On that day in July 2016 when Donald Trump chose him as his vice-presidential running mate, Mike Pence must have felt like the luckiest man alive, or at least the luckiest Republican—whatever species that is these days.
Running for re-election as governor of Indiana, Pence was down ten points in the polls, headed for defeat. And he previously he had endorsed Ted Cruz to be the Republican nominee. At first, both those things made Trump reject Pence as a “loser,” according to former deputy Trump campaign manager Rick Gates, who has a new book out, Wicked Game: An Insider’s Story on How Trump Won, Mueller Failed, and America Lost.
Gates and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort—each convicted after indictments arising from that Mueller investigation—tried persuading Trump that Pence would help in the Midwest and not try to steal the spotlight from him. Plus he had powerful connections to right-wing money machines like the Koch family.
As per Gates’ book, mostly an encomium of praise for Trump (which can only help the author get that presidential pardon, even if he’s already done his time), Trump’s first choice for veep was—wait for it—Ivanka.
“She’s bright,” Trump insisted. “She’s smart, she’s beautiful, and the people would love her!”
In The Washington Post, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger write, “While others might see the episode as a distasteful symbol of Trump’s nepotism, Gates said it shows Trump’s commitment to family, loyalty and ensuring those around him support his agenda and not their own—‘the values and assets that Trump cared most about,’ he said.”
Good grief. Ultimately, cooler heads—including Ivanka’s—prevailed. And Trump was won over by Pence, Gates says, during a breakfast at which the Indiana governor delivered “a vicious and extended monologue” about the Clintons.
I mention this at length because it demonstrates two things relevant to Pence’s debate performance when he went up against Senator Kamala Harris on Wednesday night. First, that the gratitude Pence feels for Trump having rescued him from political doom in Indiana has instilled in him a Pavlovian loyalty, not unlike the many Republican higher-ups who believe they owe their phony-baloney jobs to The Donald’s coattails. Throughout the debate, Pence echoed Trump’s talking points with the fealty of a cocker spaniel, adding his own mix of GOP platitudes and boilerplate delivered in that mysteriously monotonous yet confident, sanctimonious and smarmy voice, a tone reminiscent of some unctuous preachers and snake oil hucksters I’ve encountered in my life.
Second, because of his seemingly imperturbable manner, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Pence indeed possesses that malevolent and “vicious” streak that so appealed to the putative commander-in-chief. It often quietly bubbled to the surface during his confrontation with Kamala Harris. For one, Biden is “a cheerleader for Communist China.” Really? That’s straight out of the ’50s Joe McCarthy/Dick Nixon playbook. Pence is able to couch this retrograde nonsense without the foaming-at-the-mouth belligerence of his boss, so that his lying, his mansplaining to Harris and countless misogynistic interruptions and condescensions on Wednesday evening—aimed at the two women on stage, Harris and moderator Susan Page—seem by comparison a shade more benign.
A number of Trump’s more blatant and callous falsehoods littered his vice president’s rhetoric, especially when repeating assorted fictions about the pandemic, untruths easily countered by the calendar, more than 210,000 American dead and the simple fact that protective layers of plexiglass separated the two candidates. This culminated with Senator Harris questioning progress on a vaccine and, astonishingly, Pence demanding, “Stop playing politics with people’s lives,” as if to say, “Hey, doing that’s our job.”
There was more, lots of it. “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and to protect pre-existing conditions for every American,” Pence declared. Where is it? As you know well by now, no one has ever seen this long-promised plan, promised every other week or so, and the administration is arguing on behalf of an imminent Supreme Court case that could eliminate Obamacare and its pre-existing conditions coverage, potentially denying help to 20 million Americans.
Environment—Pence’s insistence that “there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago” may be technically accurate but because of warmer oceans caused by climate change, storms are fiercer and more deadly than ever before. Just look at Hurricane Delta slamming into the already ravaged Gulf Coast as I write.
And then this howler: “The climate is changing. But the issue is, what’s the cause and what do we do about it. President Trump has made it clear that we’re going to continue to listen to the science.” With a deaf ear.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Pence insisted that he and Trump were against white supremacy and pointed to the president’s “Jewish grandchildren” as proof of his tolerance. And among the other questions he whiffed or refused to answer was the big one: whether he and his leader would allow a peaceful transfer of power should Trump lose on November 3.
In spite of this and even more shamelessness on Pence’s part, Kamala Harris remained reasoned throughout, cogent and thoughtful. It would have been easy—and understandable, under the circumstances—to be provoked and lash out. But she calmly rebutted each of Pence’s incitements and offered a strong and visible case for the restoration of rational thought to the executive.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said. “… So let’s talk about caring about the American people. The American people who have had to sacrifice far too much because of the incompetence of this administration. It is asking too much of the people.”
But, Pence insisted, “telling the truth is what we’ve always done,” perhaps the biggest perjury of the night. It’s a wonder he instantly didn’t melt like those Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
There is a scenario that if Trump loses, he will resign so that Pence briefly can become president and pardon him for all his crimes against and injuries to the republic. Should Pence indeed be the born-again Christian soul he professes to be, in a just world this would haunt him for the rest of his days. But such guilt probably will not even crease his brow. As Republican strategist Rick Wilson titled his book, Everything Trump Touches Dies and certainly the last four years have killed whatever soul Mike Pence might still possess. That fly might have been all that was left.
As for the rest of us, there was a bit of serendipity Wednesday night as the debate came to an end. Over at Turner Classic Movies, they were playing “A Face in the Crowd,” Budd Schulberg’s prescient look from more than half a century ago at how a television entertainer uses the medium to become a populist demagogue (Not coincidentally, Turner also ran the film on the night of Trump’s inauguration, as CNN’s Jake Tapper notes in an essay featured in the November issue of The Atlantic.).
The last lines in the screenplay, spoken to the villain’s former producer when the mighty man finally falls: “You were taken in, just like we were all taken in. When we get wise to him, that’s our strength. We get wise to him.”
Give us strength, Lord, and wisdom. The day of reckoning’s less that a month away. Let us pray—and vote.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.