George Santos and the great American tradition of "self-making"
BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:
Hey, hey. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse, and today we're getting into one of the most talked-about politicians of the year, none other than New York Congressman George Santos. Just to give you a little backstory here, Santos was elected back in November. And days after he won, The New York Times dropped a bomb of a story revealing that a lot of Santos' purported biography can't be backed up by evidence. From his family history to his alleged time as an investor at Goldman Sachs, there are no records. I repeat, there are no records. Make of that what you will.
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LUSE: Today, we're not digging into the validity of his claims. A congressional ethics committee can handle that, and they are. They're investigating whether or not he broke any laws. But we are asking why Representative Santos might embellish his resume in the first place. My guest today, Tara Burton, is an expert on self-making. Her forthcoming book is literally titled "Self-Made: Creating Our Identities From Da Vinci To The Kardashians." And for Tara, the concept of, quote, "self-made" is two sides of the same coin.
TARA BURTON: Well, there's really two complementary definitions. There's the one we think about when we use the colloquial term the self-made man or self-made woman or self-made person...
BURTON: ...Which refers to someone, often, who is born not in privileged economic circumstances, not from a particularly elevated class background, but who, with hard work and grit and determination, makes themselves a financial and economic success.
LUSE: And to apply that to George Santos' alleged story, he claims he's the son of Brazilian immigrants, that he went on to graduate from a public college, that he became a, quote, "seasoned Wall Street investor" at Goldman Sachs, that he has a family-owned real estate portfolio of 13 properties, that he has an animal rescue charity that saved thousands of animals' lives. Sounds like a man who has certainly made himself.
BURTON: The second definition is often used as the person who creates themselves kind of as a work of art or as a kind of public figure. You can think about more recent figures like David Bowie or Lady Gaga, celebrities who are kind of...
BURTON: ...Figures who have really created an identity.
LUSE: When you gave the second definition, I'm like - the first person I thought of was Lady Gaga.
BURTON: Absolutely. The whole public persona, a work of art.
LUSE: And in the case of George Santos, his alleged biography has a ton of holes in it. His parents are immigrants, but much of the story he's told about them has been proven impossible. His purported college has no record of him. Neither does Goldman Sachs. And the IRS - you guessed it - has no record of his animal charity. In other words, his resume could be read as less a work of reality and more a work of art.
BURTON: I argue in my book "Self-Made" that these two seemingly quite distinct definitions are actually - they're two sides of the same coin of this idea, increasingly prevalent in our contemporary society, that we can really make ourselves - we can make our own reality. And by looking inwards and cultivating our personality and our resources, our internal resources, we cannot just change our circumstances, but really remake ourselves in the image of who we want to be.
LUSE: And in George Santos' case, the image he created helped him become the first openly gay Republican to unseat a Democratic incumbent and get elected to the most powerful legislative body in the world. Today, we're getting into what it means to be self-made, why Americans crave it and how, increasingly, who we want to be is who we think we really are - after a quick break.
Tara, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. I'm so glad that you could join me today to talk about this.
BURTON: Well, thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted.
LUSE: Oh, our pleasure. Our pleasure. So George Santos has said that he is, quote, "the full embodiment of the American dream," which, you know, I have to say, in some ways I agree with. In your book, you write that one of the major tenets of the American dream is this self-making or self-mythologizing and that this is uniquely American. How do you think self-making is intertwined with what we call the, quote-unquote, "American dream"?
BURTON: I think that the kind of genesis of American self-making had this sort of wonderful, idealistic quality. You find it, for example, in Frederick Douglass' speeches about the self-made man, this vision that America is a place where, ideally, wherever and however you are born, the circumstances into which you come into this world do not need to define you. And through - in Douglass' case, he talks extensively about work and how work allows the individual to kind of transcend his, in this case, circumstances. And somehow, over the past few centuries, that sort of changed and shifted slightly into, you kind of deserve the life you dream of. And the work that you do is not the work of study or disciplined toil, but a kind of work of self-examination and self-cultivation, like, the deciding who you want to be and figuring out who you, quote-unquote, "really are on the inside" becomes the impetus to creating a persona that you share with the outside world, whether or not it's based in what we might think of as reality.
LUSE: So you studied a lot of self-makers, especially politicians. Like, I wonder, what politician do you think Santos most closely resembles, perhaps specifically in his penchant for self-making or self-mythologizing in that way?
BURTON: So it's a bit of an obvious answer, but I do think it is the right one, where I think he is in the tradition of former President Donald Trump, specifically in his seeming conviction - I don't want to make statements about the inside of his brain - that truth and reality is something that you can shape in accordance to your desires, this idea that it's not exactly lying so much as using the power of your internal personality and your - the sheer force of your desire to change what truth is. And in "The Art Of The Deal," Trump - or his ghost writer - have made similar statements about the fact that reality, truth - these are things that can be massaged, shaped, improved.
LUSE: You know, you brought up Donald Trump. I do find it interesting that George Santos is a devout follower of Donald Trump, somebody else who's done a lot of self-mythologizing. And Trump's connection to self-mythology is interesting here because he is a devout follower of a pastor named Norman Vincent Peale. Trump's parents took him to see this pastor from a very early age, and Norman Vincent Peale famously wrote the massive bestseller "The Power Of Positive Thinking." For those of us who haven't read it, Tara, can you sum up this book for us?
BURTON: Sure. So there's a phrase that Norman Vincent Peale, this pastor and writer, used - picturize, prayerize, actualize. And he believed that if you could just pray for something, if you could hold a picture of it in your mind and really focus on it, it would come true.
LUSE: Sounds like New Thought (laughter).
BURTON: Exactly. Absolutely. It was like New Thought, sort of a little bit of Christianity thrown in. But really, it's the classic New Thought tenet of if you can dream it, you can have it. If you want it badly enough, it will be yours. And it's - that specific idea, that desire, that wanting is a kind of spiritual force in itself, that whatever happens in the universe is downstream of your desire, that what you want is basically a magical force in the universe.
LUSE: You know, and Peale's No. 1 rule in this book is, quote, "formulate and staple indelibly on your mind" - which is already visually scary enough as it is - but "formulate and staple indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself succeeding." Trump called this man his pastor and followed this to a T. He officiated one of his weddings. And I think we can argue, by extension, that George Santos kind of has, as well. It's just that, especially in Santos' case, the mental picture he had, it didn't seem to match reality. Is that what Peale was going for, do you think? Like, is this sort of result what Peale was going for?
BURTON: From my perspective at least, this is the natural endpoint of a vision of the universe that is so, like, indelibly part of our culture now that I think we don't even always know that we, perhaps in a much less extreme way than Trump or Santos, are participating in it. But I think that once you kind of allow this idea that your internal desires have a kind of spiritual or magical power, that reality is something fungible, that is shaped by not just human ingenuity or human creativity or human work, but human wanting, then suddenly, like, one can say, what is reality? Reality is what you make it. And no less importantly, in this case, reality is what you can make people think it is.
Suddenly, there's very little difference between I am magically attracting wealth by meditating upon it in the New Thought tradition, and I am making other people believe things that will cause them to give me money. What's the difference? One of them's, quote-unquote, "magic;" one of them's, quote-unquote "persuasion." But then these things kind of come together. Reality is being shaped by desire and canny self-presentation.
BURTON: If you have this image of yourself, your internal personality as the great celebrity, the Hollywood star...
LUSE: Right, right, right.
BURTON: ...The genius entrepreneur or thinker or innovator.
LUSE: The successful congressperson.
BURTON: Without speculating as to George Santos' emotional state, I would imagine...
BURTON: ...That he has an image of himself, his quote-unquote, "authentic self" as the successful congressman, which he has, in Peale's words, stapled to his mind. And he is manifesting that reality. Is he lying? On the outside, one might say yes. But from the point of view of someone who says, well, truth is simply what you make it, he's just manifesting.
LUSE: Manifesting. It's funny to hear pop psychology's favorite word pop up here. Here's the thing, though. As much as we want to think we make ourselves, who we are is as equally made by how others understand us. And for George Santos, no matter how we look at him, he wins. We'll tell you why after a quick break.
You know, you also write about how the concept of self-made is in part what we say about ourselves, but also how others view us. In other words, our self-image is in part made by the community that we're in or perhaps maybe even the community that we intentionally attract. If you had to break it into percentages, how much of ourselves are made up by what we say about ourselves and what others perceive us to be, or what we can get others to, I guess, believe us to be?
BURTON: So I think it's impossible to break it down into percentages because I think when we start thinking about who we, quote-unquote, "really are," everything, even about how we think about ourselves, does come to us from community, from culture. And so what I find so troubling about this contemporary fantasy of self-making is this idea that there's something that is truly and authentically us that is only from within. And then there are these people out there who exist only to be convinced of our internal truth. But who we are or how we think of ourselves, how we understand ourselves, even what we want is so often shaped for us, for better and for worse, by community.
LUSE: Right, right.
BURTON: You know, there's this one narrative that, oh, you know, other people are just convincing you of things and getting you away from your authentic self. And I think this is often how this is framed. And certainly in the self-making tradition, often other people are framed as this dangerous force that can repress you or convince you...
BURTON: ...That you want something that you don't. But I think the more human way to look at it is that we are political animals. We are social creatures. We exist in community. We shape each other.
LUSE: Let's apply that thinking, I guess, and think about how that shapes the story that George Santos told to win this election. What does his alleged resume, with so many question marks on it, say about what we expect our politicians to be? He told this - you know, this is a really fantastical story sort of following the self-made playbook, starting off as, you know, the son of Brazilian immigrants who manages to go to college, become this Wall Street investor and have this real estate portfolio and then give back. This narrative is so by-the-book, paint-by-numbers for self-making. Yeah, what does that say about what we, as constituents, expect from our politicians?
BURTON: I think that the kind of core of the self-made narrative, which is so attractive to us as watchers, as well as to the people who want to be seen that way, is that there is something about this person - be it their work ethic, be an ability to kind of apply themselves, be it some quality of genius or brilliance - that means that this person has a special ability to rise above the circumstances into which they were born. And on the other side of it, as voters, we find that so attractive, I think, A, because at its best, it does speak to something inspiring and wonderful in the American experiment, this idea that there is something special about, let's say, the American political system that allows this to be possible, which is itself a bit of a fantasy, but one with a long-standing tradition. And I think that for politicians who are kind of evoking what is America all about, they are evoking this sort of mythos of the best of America while also, in some of their, let's say, fabrications, embodying some of the worst sides of that same narrative and dream.
LUSE: So interesting, too, that you put it that way because the other thing that I think about, too, is, like, almost on the same token, like, or in the same vein as, like, this idea of, like, oh, if this person, you know, made so much of themselves, that they survived so much, if they created this life for themselves from nothing, they must have some sort of genius. I also notice in pop culture, or even sometimes in the news cycles, there's almost an admiration for people who end up becoming quite successful based off of lies sometimes, you know what I mean? Like, I even think about - what's that movie that people - that Leonardo DiCaprio movie. I think it was a Steven Spielberg...
BURTON: "Catch Me If You Can."
LUSE: "Catch Me If You Can," yeah. You know, like, there's almost, like, an admiration or an awe that people have even when they find out that your story is fake or even if they find out that you've gotten away with some big long con or some big ruse, like "Wolf Of Wall Street" or something like that. There - it's like - even, like, people love it if it's true. People love it if you're rags-to-riches story is true. But also, if it ends up that your story is not true, people kind of find something interesting about that or almost admirable about the fact that you were able to get away with it.
BURTON: Absolutely. I always think of P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey...
BURTON: ...The 19th century circus impresario and famous hoaxer who actually wrote a book about what he called humbug, which was, like, fun, little lies that are also entertaining. And his thesis was that the American public loves this. It's fun. It's entertainment. We love good stories. And he defended his practice of, you know, saying that they were - that he discovered mermaids when actually, he just found some random, gross fish. And, you know, he - his whole ethos was that people want to be fooled a little bit because people love the entertainment part of it.
And I think that that's something that we also can't forget when we think about American politics, is that as politics and entertainment have become more and more closely intertwined, I think that that sense that we are an audience, we are viewers as much as voters - and so the compelling personalities, the people whose stories draw us in are the people we watch. And I've got to say, I probably know more about George Santos than I know about a lot of politicians. So in that way, it worked. He is clearly going to be a well-known celebrity, regardless of what happens with his political career. And without speculating about his motivations, he may, himself, consider that a success. Certainly, some people might.
LUSE: You know, I can't help but think of the show "Veep," you know, on HBO. Every political crisis the vice president in that show runs into is filtered through this lens of, how will this play to the public? In other words, politicians have to have people like them. They have to have people like them. They have to have a good story. And if reality and these great stories get further apart, I don't know, that feels like we're headed somewhere not so good. Like, what do you think about that?
BURTON: I am certainly wary. I don't think this is a good trajectory. But unfortunately, I think, as we are increasingly in a more and more digital age, in a landscape that is basically like a literalization of ideas about self-making, the idea that what you want to see is reality - I don't just mean social media and the fact that we could present ourselves in a certain way. I mean that the news that shows up is curated for us by the fact that there are algorithms that know what we want to see and give us more of it. Advertisements chase us around the internet based on what we've already bought. So many of us spend huge chunks of our lives plugged into a system that makes desire literal.
What we see, our reality, the news we consume, the media that is presented to us - all of that runs on the engine of desire. And I think that the more that we live in this internet world - and I say this as someone who is probably way too online and way too on Twitter - but the more we live in that world, I think this promise, this magical promise of self-making, that what you want can be made manifest, really can happen in the disembodied world of the internet. That magic is real there.
LUSE: You know, we began this conversation with a quote from George Santos where he said that he was the embodiment of the American dream. Tara, after all we've discussed here, can we confidently say that, at least in that, he's telling the truth?
LUSE: (Laughter) And if he is, at least in his own self-mythologizing, following a great American tradition, what lessons would you relay to Representative Santos on what happens when you head down this path?
BURTON: I would like to say that it only ends in tears for the various con artists and self-makers. But unfortunately, that is not the case. Sometimes they get away with it, historically speaking.
BURTON: But I would say that I think that another lesson that we can take away from self-making is that the more we believe that our individual desires have the power to shape the world, the less we are receptive to being members of a community that all shape and take care of each other. And I would caution him, as I would caution anyone going down this path, to remember that we are not, in fact, self-made creatures. We are social creatures, and that that is, at its core, what life and being human is all about. And I think it's very dangerous to forget that.
LUSE: Tara, thank you so much for joining me today. This was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. I will never refer to myself as self-made ever in my life (laughter).
BURTON: Thank you so much for having me. It was an absolute delight.
LUSE: Thank you.
Tara Isabella Burton's forthcoming book is called "Self-Made: Crafting Identity From Da Vinci To The Kardashians" (ph). This episode was produced by Barton Girdwood and edited by Jessica Placzek. I'm your host, Brittany Luse, and I'll be back Friday for another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. Talk soon, y'all.
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