Popular politics’s latest grifter George Santos has taken the culture of fakery to new heights. The newly-elected Republican congressman from Long Island faked his name (not George Santos), his religious and family lineage (not a Jewish descendent of Holocaust survivors), his sexual orientation (not clear, not that it matters), his material wealth (not rich, but somehow temporarily flooded with election cycle cash), and his profession.
According to former congressman Steve Israel, Santos’ New York district, home to Sean Hannity and Billy Joel, “is as normal as Santos is extreme,” a place of strip malls and nail salons, good pizza and chain restaurants, where voters “hovered quietly near the center… with a mellowness [that] could sometimes border on apathy.” In other words, as abhorrent as George Santos’ behavior may be, his success is also a result of a community that shirked its democratic responsibilities.
This is a scandal that should have all of us asking questions. Among them: What kind of a community creates and elects a Santos? What kinds of leaders are we manifesting? And how has the rampant rise of public narcissism and Machiavellian realpolitik perverted questions of identity and responsibility that matter in a healthy society?
It’s sad that a guy like George Santos, who clearly has the drive and skills to move people, reneged so completely on his own humanity. Did he look for himself with a GPT chatbot or simply follow in the footsteps of a former-US president preoccupied with winning at any cost?
And this is where the wisdom of Machiavelli offers answers to some of these questions, but not in the way one might expect. The 15th- and 16th-century Italian diplomat and philosopher is known universally as a teacher of the anything-goes use of power that autocrats have employed since time immemorial. He famously wrote, for example, that politics have no relation to morals.
Thanks to Greil Marcus – who offers a jewel of Machiavellianism to explain the work of contemporary philosopher of song Bob Dylan in his new book Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs – we see that any culture worth fighting for needs to teach its political wannabes how to manifest a unique identity as a leader while still affirming with humility and self-awareness how that leader’s identity came to be.
Exiled from his beloved Florence toward the end of his life, Machiavelli wrote a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori:
Once the evening has arrived, I come home and enter my study. In the entryway I take off my daytime clothing, covered with mud and dirt, and put on garments that are royal, and suitable for a court. Changed into suitable clothes, I step into the ancient courts of ancient men. Received lovingly by them, I nourish myself on the food that is mine, for which I was born. There I am unashamed to talk with them and ask them the reasons for their actions, and they, with their humanity, answer me.
Too often today, from the slander of “fake news” to crypto crockery to political fakery, a cult of personality encourages people to lie in order to gain power. This is the dark side of Machiavelli’s legacy of trumped-up winning. But there is also light emanating from Machiavelli’s wisdom, a humane sharing of ideas and identities, through which a leader might grow into her or himself as part of a community.
In this Machiavellian vision, we become who we need to be by asking questions, bowing to masters of the past, and wondering aloud what this world needs from us. At the risk of seeming foolish, the true leader is not ashamed to admit that she is only as wise or powerful as the community who taught her to be the person that she is destined to become. The shameful leader, the grifter, the cultist of personality, simply pretends to be someone they are not no matter who is made a fool along the way.
And there’s a deep Jewish parallel to Machiavelli’s teaching as well. As my friend Rabbi Leon Morris taught me recently, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a 20th-century giant of Torah known simply as “The Rav” by his followers, shared wisdom much like Machiavelli’s – that those granted authority above others can lead righteously only when they accept that they are standing on the shoulders those who came before them.
Soloveitchik writes in The Lonely Man of Faith of an old rabbi who walks into a classroom crowded with students, and asks himself in despair how someone at the end of his life can connect with a generation still being made.
Then, before the teacher’s eyes, a series of scholarly giants from the past enter the classroom, each sharing a unique genius that contributes to the foundation of the dialogue that the rabbi and his students join as partners. Everyone in the room is an extension of the history and identity that has preceded them, a “comradeship of old and young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern times.” Continuity of the generations, a merging of identities and purpose is, according to The Rav, a key element in the redemption of the Jewish people.
It’s not clear what fate holds for Mr. Santos or the community that wanted to raise up someone who was never there in the first place. I hope he is stripped of any tasks paid for or determining the use of public funds, and is forced to face the music of the chorus of lies to which he convinced the voters of Long Island to sing along.
But this lost, lonely young man and his complacent community teach us an essential lesson about leadership upon which Soloveitchik and Machiavelli agree.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants. We all have a past. It can raise us up and provide a strong foundation to dream and lead and become who we are meant to be. But when a leader claims a singular ability to climb above everyone else without accountability or a humble sense of self, beware.
If a wannabe leader can’t tell you where he really comes from and who made him, send him to the back of the classroom to listen and learn until he can. And if he won’t take his place amongst all of the rest of us learners and seekers reflecting the longings, insights, and dreams of those who came before us, we might just need to show him the door.