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A useful idiot is someone who supports one side of an ideological debate, but who is manipulated and held in contempt by the leaders of their faction or is unaware of the ultimate agenda driving the ideology to which they subscribe. The term originated in early 1950s America in reference to members of the Socialist Party, allegedly promoted by the malevolent KGB to weaken America as a nation. The closely related term fellow traveller (Russian: спутник, sputnik[note 1]) refers to one who sympathizes with and is willing to support the publicly stated goals of the Party, while not being a dues-paying, card-carrying member. The origin of the phrase has often been attributed to Vladimir Lenin, but there is no evidence Lenin ever said or wrote it.
The term co-opted is often used when this phenomenon occurs on a sufficiently large scale that a group, movement or cause has been appropriated and subverted to a hostile and destructive purpose.
This may be a conscious and organized effort, in the case of agents-provocateurs; indeed, this would then be more or less precisely the aim. Alternatively, it may simply be the extreme natural consequence of Poe's law in operation, when trolls and edgelords (for lack of more precise and neutral terminology) enter the community of interest in sufficient numbers to distort its aims, methods, and publicly-visible message.
The distinction, of course, is only one of conscious intent; the practical outcome for the community in question is essentially the same.
Citing specific examples is inescapably a contentious exercise, particularly in the second case.
As a subjective label, the term is often abused. There are reasonable differences on matters of rhetoric and tactics in any ideological movement, but these differences can be unjustly smeared as idiocy with this label. Nor are all poor representatives of a position necessarily useful idiots: a useful idiot is specifically a poor representative who is raised as a figurehead by a third party with malign intentions. VenomFangX might be a spectacular failure at Christian apologetics, but he's not a useful idiot because his popularity derives from other Christians, not atheists.
- S. E. Cupp — The atheist who hates atheists. She is frequently considered a useful idiot of the Religious Right, as an atheist who talks in detail about how atheists are sexist or evil or silly or unreasonable.
- David Frum — An American conservative blogger, he is thought by many on the left to be "the reasonable one" and by many on the right to be a useful idiot of liberals.
- Kent Hovind — A creationist and evangelist with a diploma mill doctorate and a 10-year jail sentence, his tactics were met with scorn by more "respectable" creationist agencies like Answers in Genesis, who considered him well-meaning but a useful idiot for the villainous Darwinists.
- The Tea Party — Many of the people who participate in "teabagging" protests have low incomes and might benefit from many policies supported by Democrats like Obamacare, and would mostly be hurt by Republican policies such as Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity," even though quite a few of them are opposed to cutting government programs such as Medicare and Social Security. (GOP strategists are aware of it.) The Republican establishment's catering to them in the name of votes eventually turned around and bit them in the ass when the Tea Party movement by and large coalesced around Donald Trump's Presidential campaign in 2016, with his economic populism running counter to GOP orthodoxy regarding free trade and free markets.
- Edward Snowden — After striking a blow against the abuse of civil liberties by the Bush and Obama administrations, Snowden allowed himself to get manipulated into a transparent public relations stunt by his ostensible protector, Vladimir Putin. To his credit, Snowden was fully aware of how that played out, and was horrified by it. He took to the pages of The Guardian to make clear his rejection of Putin's "answers" and to explain his own intentions in asking the questions.
- Henry A. Wallace — The former Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ran on a third-party platform in 1948 that was staunchly left-wing and pro-Soviet. While it is widely agreed Wallace himself wasn't a communist, it's also largely accepted that the party itself (the Progressive Party of 1948) had been infiltrated by genuine communists and fellow-travelers. The Communist Party USA endorsed him in a "popular front" strategy rather than run their own candidate, and partly as a result of his refusal to disavow them, the anti-communist Socialist Party ran their own candidate (the perennial Norman Thomas) rather than endorse Wallace. Wallace himself later admitted in his 1952 autobiography Where I Was Wrong that he felt he had been duped by Josef Stalin, and that his support for the Soviets stemmed from ignorance as to Stalin's true intentions and the nature of his rule.
- Scottie Spence — The founder (and criminal) of Smoloko News an anti-Semitic, International Jewish Conspiracy "news" service who sympathizes with Hitler and the Nazis treating them as if they were the good guys completely unaware of the less than noble things they did to Jews and pandering to the likes of Henry Makow, The Daily Stormer, and Real Jew News. He also serves as a useful idiot for Russian President Vladimir Putin. His female servant (or buddy) Alicia Frischmann also happens to fall under the same useful idiocy for Nazism.
- It is not clear whether this usage originated in the CPSU or was coined in the West among anti-Communists familiar with the Russian word for travelling companion and later imported in a "hey, that's useful, we should have thought of that" moment. The CPSU did originate the very similar term podkulachnik -- which means the same thing in relation to kulak -- at the time of the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class". This suggests a continuity of ideas, but that does not itself resolve the question.
- Useful idiot, Oxford English Dictionary
- Becket Adams (January 26, 2012). "Soros ‘Supposes’ He’s One of Lenin’s ‘Useful Idiots’".
- William Safire (April 12, 1987). "ON LANGUAGE".
- Paul F. Bioler Jr., They Never Said It : A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading. Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Kathy Lally and Greg Miller (April 17, 2014). "Edward Snowden asks Vladimir Putin if Russia spies on its citizens". Washington Post.
- Snowden, Edward. "Vladimir Putin must be called to account on surveillance just like Obama." The Guardian, 18 April 2014.