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The GOP Is the Theranos Party

“To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise.”
October 28, 2021
The GOP Is the Theranos Party
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

If you listen to Elizabeth Holmes’s attorney, the only thing the Theranos founder is guilty of, is being a dreamer.

“The villain the government just presented is actually a living, breathing human being who did her very best each and every day,” said Lance Wade as Holmes’s criminal trial approached in early September. “Trying your hardest and coming up short is not a crime.”

Holmes is on trial for—allegedly!—perpetrating a massive fraud which increased her net worth by billions of dollars, but also had the niggling effect of endangering the lives of vulnerable patients. Evidence suggests Holmes lied to investors about the efficacy of a blood testing machine her company, Theranos, had been developing—even as the faulty machine was delivered for use in neighborhood drug stores.

Holmes’s defenders blithely argue that Theranos was simply one example of the “fake-it-til-you-make-it” ethos of Silicon Valley. Businesses often . . . overpromise during the VC stage because they hope to raise enough money to turn their vision into reality. And also because there’s no SEC to keep them honest. Holmes’s hero, Thomas Edison, applied a similar ethos, once telling investors he had invented a stable light bulb years before he finally figured out how to make one work.

But no strategy is foolproof, and the “fake-it-til-you-make-it” gambit does have an expiration date: At some point, you have to produce what you’ve promised, or the plan unravels. When journalists began digging into Theranos’ inner workings, they found that Holmes’s machine didn’t work, had never worked, and that she had likely falsified test results.

And yet, maybe Holmes’s lawyer has a point. Because while Holmes sits in a courtroom, day after day, listening to testimony about her misdeeds, former President Donald Trump is sitting pretty in Mar-a-Lago, reaping the benefits of his.

Trump has become the ultimate political practitioner of a Holmes-style strategy of creating a false reality upon which he can never deliver. Holmes faces jail time for her deceit; Trump will be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, if he so chooses.

From the beginning, Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was rigged was as fanciful as Holmes’s claims that her machine could run dozens of blood tests with only finger stick.

And like Holmes, the former president began these lies in the VC stage—meaning, before the election took place—by fomenting distrust in mail-in voting.

Asked in September whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, Trump said, “Get rid of the ballots” and there would be a “very peaceful . . . continuation.”

“We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” he later said. “I don’t know that it can be with this whole situation—unsolicited ballots. They’re unsolicited; millions being sent to everybody. And we’ll see.”

The scam intensified after the election, when over 60 lawsuits brought by Trump allies seeking to challenge vote counts were swatted away by courts. In the meantime, other Trump cronies were formulating fantastical plans and hallucinating about an America in which Vice President Mike Pence could award the election to Trump.

Then January 6 happened.

In effect, January 6 was Trump’s John Carreyrou moment—the day he was finally caught in his lie and the bill came due on all the promises he had made.

But politics is not business. Elizabeth Holmes is being tried by a jury of her peers. The “jury” that was supposed to hold the president accountable for inciting an insurrection was a group of politicians dependent on his support if they wanted to keep their place in his party.

So rather than being punished for perpetuating a fraud, Trump is now being rewarded because he’s still committed to the con. He faked it and he didn’t make it—so he continues to fake it, only louder and with less attachment to reality.

Of course, “stop the steal” isn’t the only area in which Trump overpromised and delivered virtually nothing. The U.S.-Mexico border remains almost entirely un-walled. Hillary Clinton is un-locked up. Obamacare is still the law of the land. The coronavirus did not disappear “like a miracle.”

It is ironically funny that a Trump fundraising arm has renamed itself “Make America Great Again, Again”—which is an implicit acknowledgement that Trump fell short of making America great again the first time. This irony seems completely lost on Trump’s followers.

In continuing to fall for cynical lies meant to boost short-term approval, the Republican Party has now effectively become the Elizabeth Holmes party. Trump and Holmes are mirror images of one another, both running the same transparent scam.

As philosopher Michael Oakeshott observed, “To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise.” Both Trump and Holmes should have that engraved on their headstones.

Yet in the shorter term, only one of them may end up in a house with iron bars. The other might well end up back in the White House.

Christian Schneider

Christian Schneider is a member of the USA Today board of contributors and author of 1916: The Blog. Twitter: @Schneider_CM.