George Santos and I Go to Wimbledon
George Santos is taking up more space in my head than he should. Elizabeth Holmes had the same effect on me a few years ago. I have a fascination with fabulists, and I’m not sure why. Some of it may be due to being in the crisis management business where lying is the boundary that must not be crossed. Some of it may be because I’m an author who has seen big names go down because of fabulism and plagiarism.
I have a recurring nightmare: I’ll cut and paste a quote from a magazine article and insert it into my text, forget the attribution, and then be impaled in the digital town square. “It was a mistake! I was doing a million things!” I cry as I’m hoisted on my own petard while a smirking twenty-four-year-old journalist sneeringly explains to me what a petard is.
In the meantime, Santos happily marches on without a shrug while I’m tossing and turning at night about things I didn’t do. What’s going on here?
My theory with Santos, Holmes, Bernie Madoff and other fabulists is that we all have a fantasy self. There’s a version of ourselves we daydream about, things like vaulting to the top of our fields, head and shoulders above anyone else, such is our singular brilliance. For my part, I’ve been winning Wimbledon and other Grand Slam tournaments since the 1970s. Even at 60, I continue to beat Nadal, Djokovic and Federer regularly, although the media hasn’t given me the credit I deserve. I’m not sure why.
Despite my victories, an endless parade of nobodies dominate the airwaves on reality TV, getting attention for reasons I cannot understand. I constantly ask my grown children why these people are famous, and it fails to make sense even after it’s explained to me. Even people who have legitimately invented or accomplished something have done so in enterprises I don’t get. If a venture capitalist had asked me to invest in TikTok or even more serious tech endeavors, I wouldn’t have invested in them because I couldn’t explain why these things existed.
I envision George Santos looking at Donald Trump wing his way to the presidency and think, WTF, I’ll try it. Michael Avenatti tried to bullshit his way to the White House because he saw somebody else do it and is now serving heavy time. It’s generally not a great idea to appear on national TV while you’re committing serious fraud, but I think these people are seeing the same uber-winners in old and new media and asking themselves, “Why not me?”
Here’s the thing: Most of us have a built-in mechanism where we self-abort our fantasies because they become dangerous. I don’t walk into restaurants waving to patrons and expect to be applauded for my forty-fourth consecutive Wimbledon victory because I know I’m just taking a mental vacation from reality. I think that Santos or Holmes genuinely came to believe their legends after a period of time when their lies went uncontested.
A friend who watched the documentary on Holmes/Theranos and a new one on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme asked me where precisely they went wrong and had the opportunity to turn in the right direction. I ascribed some of their behavior to sociopathy and evil, but there’s a self-esteem thing in there as well. There was a point when they could have gone to their backers and clients and said, “Look, I am unable to get you the result that you wanted. I feel terrible. We have two ways to go here. One, you can walk away disappointed. If you do, I’ll understand. Or you can stay with me. We’ll try to do it much better next time.”
These are painful discussions to have, but in the crisis management business, I have analogous ones all the time. There are very real consequences. With Holmes and Madoff, however, admitting failure would be to admit that their entire fantasy self-conceptions were a lie. They were not geniuses. They were not legends. And they needed to be in order to get out of bed in the morning. Then they hire crisis managers (“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…”). As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Santos is also playing in a world where attention is the coin of the realm. It used to be earned through policy proposals and legislative achievements, now it is granted through trending social media stories and cable news discussions about if you are a good or bad person and what tribe you are fighting for.
Some degree of self-deception is part of everyday life. Seinfeld’s Elaine once asked philosophically, “Is it possible that I’m not as attractive as I think I am?” Jerry’s response: “Anything’s possible.” Nevertheless, there are Bernie Madoff lies and Larry David lies. A Madoff lie is a complete fabrication with wicked intent. A Larry David lie is a minor sin; getting out of an engagement or trying not to hurt someone’s feelings.
While Santos’s lies didn’t seriously hurt people, he deceived his voters in order to advance personally. His were Madoff lies. He also thought he could get away with it, which tells us as much about our climate as it does Santos. Perhaps we’re swimming in so much bullshit that Santos thought his Madoff lies were just Larry David lies. Perhaps he thought his fantasies would blend in with the fantasy lives we see playing out on social media — everybody displaying their dream selves.
What to do? All I can tell you is what I have told my grown children: One of the biggest mistakes I see people making in their lives and careers is overestimating their negotiating positions with the universe. There’s a difference between self-esteem and self-delusion. It’s about proportion. The challenge is to have some kind of compass and mechanism for testing reality. Few of us have Trump’s family money to shield us for eight decades, so we have to find the next best thing, which is to know what it’s like to have your ass handed to you on a plate early in the game.
There’s still hope for me. Roger Federer just retired with a knee injury.