The Useful Idiot: Why We’re Not Done With Trump Yet

America, we got lucky. On the laundry list of things Donald Trump has been terrible at, transforming our country into a fascist autocracy was only the latest.

By S. V. Date | Huffington Post | February 28, 2021

The following is excerpted from “The Useful Idiot: How Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party with Racism, the Rest of Us with Coronavirus, And Why We Aren’t Done With Him Yet,” by S.V. Dáte.

The president of the United States tried to stage a coup to remain in power.

Yes, seeing that in print is a bit jarring, to say the least. Yet that is, in fact, precisely what happened.

The president of the United States, after losing reelection by 7 million votes, riled up his cult-like followers for months with lies about massive voter fraud, culminating with a “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House urging them to march on the Capitol just as Congress set about to formally certify Joe Biden as the winner.

The plan was as simple as it was outrageous: His violent thugs would intimidate his own vice president into violating the Constitution and rejecting tens of millions of legitimate votes in states Biden had won, preventing him from reaching the required 270 electoral votes and throwing the election to the House of Representatives, where Donald Trump would win under the one-vote-per-state rule.

That Trump had placed the life of endlessly loyal Mike Pence in grave danger, along with hundreds of members of Congress and their staffs, remains an underappreciated element of the day. For weeks, Pence had been telling Trump that he had no role in the Jan. 6 ceremony beyond announcing the certified winner in each state. That he had no authority to declare that Arizona’s or Georgia’s or Pennsylvania’s votes were invalid. And, more to the point, that he had no intention of doing so. Their last such conversation was by phone, just minutes before Trump took the stage at the rally he had been promoting for weeks.

Yet within minutes of starting his remarks shortly before noon, Trump was yet again urging Pence to be strong and courageous and to reject Biden’s states — as if Pence were still mulling that possibility. “Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” Trump told his crowd.

So it was that when Pence, an hour later, released via Twitter the letter he had sent to lawmakers stating his intentions just as he took the dais in the House chamber, Trump’s followers, many of them marching on the Capitol or already there, were enraged and ready to mete out justice as befitting a traitor to their hero.

And as the mayhem and violence of Trump’s supporters bursting through police lines and into the building played out on the television screens at the White House, Trump was still pouring on the gasoline, telling his followers in a tweet that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” While Trump took it all in with glee, his followers chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” as they roamed through the Capitol searching for him.

Getting lost in the photos and videos of the carnage that afternoon is a clear-eyed reckoning of what, precisely, Trump and his enablers in Congress, along with the Republican Party and the significant segment of voters who backed Trump’s post-election efforts to delegitimize his clear loss, would have brought us had they somehow succeeded.

If Trump had managed to coerce Pence and Congress into giving him another four years, does anyone truly believe that that would have been the end of it? After seeing how easy it was to scare the “pro-democracy establishment” with his terrorist mob, why would he not repeat it in 2024? Or just dispense with elections altogether, given how prone they are to being “rigged”?

Americans need to be honest about what nearly happened and why. Trump has never in his life cared about democracy, as was pretty clear when he first started running for the presidency back in 2015. That so many of our fellow citizens did not seem to care about that, and would to this day prefer a Trump autocracy to a constitutional republic, is more than a little worrisome.

If a small number of people in key positions had not made the decisions they did for the good of the country, we could easily be living with Trump still in the White House as … not as president, because people who lose elections are not called that, but … something else. The American experiment would be over.

 

He is gone. At least for now.

In the six months since I completed the first edition of this work, Trump took everything he had been doing over the first three and a half years of his presidency and ramped it all the way up. The corruption became more brazen, the irresponsibility even more breathtaking, and the lying simply went off the charts.

The coronavirus pandemic he had botched and then tried to wish away continued apace, while Trump and his staff essentially pretended that it was, in fact, already gone. He resumed staging campaign rallies at a breakneck pace, encouraging his followers to ignore coronavirus protocols by attending.

It was little surprise to anyone when, eventually, Trump himself got sick, likely at an indoor reception he held at the White House for his third Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, in late September. As he recovered from the illness at Walter Reed hospital, getting the best, most expensive medical care on the planet, one big question was whether he would learn from the experience and start showing some empathy toward the hundreds of thousands of Americans who had lost a family member to the disease or the many millions who were fearful of contracting it.

In retrospect, of course, that was a silly thing to think. As anyone paying the least bit of attention could have predicted, Trump reacted in precisely the opposite manner. Instead of generating some measure of empathy, his illness brought out his sense of superiority: I got it and recovered from it. Why can’t you?

Concerns about the virus went out the window entirely at his ever-more-frequent campaign events, and his words seemed to goad his supporters into pretending that there really wasn’t any pandemic at all as a way to reaffirm their personal loyalty to him.

Trump’s illness also did nothing to moderate his various antisocial behaviors upon his recovery. He continued acting like a hybrid between a petulant child and a small-time mob boss, with zero evident concern for anyone other than himself.

A perfect example came just two days before the election, when a caravan of Trump supporters, mainly in big pickup trucks and SUVs, accosted a Biden campaign bus on a busy interstate in Texas. They surrounded the coach and an accompanying car and then began slowing down as if to force the vehicles to stop. One of the Trumpkin trucks bumped the trailing car, causing minor damage — but it was just plain luck that that was the extent of it. It was an insanely reckless stunt and easily could have led to the bus flipping over at speed and causing a chain-reaction pileup, killing and maiming many dozens. Trump’s response? To defend his supporters and say that they had done nothing wrong.

Trump’s general life rule of refusing to take responsibility for anything, of course, manifested itself much more loudly and obviously in his complete disengagement from the pandemic following the election. The death toll climbed to and through a quarter million, and then, after Thanksgiving, began skyrocketing to the equivalent of a Sept. 11 massacre a day.

Trump’s response? To whine on Twitter and in the suddenly rare media interview about how the election had been stolen, complete with absurd and thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories to make his point. He didn’t care about the pandemic. Not in the slightest. It had nothing whatsoever to do with him anymore.

Donald Trump campaigns in Sanford, Florida, on Oct. 12, 2020.

Donald Trump campaigns in Sanford, Florida, on Oct. 12, 2020.

Orange Man bad.

How many times did Trump’s various apologists toss that one out as a rebuttal to any and all criticism? You won’t acknowledge his good policies because Orange Man bad.

Well. Yes, actually, the Orange Man was bad. Indeed, not just bad, but truly horrific, on so many levels. This was a president who wanted U.S. troops to shoot border-crossers entering illegally from Mexico. Who, when that order was refused, demanded that their children be kidnapped from them and incarcerated separately to discourage others from coming at all.

This was a president who refused to condemn right-wing domestic terrorists, defending, among others, the Illinois teen accused of murdering two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with an assault rifle, while more generally encouraging his supporters to use violence. During one campaign debate with Biden, he famously told the racist, fascist Proud Boys to “stand by” — which, of course, they did, and several months later took part in the attack on the Capitol.

This was a president who kowtowed to dictators and right-wing authoritarians the world over, from Kim Jong Un in North Korea to Recep Erdogan in Turkey to Xi Jinping in China to, his favorite, Vladimir Putin in Russia, all the while picking senseless fights with democratically elected allies. This was a president who started a needless trade war that hurt farmers, manufacturers and consumers alike because he fundamentally misunderstood how international trade works and could not be bothered to learn.

This was a man who was corrupt to his core, and solicited and accepted tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from both domestic and foreign interests through his golf courses and hotels, primarily the absurdly overpriced one just five blocks from the White House. (This is something that truly did not get the attention it deserved. Our president was essentially taking bribes. Had they given him briefcases filled with cash, that clearly would have been seen as a crime. Yet how was this different?)

This was a man who was endlessly dishonest, every single day, about everything, from the trivial to the gravely serious. This, in and of itself, should have been disqualifying. The president of the United States, after all, works for all Americans, and we have a right not to be lied to all the time.

As for his policies, he never really had any, apart from building a wall and keeping out brown-skinned foreigners. In fact, that is the main reason his enablers loved him so much. He was truly their useful idiot, a rubber stamp for the regulatory rollbacks, the tax cuts, the right-wing judges they had always dreamed of. This is why they were so irritated with the “Never Trump” conservatives. The enablers could not understand why the others wouldn’t just get with the program, keep quiet and grab all the goodies while the grabbing was good.

Well, the reason they didn’t was that the Orange Man was indeed very bad, and for Never Trumpers and millions of less-vocal Americans, that fact was the deal-breaker. It was not possible for the country to be good if we were willing to keep in office such a despicable human being. There was a reason Trump underperformed so many Republican members of Congress in the 2020 election. Plenty of anti-tax, pro-business Republican voters, who continued to vote for GOP lawmakers down-ballot, nevertheless went with Biden because they could not stomach another four years under Trump.

Finally, if the Orange Man’s badness was somehow still in question, there was his behavior after the election. Trump made it clear that if the choice was between him ruling as an authoritarian or losing gracefully for the sake of our democracy, he had zero qualms about going full-on strongman.

He began lying about the election having been “stolen” from him in the wee hours of election night and never let up. He tried to pressure Republican legislators into annulling the results in their states and simply handing over their electoral votes to him. He tried suing in court after court, asking for judges to do that same thing. He urged the U.S. Supreme Court to declare invalid millions of votes in some of the key states Biden had won, giving him the second term that voters nationally had denied him. He even successfully coerced more than 100 Republican members of Congress and nearly two dozen Republican state attorneys general into publicly supporting this scheme.

That, of course, was Trump’s plan from the start, as he essentially told us all through that spring and summer. Mail-in ballots were now suspect, even though Republicans had successfully used them for decades, because Democrats were urging voters to use them during the pandemic. He conditioned his supporters to reject a Biden win, claiming for months that the only way he could lose was if the election were stolen from him.

The end game was always the Supreme Court, where he was counting on the loyalty of “his” three justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett — plus Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, to overturn the will of the people and keep him in the White House.

When that didn’t work, Trump tried extorting Georgia’s top elections official to be declared the winner there, in hopes of raising doubts about other states as well. And when that also failed, he urged his supporters to besiege the Capitol to bully his own vice president and Congress into refusing to certify Biden’s win. His mob happily did so and quickly took up the goal of murdering Pence for failing to carry out The Leader’s wishes. A Capitol Police officer died that day, as did four of Trump’s own followers. Two more officers took their own lives in the days to follow.

Not that Trump cares, but their blood is forever on his hands.

If the Orange Man had been good, he would have won the election and would not have needed to try and steal it, and then — both amazingly yet not at all amazingly — attempt an actual coup.

The sanctity of elections is a foundational, nonnegotiable principle in a constitutional republic. Trump showed that he absolutely did not accept that principle, and tens of millions of Americans were eager to follow his lead.

In a later chapter, I analogize Trump’s 2016 victory to a rogue wave — a happenstance confluence of two or more wave trains in the open ocean, producing, just for a moment, a wave twice or three times as tall as normal that breaks and smashes whatever unlucky boat happens to be beneath it.

But once all the water has been pumped out, the rigging sorted and torn sails patched, a smart sailor tries hard to figure out what happened. What worked. What didn’t. How it might have been avoided altogether. And then, when the weather begins to settle, the sailor starts making those repairs immediately.

So it is for America.

It’s been a terrible four years. What must we do to make sure someone this dishonest, this corrupt, this mean, can never get into the White House again?

Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 brought about a raft of post-Watergate reforms, including in campaign finance disclosure, in intra-agency accountability through independent inspectors general, in more public access to executive branch records. In retrospect, we didn’t push through nearly enough changes 45 years ago, largely because we assumed that post-Nixon, “norms” and “conventions” would take hold again.

And, in fairness, there was a return to normalcy that did hold for decades, starting with Gerald Ford and then the election of Jimmy Carter, whose strongest campaign line was that he would never lie to the American people. They and all who followed, right through Jan. 19, 2017, saw the presidency as so important and their place in history as so significant that they set their own financial interests aside for their time in office. They released years’ worth of tax returns upon gaining the nomination, and then every year thereafter.

Imagine Trump’s delight when he learned that his predecessors were offering up all of this transparency and avoiding conflicts of interest not because any law required it, but merely because it was expected of them and it was the right thing to do. Trump cheerfully flouted all the norms and pushed every single envelope to, and sometimes past, the breaking point. He openly solicited customers for his hotels and golf resorts, and both domestic and foreign interests with business before his administration dutifully paid their tributes — depositing money directly into his pocket as they sought his favor. He never once released a single year of his tax returns. He gave his daughter and son-in-law high-profile jobs.

He did all these things because he could — just as he abused his office by extorting Ukraine for help in his reelection, knowing he would not be prosecuted for it.

Why would others not follow suit? Why wouldn’t the next con artist who happens to get elected do all these things, but do them with a competence and a subtlety that make the consequences orders of magnitude worse for the country?

The days of relying on the Republican Party as a first line of defense against such a person winning the nomination are over. A functioning national party never would have permitted such an obvious fraud from taking part in its presidential primaries, let alone winning. And so Congress will have to step in and impose the laws that make another Trump more difficult.

One easy fix would be to require candidates who open a presidential campaign to file three or five or 10 years of tax returns with the Federal Election Commission. Trump never would have run had he been required to disclose even a few years of his returns because they would have shattered the creation myth that he had spent decades embellishing.

Another simple one would be to move Hatch Act enforcement outside of the purview of the president himself. Trump’s former adviser Kellyanne Conway was found to have repeatedly violated the law that forbids campaigning on taxpayer time or on federal property. The Office of Special Counsel recommended that Trump fire her. Conway literally laughed at that, telling the White House press corps to let her know when the jail sentence would start. Trump, naturally, did not fire her.

If an independent ethics office were in charge of enforcing the sanctions and were permitted to impose four- and five-figure fines, maybe future presidents would be less likely to use the White House and “official” travel for campaign rallies, as Trump frequently did throughout his term, and on a near-daily basis in his final year, with the willing assistance of his top staff.

Finally, and most important, Congress should pass a law that ends the Justice Department’s existing unofficial policy stating that sitting presidents cannot be prosecuted. The idea behind this was well-intentioned: to protect the nation’s top executive and commander-in-chief from getting bogged down in criminal probes, which could well be politically motivated. For normal human beings who are not particularly interested in committing crimes, this protection makes sense.

But for human beings like Trump, the policy has the exact opposite effect: It encourages criminal behavior, based on the quite-reasonable expectation that succeeding presidents are not going to want to put their predecessors in jail. With Trump, in particular, it made his push for a second term an obsession, in no small measure because he understood that his possible crimes before taking office and early in his first term — campaign finance fraud, tax fraud, obstruction of justice — would see their statutes of limitation expire during his second term.

Also, it should not be forgotten that Trump tried to extort Ukraine into helping him win the 2020 election. He abused his power by awarding the G-7 economic summit to his own financially troubled golf resort in Miami — only backing down after relentlessly negative press coverage. He steered both domestic and foreign lobbyists who sought favors from his administration to his hotel just blocks from the White House. Any other federal official doing these things would risk prosecution and a lengthy prison sentence. What is the straight-face rationale for letting a president get away with them?

Left to right: Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Mitch McConnell. Most Republicans in Congress were more worrie

Left to right: Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Mitch McConnell. Most Republicans in Congress were more worried about Trump’s criticism and how it might hurt their standing with his supporters than they were worried for our country.

As we’ll see in greater detail in later chapters, Trump clearly was a black swan event, and it is unlikely that someone this ignorant, this dishonest, this incompetent, and yet this well-known and admired thanks to a long-running television show, will present himself as a candidate in the near future.

Nevertheless, his victory in 2016 and, notwithstanding a truly disastrous four years in office, his decent showing in 2020 prove that as much as the nation needs more institutional safeguards to prevent a Trump clone from wreaking this havoc upon us again, the Republican Party is in even more dire need of immediate reforms to prevent such a person from once more hijacking it.

Those who paid close attention to the aftermath of Trump’s election loss might be forgiven for wondering if the party even wants to avoid being hijacked by a Trump clone, given how slavishly its leaders went along with Trump’s absurd and anti-democratic attempts to claim victory in an election he obviously and resoundingly lost. From Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s defense of Trump’s frivolous lawsuits alleging voter fraud to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s quip that he was willing to cooperate with a transition to a second Trump term to most rank-and-file Republican lawmakers parroting his lies, Trump’s hold over the party despite losing an election by 7 million votes was eye-opening.Subscribe to the Politics email.From Washington to the campaign trail, get the latest politics news.

Beyond being precisely the opposite of the truth, Trump’s repeated mendacity, claiming that he had actually won in a landslide and that his win was being stolen from him, has eroded Americans’ trust in our elections and in our democracy itself. Did Republicans care?

Apart from a few notable exceptions — Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was among the first Republicans to congratulate Biden — no, they did not. Not in the slightest. Indeed, even after the bloody assault on their chambers, eight Republican senators and 139 House members still voted to challenge Biden’s victory. They were more worried about Trump’s criticism and how it might hurt their standing with his supporters than they were worried for our country.

Two days before that final coup attempt, Fox News asked Missouri’s Josh Hawley, one of the Senate ringleaders, if he truly believed that Trump would still be president after Jan. 20. He replied: “That depends on what happens on Wednesday. That’s why we have the debate.”

It was pathetic, suggesting that Republicans had learned absolutely nothing from four years earlier. Not one of Trump’s would-be successors hoping for the nomination in 2024 is going to inherit his hardcore fan base, and their fear of speaking the obvious truth out loud will only serve to encourage Trump’s ideas about running again himself.

Indeed, if this level of mindless devotion continues, there is no point in worrying about a Republican Party anymore because it truly will just be the Party Of, For and By Donald Trump — a genuine personality cult. And while some Republicans have already been talking up the idea of offering “Trumpism” without Trump’s personal shortcomings, the notion is ludicrous on its face.