eople have been padding their résumés since the job interview was invented, but politicians have a special affinity for the practice. During a campaign appearance in the 1980s, when Joe Biden was running for president, he claimed he was in the “top half” of his class in law school; he had graduated 76th out of 85 students. Others engage in the act of “stolen valor”—lying about or exaggerating their military service—such as Senator Richard Blumenthal, who claimed he was in Vietnam when in fact he actively avoided service. And in August, Melissa Howard, a Republican running for the state legislature in Florida, went so far as to pose for a picture with her college diploma on Twitter to bolster her résumé claims—until her supposed alma mater, Miami University of Ohio, outed her as a fake, prompting her withdrawal from the race.
Not all countries let their fabulist politicians off so easily. In 2012 in Norway, a Progressive Party member who went on to serve as a government health-care bureaucrat was jailed for more than a year and given a large fine when she was found to have lied about having earned a nursing degree.
Americans are more forgiving, perhaps assuming that all politicians embellish personal histories for political gain. But in recent years, a new species of political boaster has emerged, one who relies less on line items on his résumé than on telling the right sort of woke story. The origin of this species of identity-inflater can be traced not to a politician but to Rachel Dolezal, the president of a local Washington-state NAACP chapter who, a few years ago, was revealed to be white. Her refusal to recant her false race claims and her eagerness to coopt the language of identity politics to defend that choice—“I identify as an African-American woman,” she repeatedly told as many news outlets as would listen—was not the moment identity politics became farce. It was the moment it reached its logical conclusion. Dolezal went on to write a memoir and star in a Netflix documentary (and face charges of welfare fraud), but through it all she hasn’t altered her claim that she identifies as a black woman.
Dolezal isn’t the first progressive to practice identity inflation. Senator Elizabeth Warren was an early innovator of the art, back when she was a law professor and claiming Native-American heritage even though no one in her family is a member of a tribe. Donald Trump relentlessly belittles Warren for her claim, calling her “Pocahontas.” And although she has denounced Trump’s remarks as racist, Warren has tacitly conceded the criticism, quietly trying to repair her image as she prepares to run for president in 2020. She has admitted she lacks tribal membership and has sponsored legislation aimed at Native Americans, as well as making an apology tour that involved a lot of glad-handing of tribal leaders.
But she hasn’t backed down from her fakery so much as leaned into it. She insists that her fibbing about her own identity has had a beneficial trickle-down effect for real Native Americans. “I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities,” Warren told the National Congress of American Indians earlier this year. She might have given up claiming to be a Native American herself, but post-Pocahontas Warren still sees political value in claiming proximity to this history of oppression.
Even Warren can’t compete with the embodiment of identity politics in extremis: Julia Salazar. A 27-year-old candidate for a New York state senate seat from a district in Brooklyn, Salazar is running as a Democratic Socialist and has been hailed by the left as the immediate sequel to summer sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who has endorsed her): a young energetic woman with an impeccable lefty narrative.
Salazar claims to be a half-Jewish immigrant from Colombia (she once ran an “intersectional blog” for an anti-Zionist, pro-BDS group). On the campaign trail, she has spoken at length of her working-class roots. But according to Tablet, which published a damning exposé of Salazar in August, it’s all a lie. “Based on interviews with former acquaintances and an examination of her writings, social-media postings, and publicly available documents,” Armin Rosen writes, “it is an identity that is no less convincing for having been largely self-created.” Meanwhile, her earlier iteration as an undergraduate at her homonymous college, Columbia, was as a pro-life, pro-Israel Christian, and her “hardscrabble” childhood included private school, boats, jet skis, and maids, according to her brother.
But Salazar, who once appeared on Glenn Beck’s show but now wants to abolish ICE and legalize prostitution, has faced few repercussions for her lies. New York magazine says many of Salazar’s supporters think the stories outlining her fabrications are just a conspiracy “pushed by real-estate interests.” Listening to her energetically spin her lies is like watching a dystopian reimagining of an Up with People performance. Everyone in the audience is smiling and singing along, but they all seem to know that something is a little off.
Conservatives play at their own version of identity politics, of course. But they tend to complain about the abandonment of American identity rather than its tribal excesses—such as the recent overreaction to news that First Man, a movie about Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 moon landing, doesn’t include a scene of Armstrong’s planting the American flag.
Republican politicians usually claim they are successful because of how America works, while liberals claim they are successful in spite of how America works, as if they are lucky outliers who bucked the system they now want to change. This is why a progressive candidate can’t acknowledge having been raised by an airline pilot (Salazar) or an architect (Ocasio-Cortez), or bear the shame of lacking an oppressed minority on the family tree (Warren)—it all sounds too privileged. Instead they hide the jet skis and pretend to have been raised by immigrant single moms or to be descended from Native-American warrior-princesses.
Why? Because legitimacy on the left now flows from finding and securing one’s place on the identity hierarchy—and it’s a greasy pole to climb. As Francis Fukuyama argues in his new book, Identity, “demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today.” Even if you exaggerate your struggle or fudge the details, this logic suggests, you’re still a useful soldier in the progressive army as long as you have the armor of your (oppressed) identity. Amplified by social-media echo chambers, this version of identity politics views its avatars as always being on the right side of history, if not of fact.
But what happens when (as the left has claimed for decades), the personal is political but the personal turns out to be an elaborate lie? What does that mean for politics? If the melting pot is all a big con, how does a heterogeneous society survive? What are the new litmus tests in this age of self-creation? Can you lie about military service (since war is bad) and about race (because oppression) and about growing up poor (because capitalism is bad) but not about being transgender (because identity)? And is there a limit to the number of identity grifters progressives will allow before someone calls a halt to the lies?