Useful idiot

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The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.
—Edward Gibbon[1]

A useful idiot is someone who supports one side of an ideological debate, but who is manipulated and despised by the leaders of their faction, or who is unaware of the ultimate plan driving the ideology they support.[note 1] 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.[2] The closely related term fellow traveller (Russian: спутник, sputnik)[note 2] refers to someone who sympathises 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,[3] but there is no evidence that Lenin ever said or wrote it.[4][5]


The term co-opted is often used when this phenomenon occurs on a large enough scale that a group, movement or cause has been co-opted and subverted for a hostile and destructive purpose.

In the case of agents-provocateurs, this may be a deliberate and organised effort; indeed, this would be more or less the goal. Alternatively, it may simply be the extreme natural consequence of Poe's Law at work, when trolls and edgelords (for lack of a more precise and neutral terminology) enter the community of interest in sufficient numbers to distort its aims, methods and publicly visible message.

The distinction is, of course, only one of intention; the practical outcome for the community concerned is essentially the same.

Citing specific examples is a controversial exercise, especially in the second case.


As a subjective label, it is often misbused. There are reasonable differences of rhetoric and tactics in any ideological movement, but these differences can be unfairly smeared with the label of idiocy. Nor are all poor representatives of a position necessarily useful idiots: a useful idiot is a poor representative held up as a figurehead by a third party with malicious intent. VenomFangX may be a spectacular failure at Christian apologetics, but he's not a useful idiot because his popularity comes from other Christians, not atheists.[note 3]


  • S. E. Cupp — The atheist who hates atheists. She is often seen as a useful idiot of the Religious Right, an atheist who talks at length about how atheists are sexist, evil, stupid or unreasonable.
  • David Frum — An American conservative blogger who is regarded by many on the left as "the sensible one" and by many on the right as a useful liberal idiot.
  • Kent Hovind — A creationist and evangelist with a PhD from a diploma mill and a 10-year prison sentence, his tactics were scorned by more "respectable" creationist organisations such as Answers in Genesis, who considered him well-meaning but a useful idiot for the villainous Darwinists.
  • The Tea Party — Many of the people involved in the "teabagging" protests have low incomes and would benefit from many Democratic Party-backed policies like Obamacare, and would be mostly hurt by Republican policies like Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity," even though a fair number of them oppose cutting government programs like Medicare and Social Security. (GOP strategists know this.) The Republican establishment's catering to them in the name of votes eventually backfired. It bit them in the ass when the Tea Party movement broadly coalesced around Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, whose economic populism ran counter to GOP orthodoxy on 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 be manipulated into a transparent public relations stunt by his supposed protector, Vladimir Putin.[6] To his credit, Snowden was fully aware of how this was playing out and was appalled by it. He took to the pages of The Guardian[7] 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 ran in 1948 on a third party platform that was staunchly left-wing and pro-Soviet. While it's widely accepted that Wallace himself was not a Communist, it's also widely accepted that the party itself (the Progressive Party of 1948) had been infiltrated by genuine Communists and fellow travellers. The Communist Party USA endorsed him in a "popular front" strategy rather than running their own candidate. As a result of his refusal to disavow them, the anti-communist Socialist Party ran its own candidate (the perennial Norman Thomas)Wikipedia rather than support Wallace. In his 1952 autobiography, Where I Was Wrong, Wallace himself later admitted that he felt he had been duped by Joseph Stalin, and that his support for the Soviets stemmed from ignorance of 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 that sympathises 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 servant (or sidekick) Alicia Frischmann also falls under the same useful idiocy for Nazism.
  • Tucker Carlson - Perhaps the best example on this list, Carlson has promoted various authoritarian regimes and leaders, especially far-right/fascist ones (which is not surprising knowing that Carlson himself is a fascist). Some examples include making propaganda for Orban and Putin, promoting them as "traditional conservatives" fighting against the "wokeness" and "degeneracy" that Carlson claims is prevalent in the West.

See also[edit]


  1. There is often (but not always) the implication that the ideology in question is something nefarious and/or that the fulfillment of its goals will screw the useful idiots over in some fashion (such as becoming genocide victims).
  2. 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 traveling 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 resolve the question.
  3. Granted, examples of Christian apologists who are successful at convincing skeptics to embrace Christianity are… hard to come by.


  1. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  2. Useful idiot, Oxford English Dictionary
  3. Becket Adams (January 26, 2012). "Soros ‘Supposes’ He’s One of Lenin’s ‘Useful Idiots’". 
  4. William Safire (April 12, 1987). "ON LANGUAGE". 
  5. Paul F. Bioler Jr., They Never Said It : A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading. Oxford University Press, 1990.
  6. Kathy Lally and Greg Miller (April 17, 2014). "Edward Snowden asks Vladi­mir Putin if Russia spies on its citizens". Washington Post. 
  7. Snowden, Edward. "Vladimir Putin must be called to account on surveillance just like Obama." The Guardian, 18 April 2014.