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Hillary Clinton, Louise Penny thriller: An ex-president as dangerous and magnetic as Trump

'State of Terror' is about existential threats like nuclear bombs, but it also sounds alarms about leaders like the real Trump and the fictional Dunn.

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There’s a moment in “State of Terror,” the new thriller by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny, when the protagonist – Ellen Adams, a spunky and fearless female secretary of State – visits former President Eric Dunn at his palatial Florida estate and attempts to describe the spell he casts.

“To be in his orbit was to experience something extraordinary. There was a pull, a promise of excitement. Of danger. Like juggling grenades. It was exhilarating. And terrifying. Even she could feel it.”

What I could feel on that page was Clinton wrestling with how she could have lost the presidency to Donald Trump. Adams concludes that Dunn profited from scheming foreign governments as well as a dark side to democracy. “People were free to abuse their freedoms,” she muses.

And will do so over and over again, she might have added. Because it sure looks like our real-life former president is headed for a 2024 run, and neither he nor his followers have changed a bit.

'Smart enough' to embrace Trump

Never mind that when the Republican convention rolls around in 2024, Trump will be 78 (President Joe Biden's age right now). On Saturday night at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, the former president endorsed 88-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is running for an eighth Senate term. "He’s a young – very young guy. He’s strong. And he’s very handsome,” Trump said. 

Never mind that in February, Grassley castigated Trump for “extreme, aggressive, and irresponsible” language about the 2020 election, harassing elected officials and pressuring his own vice president to violate the Constitution to keep him in office. 

On Saturday night, noting Trump’s record 91% favorable rating in a new Iowa Poll, Grassley said: “I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement." And much of the rest of the Iowa GOP political establishment, including the governor, was smart enough to be there for it.

“We have a Republican Party that is now an autocratic cult around Donald Trump,” Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” His own brand-new book, “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could,” is, alas, nonfiction.

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Clinton maintains that Dunn is not Trump. “He lives in Palm Beach," interviewer Martha Teichner pointed out on "CBS Sunday Morning.” “Hmmm, interesting. A lot of people live in Palm Beach. A lot of people,” Clinton said, laughing, but allowed that “there are characteristics of real people that we obviously learned from, that we incorporated.” 

"The former guy" in “State of Terror” uses phrases like “fake news” and as president made tragically disastrous moves like agreeing to the release of foreign evil-doers. He is “immense” and singularly focused on himself (“uninterested in others and easily bored when the spotlight shifted to anyone else”). The “near-criminal incompetence” of his administration has left the U.S. government and its alliances in shambles.

No arguments there. And the Clinton-Penny description of the “Dunn” financial empire – repeatedly crumbling and rising, “each time more audacious. More bloated. More fragile” – is a dead ringer for Trump’s serial bankruptcies and sweetheart loan deals. Just this month, he got kicked off the Forbes 400 list and we learned his hotel in Washington, D.C., had lost $70 million during his presidency, even as it made millions from foreign governments. Oh, and Deutsche Bank let him delay payments on a $170 million loan.

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Secretary of State Adams reflects in “State of Terror” that, to Eric Dunn, “nothing mattered beyond his sphere of influence. Which remained, she needed to admit, surprisingly large.”

We all need to admit that. The authors intend their book to be a wake-up call about a nation and a world bursting with existential threats, but it’s also a warning about dangerous leaders and those who enable them. 

The 2020 election was a miracle

What we saw in Iowa was, as Clinton and Penny aptly described their former guy, terrifying. The opening music has been played for decades at Republican rallies and conventions – Lee Greenwood singing that he's “proud to be an American.” I've always interpreted that song to mean proud of what America stands for on its best days – welcoming the immigrants who renew our country; caring about our fellow citizens, "from Detroit down to Houston, and New York to L.A."; treating everyone with respect; telling the truth; honoring the law and the Constitution; trusting our elections; and encouraging people to vote.

What does it mean now?

If it means what Trump spewed at the rally, in particular his Big Lie that the 2020 election was rigged and corrupt, it means the opposite of all that. And that is gut-wrenching. 

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For Trump, the Big Lie is performance art and a fundraising gusher, with an off chance of returning to power. The truth? The Big Lie spawned the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot and is eating at the foundations of our democracy. Tens of millions of Americans voted amid a lethal pandemic, and they set a turnout record. It was a miracle of an election in a country that, every once in a while, briefly lives up to its claim to be exceptional. 

We need a few of those moments now. Pass the Freedom to Vote Act that would protect and standardize voting. Pass Schiff's Protecting Our Democracy Act to prevent presidential abuses of power, from pardons to self-dealing. Press the House Jan. 6 committee to enforce subpoenas and accountability, and fast, in its Capitol attack investigation. And don't let Senate rules from another era stand in the way.

We’re still juggling grenades, and it has to stop.

Jill Lawrence (@JillDLawrence) is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." She has been reporting and writing about Hillary Clinton since 1991 and has read all of Louise Penny's Three Pines mysteries

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