George Santos and the politics of chutzpah


The likely removal of Rep. George Santos from Congress has triggered endless speculation on how he got there in the first place. But most of the punditry overlooks a fundamental change in American politics: We have entered the age of partisan chutzpah. 

I represented most of the district currently held by Santos. I agree with the bulk of the conventional analysis about his rise and fall: the opposition research flaws yielded by Democratic complacency, the failure of news media to rigorously investigate him, the performative politics that incentivizes rascals like Santos, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert to turn the floor of the House into an episode of “Jersey Shore.” 

But there’s something deeper occurring — a subtle shift in how we expect our political leaders to behave.

Politicians have always been required to possess a healthy dose of chutzpah. It’s impossible to get elected without a bit of extreme self-confidence, audacity and gall. In my 16 years in Congress, I certainly said and did things that fit the definition. Perhaps I occasionally took a bit more credit than I deserved. Thrust a sharp elbow here and there. Bordered (if not settled) on hypocrisy. All politicians need some chutzpah to make their mark, especially if that mark is stretched across an opponent’s back.

Chutzpah has penetrated American politics. The Congressional Record includes 133 House and Senate speeches using the word between 1995 and 2020. President Obama once used it in a fundraising email — an act that some considered, well, chutzpah. Former Tea Party Republican Rep. Michele Bachman once mangled the pronunciation, causing bipartisan cringes across Capitol Hill.

The change arrived with the election of the undeniable king of chutzpah, Donald Trump. On just his first day in office, he instructed his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to tell a brazen, easily disprovable lie — one so galling that it became a defining example of the Trump administration’s mendacity.

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” Spicer proclaimed.

Even in Washington, a place perpetually drunk on hyperbole and proud of it, there was something about Spicer’s prevarication that offended the senses. This wasn’t classic spin or slight flavoring of fact. This was colossal nonsense, instantly and easily refuted. Multiple photographs clearly showed a larger crowd for Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Official data of DC metro passengers confirmed it. There were even timelapse videos showing that Spicer’s statement was comically incorrect.

A day later, White House advisor Kellyanne Conway came to Spicer’s rescue on “Meet the Press.” Chuck Todd asked her to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood.” Conway, nonplussed, explained that he was giving “alternative facts.”

I remember thinking at the time, “Alternative facts! That’s chutzpah!”

Wanting to understand more, I turned to various analyses of the injection of chutzpah into our politics. I read Hannah Arendt’s “On Lying and Politics,” Harry G. Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” and Simon Blackburn’s “On Truth.” Blackburn pegs 2016 as a pivot point, when we leapt from the typical propensity of politicians to play with the truth to the current climate in which truth itself has become an “alternative fact” or a “different truth.” He argues that the political climate of 2016 did not diminish the concept of truth itself, but it was affected by two major changes in how we absorb and validate information.

The first was the proliferation of lies under the cloak of anonymity in social media, the second the growing sense that politicians could say anything without being held accountable. In both cases, fidelity to truth declines because there’s no cost — reputational or otherwise — to having lied. Blackburn writes: “If someone has nothing to lose when caught out lying, they are that much more likely to lie. A post-shame environment would imply a post-trustworthy environment, which would in turn lead to a post-trust environment.”

A post-shame environment! That’s where chutzpah flourishes.

All of this presaged George Santos’s election to Congress. In an age where political success is directly correlated with one’s ability to play fast and loose with facts, Santos’s chutzpah was of a once-in-a-generation caliber. The recently released report by the House Ethics Committee backs that up, as it details Santos’s use of campaign funds for Botox treatments, porn subscriptions, vacations and more. In true form, his response to the bipartisan report outlining his chutzpah was, well, more chutzpah, calling it “a disgusting politicized smear that shows the depths of how low our federal government has sunk.”

This week, the House will have to decide whether to draw a line in the sand at Santos’s conduct, or if, once more, they’ll acquiesce to another institution-breaking blowhard. In the meantime, Santos has announced that he will not seek reelection. For my former constituents, he will be, before long, a grating memory.

But expelling George Santos will not expel this new brand of politics. My old district will find a new representative, but in some other district, in some other state, there will be another George Santos waiting in the wings, ready to take the national stage in a country that has grown accustomed — even addicted — to politicians who are driven by their chutzpah, rather than their ideals.

This epochal shift in our politics away from decency, civility and truth towards chutzpah didn’t start with George Santos, and it won’t end with him either.

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him @RepSteveIsrael

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Share post:



More like this