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CLARENCE PAGE: Is George Santos another frustrated millennial?

In today’s social media age, chock-full of internet-fueled celebrities, U.S. Rep. George Santos really stands out.

That’s partly because the first-term New York Republican has gotten as far as he has, which is surprisingly far, because of his not being famous.

If only more media than the feisty local North Shore Leader in his Long Island and Queens district had been paying attention, Santos might not have been elected.

The Leader was reporting in September, when few others were covering Santos, about his “inexplicable rise” in reported net worth, from about $5,000 in 2020 to as much as $11 million two years later.

“This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican for U.S. Congress” in New York’s District 3, the Leader editorialized. “But the GOP nominee is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot.”

But Santos won, and afterward came a stream of irregularities that led to a bounty of astonished amusement for late-night comedians and serious investigations by authorities and the media, including probes into allegations that Santos misrepresented his background to voters.

It’s not hard to see why some people wonder if Santos is a complete oddball or if his escapades are oddly appropriate for an age in which young people seem to be pressured more than ever to live the life they want, whether they can legally afford it or not.

He reminds me of James Thurber’s classic, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” in which the meek and boring title character is connected less to his actual environment than to his elaborate, heroic fantasies.

That occurred to me after photos surfaced that apparently showed him in drag. Santos nevertheless disputed claims that he was a “drag queen in Brazil.” “I was young and I had fun at a festival,” said Santos, who is openly gay. “Sue me for having a life.”

Well, excu-u-use us, congressperson.

An perceptive take on the Santos saga from one of his fellow millennials was provided by Danielle Lee Tomson, who recently defended her doctorate at Columbia University as a scholar specializing in conservative social media influencers.

In Politico, she describes Santos as a product of an “attention economy” like the one created by the Kardashians and other influencers on social media platforms. For this new, rising generation, “attention is the most valuable currency, over truth or morality — even money,” she writes. “Santos is simply a product of his environment.”

Like many others in his generation, the 34-year-old Santos has watched national recognition lead to power and influence in a media age much more accelerated than the one us TV-age baby boomers grew up in.

Santos, among others, is simply “playing to the incentives of the attention economy, which exploded in the past decade,” Thomson writes. “Those trying to shame Santos will find their words falling on deaf ears: For the congressman, it is more important to be noticed than liked.”

“Attention economics,” I have learned, is a new-wave approach to information management that treats our attention spans as a scarce commodity.

I won’t try to go any more deeply into it than that. But it rang a lot of bells with me when she wrote of an environment in which everyone wants to pitch their “personal brand” in the public marketplace and, as Santos tends to confirm, a “fake it till you make it” attitude pervades.

Indeed, some modern-day scammers and hustlers such as accused cryptocurrency fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried or Anna Delvey, aka Anna Sorokin, who posed as a wealthy heiress to fleece young New York social swells, seem to reveal how lying for dollars has become a national sport.

Suddenly some wise words from my dearly departed dad come echoing back into my mind: “Always try to be honest with your financial habits,” he said. “That way you don’t have to waste time trying to remember which lie you told last time.”

Some people, I have since learned, don’t seem to care. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” they say, and hope they don’t get taken away.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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