I once met a guy in Las Vegas who admitted that he wore a counterfeit Cartier watch when he went out in the evenings, believing that this timepiece would make him more attractive to women. He defended the ethics of this: By his lights, any woman who was going to be interested in him because of his fake Cartier deserved to be taken in by the deception. I thought of that guy when I read the latest on George Santos in the New York Times this week, because the story was illustrated by Rep. Santos wearing—unless my eyes deceive me—a Cartier watch, and not just any Cartier watch but the one that shares his name: a Cartier Santos. It is a nice watch but not a discreet one, and that is very on-brand for the man who has spent so much energy trying to convince people that he is a wealthy man who has enjoyed a smashing business career.
That Cartier will turn out to be even more on-brand if it is a fake—which, for the sake of the literary quality of this story, I dearly hope it is.
Some of you may remember that in ye olden days, the Apple store briefly sold an app called “I Am Rich.” All it did was display a glowing red jewel on the iPhone screen, and it cost a thousand bucks. It was pure signaling, and so crass that Apple was shamed into taking it off the virtual shelves. One thousand rapidly depreciating U.S. dollars is still a lot of money, but it’s cheaper than a diamond-encrusted Rolex (in case the Cartier isn’t loud enough for you), and the message is the same—it was a handy wealth-advertising instrument for people who have given up watches and tell time with their telephones.
One way of thinking about our current cultural moment is that this is a time of extraordinary status anxiety driven by social media—another way of thinking about it is that this is the Golden Age of Bulls–t, but those are really two ways of saying the same thing. It is sometimes comical: People ask me what I do and I tell them I’m a writer, and about seven times out of 10 there is an awkward: “Are you, uh, published?” I’m 50 years old—if I were a bartender or an insurance salesman, I’d say so. But you have to keep your eyes peeled in the Golden Age of Bulls–t, when everybody is an entrepreneur or an influencer or some other bull–t thing.
The rich get richer, of course: People who can afford private jets today have the opportunity to offset some of the cost of ownership by renting their planes out to people who cannot afford private jets—not to fly around in, but to use as props and settings for look-at-me-I’m-rich Instagram posts. Seriously, this is a thing people do: Rent jets that never leave the ground just to take selfies in. That’s an interesting socioeconomic niche: Enough money in your pocket to rent a private jet for a couple of hours but not enough to feel secure admitting that you actually fly commercial and spend a lot of time praying fervently to the Great Upgrade God like any other mortal. As I have written here before, one of the few things I like about airlines is that they are honest about status, about what matters to them—you don’t get Executive Platinum for pretending to care about ocean plastic or orphans in Uganda (why is it always Uganda?) or locally sourced produce.
This is not exactly new stuff, of course: “Fake it ’til you make it” has been the business model of any number of rappers who were penniless when they first started recording songs about their champagne-and-Gulfstream lifestyles and got actually rich pretending to be rich. Back when music videos were still a big thing, you’d see the same dozen luxury cars popping up in every rap video—the record labels kept a few high-end cars on lease for their up-and-coming stars to pose with and use for publicity events. It remains strange what status attaches to: The seafood chain Eddie V’s is perfectly fine, I suppose, but it seemed to me strange that it was, at least for a time, the big place to spend a Saturday night for a certain kind of very rich person in Houston; the nearby parking would be crammed with Rolls Royces and McLarens—serious rich-people cars—and I once saw a woman on top of very high heels tottering out to her car—a Lamborghini that appeared to be gold-plated like one of those old DeLoreans—at about 9 a.m. after what must have been an evening to not quite remember. A gold-plated Lamborghini is like a tuxedo or an evening gown—no matter how good you think you look in it, you can’t go out in it before 6 or you’ll look ridiculous.
(Richard Brookhiser tells the story of being a very young man and showing up for dinner at William F. Buckley’s home wearing tails and carrying a cane. Mrs. Buckley asked him if he were injured and then instructed him: “Please leave your affectation in the hall.”)
Wealth is not the only thing to which people aspire—and it is not the only thing people fake. Oh, you entered the Miss Universe contest because you want to bring attention to orphaned kittens in Uganda? Do tell us more. Donald Trump, an incompetent businessman who inherited a splendid real-estate portfolio from his father, created an imaginary friend, John Barron, who would telephone New York gossip columnists to lie to them about his sex life. Poor Carla Bruni was compelled to go to the press to clarify that she had no relationship with Trump after he claimed to have been involved with her. It is remarkable to me that the people of these United States elected as their president a man whose youngest son is named after the imaginary friend he invented to lie to the New York Post about his sexual affairs—but, as George Santos knows, bulls–t plays. Make America great again—do it for the orphans in Uganda!
And it isn’t just them. It’s us.
The Wall Street Journal offered this headline this week: “‘Yellowstone’ Show Has Suburbanites Dressing Like Cattle Ranchers.” Of course, the characters on Yellowstone don’t dress like actual cattle ranchers (who, in my experience, typically dress a lot like McKinsey consultants when they are not dressed like construction workers) but instead dress like a Hollywood fantasy of cattle ranchers. Ranchers are, by necessity, among the world’s greatest authorities on bulls–t, literal and figurative, because Americans have been playing cowboy for as long as cowboys have been a thing. Even now, the West commands the American imagination though Americans in the West look and dress a lot like Americans do everywhere else: In Dallas, you can find rich white people in Oak Cliff who dress like rich white people in Brooklyn or rich white people in Highland Park who dress like rich white people in Beverly Hills, while the nice people in Muleshoe or Plainview or Luling look a lot like people in New Jersey or Missouri or wherever. (Terlingua, on the other hand—you’ll want a good hat for Terlingua.) Those F-350 pickups in the Trader Joe’s parking lot may not be, strictly speaking, necessary. But there is something about the Western vibe that appeals to our appetite for authenticity, which calls to mind George Burns’ observation about sincerity: “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
A fellow writing in Esquire many years ago told of taking his wife hunting and being dismayed when she got herself fitted for traditional English shooting tweeds and expected him to wear the same in order to look “authentic.” Yes, he thought, we’ll look like authentic assh—s. But who can deny that tweeds and shotguns is a great look? Young couples sometimes wander into my local Beretta boutique, drawn in by the romantic, old-fashioned country clothes and accoutrements for sale but then storm out when they realize that there are firearms being sold at a shop with the name “Beretta” on the sign. The Beretta shop is about equidistant from the Starbucks, where they expect you to order in crypto-Italian, and the Hermès boutique, where they pretend that they’re still in the equestrian equipment business. Yes, I know, Hermès will still sell you a saddle—but George Santos didn’t come out of nowhere. We are all standing on a vast beach of bulls–t and surprised to see little Georgie making bulls–t castles.
We all have our aspirations, and all of our aspirations can run into pretense. I am far from immune to this: We are planning the renovation of a house, and my wife is very patiently preventing me from building an ersatz Bodleian Library on a cul-de-sac with blue recycling bins out front and Subarus zipping around. I was born in Amarillo and raised in West Texas, so I figure I’m entitled to dress like a character from Yellowstone if I want to—but the heart wants what it wants.
An adjacent pretense is finding a Latin expression for every occasion, and the relevant one here is: Esse quam videri—“Be rather than seem to be.”
And that is a problem for such a man as George Santos, though he is not alone in this: Strip away the pretense, the phony résumé, the vague impression of success and the counterfeit indicators of achievement, and what is the man? What is left? New York’s 3rd District (the borders of which have of course moved over the years) has been represented by some men of substance, a general in the Revolutionary War, a mayor of Brooklyn, a noted clergyman, a former New York Sun staffer, and a union leader, among others. Those were not all great or good lives, but they were real lives, not a pair of cowboy boots that can be put on and taken off at will, not some flashy accessory that could be picked up at the local Cartier boutique or, if it comes to that, acquired in a shady backroom transaction down on Canal Street.
At any rate, I’m disinclined to lend political power to a man to whom I wouldn’t lend 50 bucks. But if interest rates keep going up, that may change.
The big European luxury-goods houses are said to employ teams of investigators to track down fakes and phonies and counterfeits—goodness knows we could use some help doing that when it comes to figures such as George Santos, though apparently a congressman today doesn’t cost as much as a high-end wristwatch.