Very recently a former high-ranking foreign service professional referred to Donald Trump as Vladimir Putin’s “useful idiot.” Every dictator needs useful idiots. Putin has Trump. Trump has the “Proud Boys” and other racists. Mussolini had “Black Shirts,” Hitler had “Brown Shirts,” Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic had their goons and thugs- all aspiring and practicing dictators need goons and thugs to do their dirty work. Typically, these are unemployed criminals and lowlifes who, while their dear leader talks about “law and order,” apply mayhem and chaos to any group they are assigned to attack.
Very often, these “useful idiots” are racists. The first problem with racists is…well…they are racists. But there is another problem as well. They believe a whole series of things that aren’t true. They believe a lot of lies and because they believe in lies, they also share and create and spread lies.
It is important to understand what racism truly is. It is a belief that race, as marked by human genes, has a bearing on the character, behavior, and attitudes of whole groups of human beings.
I say it is a lie because there is absolutely no valid genetic science that supports the belief that race has anything at all to do with good character. I don’t call racists idiots as an insult, or as a rhetorical flourish or hyperbole—racists just believe a lot of things that simply have no basis in fact.
The fact is, regardless of race, humans share well over 99% of their genetic makeup. There simply is no single gene that controls important human qualities such as kindness, compassion, intelligence, tolerance, criminality, honesty, generosity, hard work, or any other thing. Whatever tendencies for these traits that might occur are evenly distributed between races.
That means that when racists say that one race is more intelligent or trustworthy, they are telling a lie. It is worth stopping to note that in recent years experts have determined that our old idea of intelligence is overly simplistic. There are many kinds of intelligence. Someone can be bad at mathematics and still have a high level of social intelligence; be good at art, but still have a low level of social intelligence, and so on. History is filled with examples of people who were brilliant in science, mathematics, literature, music, etc. and who still held wildly outlandish beliefs in terms of race, religion, and other subjects.
History is also filled with examples of people who served and enabled authoritarian leaders in pursuit of their own advantage. Ernst Rohm, a leading early Nazi, thought Hitler was an idiot he could use. But he misjudged Hitler- and Hitler used him and then had him killed. Early Russian Bolsheviks saw Stalin as a mediocre figure they could use and control. Eventually he had most of them killed. And so it goes…
The problem with racists is not only that they believe in lies. They are a conduit for lies. They propagate and spread them. But all this gets worse. Because the lies they believe are almost always tinged by animosity and even hatred towards other groups, they are especially dangerous. And then it gets even worse—because their animosity is contagious. They hate one group because of their belief in lies, then their animosity can easily be transferred and directed at other groups. What starts as racial bias soon becomes hatred towards people with other ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and political beliefs.
In short, the useful fools, whether they are just unwitting tools or enablers who think they can gain some cheap advantage (a supreme court pick, an advantage with voters, a tax break, or a sweetheart business deal) in the end are just added to the roster of useful idiots.
The latest group targeted by Trump are the “Proud Boys.” They are his new useful idiots and join the ranks of his other GOP enablers and his “base.” Trump named them specifically in his first debate with Biden—then later said he “didn’t know who they were.” That was a clear first warning signal— “useful idiots” will be thrown overboard the moment they are no longer useful. Look at the trail of wreckage of Trump’s fired first term “best people.”
No one in their right mind would ever ask the “Proud Boys” to be election monitors (unless they were intent on voter intimidation). Apart from the fact that they look like a group of ex-cons, their initiation apparently calls for them to be abused, and then for them to engage in abuse or commit some violent act.
Now Trump is calling on the “Proud Boys” to be his loyal poll watchers. They were thrilled by his attention—it is probably what they crave almost more than the license to inflict violence on people they don’t like. For the “Proud Boys” that is apparently a long list. They are not a vague group—they apparently have very specific rituals of initiation that mark them as a cult or gang. As might be expected, they are antagonistic towards people of color, women, LGBTQ communities, Jews, Muslims, liberals and so on.
The psychological profile of people who join gangs and cults of this type reveals that typical recruits are (for whatever reason) extremely damaged people. They tend to be sociopathic, without any real moral compass of their own, and they are usually deeply insecure. Often their only ability is to physically intimidate other people. They compensate by seeking the approval of a “leader.” Once they gain “the leader’s” approval, and have their own weak sense of self-importance validated, their hate can easily be directed towards any other group that the leader chooses. I suspect that once they have slaked their thirst for dominance, they really don’t care much who they direct it at. Naturally, they like the validation and solidarity represented by uniforms. Naturally, they like to brandish weapons. They epitomize the term “useful idiots.”
Donald Trump, Jr. was recorded in an advertisement to organize something called the “Army for Trump’s Election Security Operation.” Don doesn’t hold any official government position, so it is unclear why he should be involved in such a project—unless it is just an obvious disguise for intimidating Trump’s opposition. In the tape Don said it was time to ‘go on offense.’ His wording was notable: “army” and “able bodied” implies a military operation. I have been an official, sanctioned poll watcher myself. Their job is to watch—not to start attacking anyone. I mostly sat with lines of polite, middle aged women of both parties and the whole affair was very civil. Only interposing an “army” of thugs might change that.
To sum up, apart from the inherent stupidity, cruelty and injustice of racism, the other problem with racism is that racists are “useful idiots.” And the forces they are useful to are usually unprincipled authoritarians. Unfortunately, broken people like the “Proud Boys” are only the tip of the iceberg. As with most authoritarian movements, the foundation of the whole oppressive structure rests on all the people who quietly go along with, and cheer along, the people making the trouble.
Recently one contributor to my local paper sent in a rambling, mindless Trump-adoring letter. What struck me most was his blatant racism. He said he hates black leaders, ministers, and politicians. He said he hates “violent protesters,” but he also criticized the peacefully kneeling non-violent athletes— and, in fact, anyone who condemns the police for their frequent brutality and even murder of racial minorities. He then complained about being called a racist. As one perceptive person responded:
“If you want to ‘not be called a racist,’ there is an easy solution—don’t be a racist. In a country pervaded by systemic racism, that means more than simply not personally insulting people of color. To ‘not be a racist’ one needs to take an active stand against racism. Among other things, that means not supporting candidates, causes or organizations that endorse, or are silent, about racism. It’s as simple as that…I’m afraid blindly supporting Trump will never make you ‘not a racist.’”
I thought that covered the issue pretty nicely. Of course, there are “useful idiots” who may not think of themselves as racists—they are along for electoral advantage, personal advantage or financial gain. By supporting racism, however, they become racists themselves. My guess is, they will all be shown to be useful idiots in the end.
The main point is: racism is a poison that soon spreads throughout society. If we want to live in a functional democracy, we all have a vested interest in putting an end to it.