) what’s crazy about this story is the extent to which he lied,” he told AFP.
Santos portrayed himself as the embodiment of the “American Dream” ahead of his election victory in New York’s third congressional district in November.
The son of Brazilian immigrants grew up in the Queens borough of New York City and is openly gay.
His story began to unravel in December when the New York Times reported many falsehoods in his CV, including on education and employment.
He did not graduate from Baruch College, nor did he attend the Horace Mann School, a prestigious private school in the Bronx. Nor did he work for Citigroup or Goldman Sachs.
Santos — who grew up in a Catholic family — was also accused of exaggerating reality, our outright lying, by presenting himself as “a proud American Jew.”
He later said he never claimed to be Jewish, just “Jew-ish.”
Reports also cast doubts on his claim that he is the grandson of Holocaust survivors who fled Nazi barbarism.
Santos, who has been likened to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or “The Great Gatsby”, has been accused of inflating his financial income and real estate holdings as well.
Amid the allegations, New York’s top prosecutor, Letitia James, said she would investigate Santos’ claims while Brazilian prosecutors reinstated over-decade-old fraud charges against him for using a stolen checkbook.
‘I’m not a fraud’
Santos told the conservative Fox News channel this week that “embellishing my resume was a mistake.”
But he added: “I’m not a fraud, I’m not a fake.”
Santos appeared isolated in the House of Representatives on Monday, and avoided questions from journalists, but by Tuesday he was seen mixing with other Republicans.
While Democrats have called for him to quit, no high-profile Republicans have done so.
Some commentators say that highlights the fragile state of American democracy.
“Today’s hyperpolarized political culture is fueled by a win-at-all-costs mentality in which the ends justify the means,” Ken Paulson and Kent Syler, two professors at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote in The Tennessean newspaper.
Tucker sees the influence of former president Donald Trump, who is known for his flexible relationship with facts.
“Trump has shown that it doesn’t really matter what your relationship to the truth is,” he said.
“Maybe in this modern era, the bar for what triggers politicians to think they have behaved so egregiously that they should resign is different than it was in previous eras.
“It’s sort of hard to fathom that he’s not going to resign at some point,” Tucker added.
A local conservative newspaper, The North Shore Leader, raised concerns about Santos’s financial situation before his election, but the information was not picked up nationally after the vote.
Some observers also criticize the Democratic Party for not spotting and highlighting Santos’s fibs earlier.
So what might happen to Santos if he doesn’t quit?
Experts say the House may vote to censure him when he is finally sworn in, but they add that Republicans are unlikely to expel him due to their slim 222-213 majority.
Voters, armed with more facts about Santos than they had this time round, will get another say in two years’ time — if he decides to seek re-election.