The following is excerpted from “The Useful Idiot: How Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party with Racism and the Rest of Us with Coronavirus,” by S.V. Dáte.
A pandemic never occurred to them. The idea that Donald Trump would ever be required to sit still, pay attention and make rational decisions that would determine whether hundreds of thousands of Americans would live or die not once crossed the minds of those who put him into the Oval Office.
Oh, they all had their various reasons for wanting him there. For white evangelical Christians, he had explicitly promised to appoint the federal judges they had so longed for to turn back the nation’s cultural clock. For Mitch McConnell, a Trump win — as unlikely as it seemed — was the only real path to making sure Republicans retained control of the Senate and he himself remained majority leader. And for Vladimir Putin, having Trump in the White House — as unlikely as it seemed — would be a dream come true, an opportunity to wreak havoc on his longtime adversary and weaken its historic alliance with Western Europe.
Russia’s dictator, of course, was not remotely interested in what Trump’s ascension might mean for Americans in the event of an actual calamity. If they were dumb enough to vote for him, well, they deserved whatever they got. In any event, it was not his problem.
As for Trump’s American supporters, perhaps so much time had passed since Sept. 11, 2001, that the idea of a genuine national emergency was but a faded memory. Perhaps the quiet competence that President Barack Obama’s team had employed with the 2009 flu pandemic and later with the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak had diminished the perceived threat that a simple virus could present.
For whatever reason, even as they watched the noise and chaos and nonsense generated by candidate Trump for a full year and a half, the consequences of a real crisis requiring real leadership actually happening on the watch of a President Trump had never really dawned on them.
True, there existed then — and continues to exist today — a significant cadre of Republican voters who genuinely believed that the Trump they watched on “The Apprentice” was the real Donald Trump. That he was a real billionaire, based on his own efforts and smarts. That he was capable of making rational, quality decisions based on the facts presented to him.
That excuse, though, does not work for those Republicans from McConnell on down to the congressional candidates who had occasion to speak with Trump in person. As one top Republican National Committee member told me after his first face-to-face encounter with Trump two months before the 2016 election: “OK. Our guy is insane.”
His was not a minority view, by the way. Trump’s incoherence, his temper, his impulsiveness, his breathtaking ignorance — all of it was well-known among the top tiers of the Republican machinery. But for them, it was simply a challenge to overcome, another hurdle that fate had placed between them and their holy grail of judges and tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks. Not once did I ever hear any concern that just maybe they were working to install a useful idiot who truly was an idiot, with absolutely zero leadership qualities one ordinarily looks for in someone aspiring to become the chief executive of the world’s remaining superpower.
It was an abject failure of the Republican Party’s responsibility to the country. In our two-party system, both have a duty to weed out candidates who fail the threshold test of commander-in-chief and, relatedly, emergency-manager-in-chief. Through the summer and fall of 2015 and then the early nominating contests of 2016, it was clear as day that Trump was not credible in those roles, and yet neither the remaining candidates nor the party leadership made a serious effort to ensure his defeat.
True, there were some who voiced warnings. Jeb Bush called Trump a “chaos candidate” who would bring us a “chaos presidency.” But there was also Ted Cruz, who literally praised Trump for the better part of a year, refusing to criticize him in the hopes of one day inheriting his voters. By the time Cruz did unload on him, it was seen as sour grapes. Such was the cynicism and game-playing that put us where we are.
Trump’s incoherence, his temper, his impulsiveness, his breathtaking ignorance — all of it was well-known among the top tiers of the Republican machinery. … Not once did I ever hear any concern that just maybe they were working to install a useful idiot who truly was an idiot.
Republicans will pay a price for that negligence. This already became apparent in the off-year elections, with Democrats winning back the House in 2018 and scoring wins in such unlikely races as a special election for an Alabama Senate seat in 2017 and the Kentucky governorship in 2019. Whether Republicans suffer a complete presidential year wipeout in the autumn of 2020 or four years later is debatable, but that it will happen is not. Trump is betting not just his own future, but that of the party he hijacked on the dwindling demographic of angry white men without college degrees, disproportionately in the South. This is not a winning bet.
Separate from the Republican Party’s failure to safeguard the country, though, is the failure of ordinary Americans. Trump did not elect himself. And while he had the direct help of Russia and the unintended help of the FBI director, it was, in the end, actual Americans who cast their ballots for him.
In a representative democracy, the buck ultimately stops with the voters. So, yes, the president failed us miserably in his handling of the pandemic. From pretending he had stopped the virus from entering the country to claiming it wasn’t so bad to wishing that it would just go away to nonsensically hyping an unproven treatment to discouraging the use of masks to eventually just getting bored with it and moving on, the president could not have handled this more poorly had he been actively trying to fail us.
This is on him — the many hundreds of thousands, even millions, of serious illnesses that might not have happened with a competent response. The 150,000 deaths, at least, that could have been avoided. But it’s also on us.
When the coronavirus reckoning is complete, when all the numbers are eventually tallied, here’s one more that should be included: the 62,984,828 who enabled it to happen back on Nov. 8, 2016.
In truth, no one should have been surprised by Trump’s ruinous handling of a real disaster when it arrived in January 2020. He himself had given us all a clear warning just a few months earlier when he ginned up a fake one for no good reason at all.
In late summer 2019, Trump wreaked chaos and confusion upon Americans trying to plan for the possible arrival of a massive hurricane along the Southeast coast. As residents of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas anxiously tracked Dorian’s projected path, Trump tossed out his own forecast on Twitter, adding a new state into the mix:
“In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!”
Almost immediately, the phones lit up at the National Weather Service office in Birmingham as panicked residents called to ask if it was true: that Dorian was going to cross Florida and hit them. This led to a tweet from the meteorologists in that office — who at the time did not know where the misinformation was coming from — stating that Alabama was not, repeat, not in Dorian’s path and everyone should calm down.
And that, in turn, spawned a weekslong imbroglio, with the White House and Trump’s various apologists on one side insisting that Trump had been right and Alabama had been in danger at the time Trump posted his tweet, versus the meteorologists and tropical storm experts at the National Hurricane Center who pointed out that the consensus forecast was already calling for the storm to parallel the East Coast and then head off to sea. Front and center was a week-old tracking map onto which Trump had, with a black Sharpie, apparently drawn a semicircle to include Alabama.
The defenses of him afterward were largely along the lines of, well, that’s just Trump being Trump. Which was both true and — although this went underappreciated at the time — downright horrifying.
It was an open rejection of expertise in a life-and-death field. What Trump was saying was that because he was the president of the United States, his opinion of where the storm would head and whose lives were in imminent danger was every bit as valid as the opinions of those who had devoted their adult lives to the study of Atlantic cyclones. It was beyond parody.
Most stunning of all was the view within his senior staff that it was no big deal. One aide even kept on his desk a printout of the tracking chart in question, kind of as a souvenir from what he considered a ridiculous kerfuffle in which Trump had, yet again, owned the press.
That, right there, should have been a bright red flashing warning sign. Because a hurricane is a slow-moving menace that is observable through publicly available images from weather satellites and other data. What’s more, the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service continued to do their jobs, notwithstanding the president’s meddling. What Trump did was inexcusably dangerous — but only those foolish enough to still be listening to the man, given the track record of his first two and a half years in office, were going to be negatively affected. Everyone else would listen to the Hurricane Center and local emergency management officials and act accordingly.
No, the bigger risk that became obvious with the hurricane map stunt was the possibility of a threat that truly required a competent presidential response. Trump could not even properly manage the approach of a hurricane — something that typically happens several times every single year — and then tried to coerce his executive branch agencies into revising history in an attempt to back up his silly tweet.
How would he manage a threat that a president, and only the president, was in a position to deal with?
I actually mentioned that in a long piece about Trump’s endless dishonesty, and even posited the threat of a deadly disease. That article published on Jan. 15, 2020.
Unfortunately, it was only a week later that America started to get the answer to that question.
It’s easy now as the pandemic drags on and the American death toll climbs toward 200,000 to put all the blame on Trump. He did, after all, make bad decision after bad decision in the crucial early weeks of the outbreak, from ignoring intelligence community warnings to downplaying the threat to avoiding taking steps that would anger China’s dictator and endanger the all-important trade agreement he believed he needed in order to win a second term. He even called concerns about the pandemic “a hoax” at one of his campaign rallies, sending a signal to his voting base that public health officials have had an impossible time countering ever since.
That mishandling of the disease, in turn, wrecked the strong economy that for three years Trump had been claiming as his own. In truth, he had inherited it from Obama, with employment and gross domestic product numbers largely similar to those under his predecessor’s second term. The resulting crisis is rivaling the Great Depression in job losses. With a competent response to the pandemic, much of the related economic catastrophe might have been avoided, as well.
And yet, again, Trump did not anoint himself president. That was the work of those 63 million Americans who walked into their polling places and decided to put a cartoonishly unserious person into the most serious job in the country.
There were a number of factors that led to this. Putin decided that the best way to weaken America in 2016 was by hurting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and boosting a “reality” game show host in the Republican contests. How could he know that the then-162-year-old party that once prided itself on its hard-headed realism would fail to do all in its power to stop him?
FBI Director James Comey, for what he thought was the good of his institution, decided in late October to reopen an investigation into Clinton’s misuse of a private email server. How was he to know that state polling was off and that Clinton’s expected easy win was a chimera, and that his two letters to Congress would put the election on a knife’s edge?
In retrospect, it seems quaint — adorable, almost — how much time and energy and hand-wringing went into investigating Clinton’s emails, given the loud and proud corruption Trump has carried out these past three years: the funneling of millions of both campaign as well as taxpayer dollars into his own cash registers, the installation of his own daughter and son-in-law into White House positions, the use of his office and his attorney general to squash investigations into himself and his companies, the attempted extortion of a foreign leader into hurting the political rival he feared most, the begging of a dictator for a favorable trade deal to help him win reelection, the open use of his office and White House staff to stage de facto campaign rallies, and on and on and on and on.
That he would behave this way was not surprising in the least. He had lived his entire adult life in this manner, and the evidence was right out in the open, from his business dealings with the mob to the way he treated his “charity” as a personal slush fund, using it for everything from buying a $12,000 football helmet autographed by Tim Tebow to paying his son’s $7 Boy Scout dues. Sixty-three million Americans knew this, or actively chose not to know this, and decided they were fine with it.
One such voter, in fact, worked with Trump for years and knew full well about his dishonesty and treachery. He told me he didn’t care. That the system needed shaking up, and that he wanted Trump to go in and be a bull in a china shop and smash things.
That person is now a senior official in the administration.
Trump’s handling of the pandemic, also, was entirely predictable.
For starters, he only occasionally takes intelligence briefings. Both George W. Bush and Obama began their days with one. Trump spends the first several hours of his day watching television and tweeting about what he has just seen. In 2020, he has been taking between just one and two briefings each week.
Meaning that when the experts were trying to tell him that something bad was happening in China and that we needed to prepare, Trump could not be bothered to listen. His top health officials were getting alarming news over the New Year’s holiday about a pneumonia-like outbreak in Wuhan. Trump was golfing. When his health and human services secretary finally got him on the phone nearly three weeks later to talk about the virus, Trump yelled at him instead about a backlash to vaping regulations that was going to hurt Trump with vapers.
Indeed, Trump’s singular focus was then, and remains today, his own reelection. Nothing else matters, and that is now why well over a hundred thousand people in America killed by the coronavirus would still be alive if just about any other adult human being had been president instead of Trump.
In January, winning a second term meant getting his “trade deal” with China signed. Not a harsh word could be spoken about the country or its dictator. Never mind that it wasn’t really a free trade agreement, just a partial unwinding of the trade war he had started. For Trump, it was everything. He repeatedly praised China and Xi Jinping for their “transparency” about the virus when the opposite was true.
In February, trade deal signed, Trump saw increasing concerns about the virus as a direct assault on his reelection bid. He refused to take the pandemic seriously, even as it ravaged Italy and Iran. When a top CDC official warned that people’s lives were about to change dramatically, Trump was enraged because of the stock market sell-off this triggered. He told Americans via Twitter that thousands die from the flu every year and encouraged them to buy stocks. From the White House briefing room, he claimed he had done a fantastic job and that the 15 diagnosed cases to date would soon drop to zero. At one of his rallies, he even claimed that the virus had become his critics’ latest “hoax” and lumped it into the category that included his acceptance of Russian help to win the 2016 election (which was, by the way, true; he had, in fact, done that) and his impeachment over his extortion of Ukraine for help to win the 2020 election (which was also true; he actually did that as well).
After seeming to take the threat seriously for a couple of weeks in the second half of March, Trump quickly grew bored of it and began demanding that states “reopen” their economies so he could go back to the campaign strategy that he had been planning: that is, taking credit for the economy Obama had left him.
Numerous times, Trump repeated in remarks what he had tweeted on March 22, in all capitals: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”
Indeed, just reading back through his various statements through the course of the pandemic is an exercise in shock and awe. “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” “This is a flu. This is like a flu.” “I think that we’re doing a great job.” “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” “Just stay calm. It will go away.” “Slow the testing down, please.”
And, of course, the statement that could easily wind up the epitaph of his presidency: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
If evil scientists had conspired to concoct a worse president for our country in a time of crisis, they would have been hard-pressed to outdo Trump. His ignorance, mendacity and stubbornness are a toxic mix in the best of times. Many of the adults in both parties assumed that eventually, when it was finally over, his most egregious messes in the area of trade policy, the NATO alliance, climate change and the environment could, with some work, be cleaned up.
The same cannot be said for all the Americans who will have died unnecessarily because one of the worst human beings in public life — a man who has shown time and time again that his lack of humanity is matched only by his open corruption — happened to become our president.
Perhaps something good can come of this, in the end. Maybe this hard lesson will bring back the idea that the presidency is not a game. That the judgment and the maturity and the smarts of the person behind that desk matter — and not in the way that most people think.
There is a segment of the population that insists a president be “relatable,” to be someone they’d want to have a beer with. Others demand that a candidate match up completely with their preferred vision of the future, of the policies they want to see enacted, and failing such a person’s presence on the ballot, they will not vote at all. Still others — disproportionately, younger voters — believe they have a fundamental right to demand that a candidate inspire them, and failing such inspiration, they also will not bother voting.
Maybe, perhaps, the election of a shameless, cheerfully corrupt con man whose selfishness and ignorance led to the sickness and death of so many of their fellow Americans will help these people grow the hell up.
Trump did not anoint himself president. That was the work of those 63 million Americans who walked into their polling places and decided to put a cartoonishly unserious person into the most serious job in the country.
We don’t choose a heart surgeon or a tax accountant or an airline pilot using those criteria, and their jobs are not nearly as critical for the common good as the presidency of the United States. Sure, it would be nice for a president to be interesting and down-to-earth enough to seem relatable — but that’s not nearly as important as competence. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a candidate who shares your ideas and ideals. But making big changes takes time, and, in a crisis, an ideologue can be the worst personality to have in charge. You need someone willing to understand the world as it is, not insist on seeing the world as they feel it ought to be.
As for inspiration — we do not pick the surgeon who is funnier or the accountant who spins out the most engaging anecdotes. Why do we conflate those traits with leadership?
This is not new, by the way. People did not vote for John F. Kennedy because they believed he would bring thoughtful wisdom to the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan’s people learned from that and made his entire campaign — indeed, much of his presidency — a movie production. George H.W. Bush had, hands down, the most relevant experience of any president, and had governed with a low-key self-assuredness. Bill Clinton beat him by seeming more empathetic.
In all three of those cases, though, the winning candidate exhibited an interest in a serious approach to the job during his campaign, and all three wound up demonstrating that in office. In contrast, Trump during his campaign showed he had little knowledge of how the world worked and made it clear he had no interest in learning. His view was that it was all easy and that any idiot could do it. Well, clearly, he was wrong.
Forget all the insane promises he made that were not possibly deliverable. The only real promise that the biggest slice of his base wanted was to make America like it was in the 1950s, which even they knew was not possible. They didn’t care. They liked that he was willing to promise it to them and that he was willing to smash things and make “the establishment” mad.
It is true that Trump did not even receive a plurality of the votes cast, and almost certainly would not have won without the combination of both Russian help and the Comey letters reopening and then reclosing his Clinton investigation in the campaign’s final days. Yet the fact remains that 46% of Americans casting ballots in the 2016 election did so for someone who was not remotely qualified for the job. This, nearly four years later, remains astounding.
A significant percentage of them were perhaps not the most informed or sophisticated of voters and believed Trump really was the savvy and smart businessman he played on television. But what about the rest? They could see what he was all about but voted for him anyway. What does that say about their view of the importance of the job?
Maybe the coronavirus pandemic can impart the lesson that, first and foremost, the person elected to the Oval Office has to be capable of handling the really bad things, the things you did not or even could not anticipate. Airlines don’t pay pilots $200,000 a year to set planes down on clear sunny days with little wind. They get paid well for their years of experience, for all the training they’ve had and the training they continue to undergo for the day the hydraulics fail and they lose an engine to a bird strike on final approach during a thunderstorm, with a bad crosswind. On a related note, nobody asks as they climb aboard whether the pilot is someone they’d like to have a beer with later, or what her views are on “Medicare for All.”
Leadership matters, as has now been made abundantly clear.
There was a terrific skit by “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1980s that portrayed Ronald Reagan as a doddering, increasingly detached granddad smiling and mouthing meaningless clichés to the news cameras as they demanded answers about the Iran-Contra scandal … and then, behind closed doors, transforming into a cunning mastermind who had personally directed every detail.
This, roughly, was how Trump’s defenders in the Republican Party portrayed him during the 2016 election after they were stuck with him as their nominee. It was all an act, they promised. The unhinged rants, the constant tweeting, the outlandish lies — it was all performance art, they claimed, to appeal to a segment of the population that has long been disaffected with traditional Republican politics. Behind closed doors, they promised, he was a different person. A thoughtful and reasonable grown-up who sought divergent viewpoints before making decisions. This would be revealed in the off chance that he somehow won the election, particularly as the weight of the office burdened his shoulders.
These claims, obviously, were lies — or, in the case of those who did not really know Trump very well, wishful thinking.
There is no doubt that Trump can, on occasion, behave like a grown-up. But as insider account after insider account confirms the evidence of our own eyes and ears, it is this occasional grown-up behavior that is the act, the performance art.
The real Trump is the one who bellows angrily at his critics and opponents, the one who posts absurd conspiracy theories on Twitter, who manically calls his safe circle of fawning sycophants for advice, who openly admires authoritarians around the world while attacking and insulting democratically elected leaders, who refuses to take responsibility for any of his failings and who is willing to do anything — extorting a foreign country, begging China’s dictator, egging on open racists, delegitimizing our own coming election — to hold on to power.
The burdens of office have not weighed down on him a single bit. Compare photos of Bill Clinton, either of the Bushes or Obama before they took office and four years in. Note the graying hair, the worry wrinkles and weariness. Now, look at Trump before and today. More bloat, perhaps, but a face otherwise unchanged.
He is now, and for decades has been, a middle school bully with the impulse control of a toddler. The only thing Donald J. Trump cared about before he took office was Donald J. Trump. That has not changed in these three and a half years.
What’s remarkably missing in my multi-year exploration of Trump’s universe is a full-throated, or frankly, even half-hearted defense of any sort of basic, human decency in him. People defend his “economic” nationalism. They shrug and point out the judges he has appointed and the regulations he has rolled back. Others point to the tax cut and how he has helped their personal bank accounts. One White House aide told me that no other Republican elected in 2016 would have produced as many conservative policies as Trump has.
Not one bothers to sell the idea that he is misunderstood and is, at heart, a good human being. Not one.
This view is not restricted to those who work with him. Over the past four years, I have done countless interviews with Republican supporters who, after rattling off judges and tax cuts and deregulation, nevertheless concede in the end that they wish he would keep his mouth shut more and tweet less or even not at all. Which is about as open an admission of what they think of him as a person as is possible.
His off-the-cuff remarks and his tweets — not the prepared speeches people write for him to read — are the most honest reflection of his true self. When his supporters say they wish he would hide that truth, it is because they understand precisely what kind of human being he is and how that is perceived by normal people with basic standards of conduct.
Amazingly, that so often gets glossed over in all the talk about him. Sixty-three million Americans, and the quirks of the Electoral College, put into the most powerful office in the world a truly despicable person. Trump does not treat people well. He would cheat you as soon as look at you. He is spiteful and mean while also venal and ignorant. And none of this was hidden from view. Not a single bit of it. Yet people voted for him anyway.
That says a lot about us. None of it good.
If there’s one lesson that needs to be learned from the Trump years, it is that one. Democracy is not easy, because for many, many people on this planet and in this country, freedom is not easy. For folks who more or less have it together, that may be hard to understand.
While those who live and work in the world of ideas have the time and the inclination to ponder grand concepts and endless possibilities, a great many of our brothers and sisters struggle just to get through each day. As in, literally wonder how they will manage to make it until bedtime. Whether it’s anxiety or depression or the drugs and the alcohol with which they are often intertwined, so, so many people just want someone to tell them what to do and to take care of them.
It’s no wonder that religions with strict rules on how to live one’s life hold such appeal and are growing so rapidly. The more rules, the better.
This is the key to “populists,” who understand that a substantial number of people are perfectly fine with a strong leader who promises order in a universe that appears not to have any. In his 2016 run, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum understood this even as most in his party did not. The vast majority of people are not entrepreneurs who dream of starting their own businesses. Most people just want a steady job that will be there next year and in five years and in 20 years so they can buy a house and raise children and do all the things they’re supposed to do the way their parents did.
Small wonder that a craven demagogue like Trump could take advantage of those insecurities and tell those people exactly what they wanted to hear.
This has always been the inherent danger in the American experiment: Self-governance requires active engagement by the citizenry. Because things rarely work out as planned, the drafters of the Constitution came up with federalism and checks and balances. On top of all that, this country has been blessed by its massive size and its attendant bureaucracy. It’s hard to institute large-scale change of any kind, in any direction. People demanding action on the climate can attest to this. People pushing for universal health care can attest to this —indeed, have been attesting to this, for decades.
Despite this, the fact remains that breaking things is easier than fixing them, as Trump has repeatedly demonstrated. With a 30% plurality of the populace interested in maintaining its cultural supremacy solidly behind him and a large enough slice of the Republican establishment willing to accept a Faustian bargain for the sake of its own agenda, he has gotten away with it.
We can already see what this has done to our country after three and a half years. What happens if that three and a half becomes eight?
Copyright © by S.V. Dáte. To be published by Sounion Books Sept. 8, 2020. Excerpted by permission.
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