When Mike Pence took the stage for the vice presidential debate, he was not there only as Donald Trump’s second; he was also representing the Republican establishment that has cravenly acquiesced to Trumpism. As something of a surrogate for the entire GOP, Pence, the governor of Indiana, often tried to sidestep Tim Kaine’s pointed criticisms of Trump. But he could not avoid defending his running mate on key matters—and cleaning up after the GOP’s acerbic nominee.
Pence claimed it was untrue that he and Trump had praised Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. (They have both called him a strong leader.) He said Trump would not support legislation to punish women who obtain abortions. (Trump has said “some form of punishment” would be necessary if abortion were made illegal.) He declared Trump would implement “broad-shoulder” leadership in foreign affairs and adopt a muscular stance against Russia’s military intervention in Syria. (Trump has said Russian airstrikes in Syria were “okay” with him.) He denied Trump has called for spreading nuclear weapons to nations that don’t currently possess them. (Trump has.) Pence scoffed at Kaine’s insistence that Trump has hurled abuse and invective on the campaign trail and asserted it was Hillary Clinton who was mounting an “insult-driven” campaign. He defended the Trump Foundation—which has been cited for various violations and which Trump has apparently used for his own personal and pay-to-play ends—while attacking the Clinton Foundation falsely for spending only 10 percent of its funding on charitable work. (The figure is close to 90 percent.) All the thrusts and parries aside, Pence’s most important role was serving as normalizer-in-chief.
As many Republicans say—some in public, some in private—Trump is at best not a serious man and at worst a threat to the nation. He is arrogant, impulsive, and erratic, a loudmouth and boorish know-it-all who doesn’t know nearly as much as he believes. He has mocked the disabled. He exhibits no discipline. He threatens war too readily and expresses admiration for tyrannical leaders (especially Putin). He shows signs of a troubled and troubling personality. He cannot admit error and doesn’t take advice. (After the first debate, his aides had to complain about Trump’s lack of preparation and poor performance to New York Times reporters in order to get his attention.) He is a serial purveyor of outlandishly false claims and crackpot conspiracy theories, including birtherism (which he hardly renounced). He changes positions on a whim. He denies saying what he has already said (or doesn’t remember). He routinely derides minorities and denigrates and body-shames women. He attacked a Gold Star family and equated his business career with the sacrifice of military service. (He also likened trying to avoid STDs while sleeping around in the 1970s with serving in Vietnam.) He speaks and tweets recklessly. He has encouraged violence. He has threatened to undermine electoral democracy. He has egged on Russia to hack the United States. He refuses to disclose key information about his business dealings and finances, which include hefty loans from overseas banks. He runs a crooked foundation. He is no model family guy. He has been accused of fraud in several lawsuits. He stiffed working-class contractors. He exploited the tax system to live like a billionaire—which he may well not be—while possibly paying no federal taxes.
Many GOP leaders realize all this and earlier in the presidential campaign expressed their anti-Trump views. House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized Trump for making “racist” remarks. Sen. Marco Rubio called the celebrity mogul “dangerous,” insisting that he was a “con man” unqualified to be president. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Trump “is without substance when one scratches below the surface. He offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as Trumpism: A toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.” Top Republicans considered Trump harmful to their party—his campaign was alienating the voting blocs GOPers had hoped to court: women, Latinos, African Americans—and to the national political discourse. Many believed that a President Trump could jeopardize the country’s well-being.
Yet most of the GOP top dogs have jumped on the Trump trolley, even though they see an unstable and risky fellow is at the helm. Ryan, Rubio, and Perry are now official endorsers of Trump. So is Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who refuses to talk about Trump. (“Because I choose not to,” he explains.) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose wife and father were insulted by Trump and who tried to define himself as a principled conservative by not endorsing Trump at the GOP convention in July, eventually kissed the ring. On Monday night, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) declared that Trump “absolutely” was a role model. (After that remark sparked a social-media controversy, Ayotte, who is in a tight reelection battle, claimed she had misspoken.) And consider the pathetic case of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Trump started his presidential campaign by blasting McCain for being a loser who was captured in Vietnam. And yet McCain says he is supporting Trump.
All these Republicans know Trump was unfamiliar with the nuclear triad. They know he is lying when he says he knows more about ISIS than the generals. (Before the first presidential debate, while on Facebook Live, I asked Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a prominent Trump supporter, if she thought Trump was better informed about ISIS than the US military leadership. She kept attempting to change the subject. I pressed her repeatedly. She would not answer the question—for the obvious reason.) Most GOP leaders know a Muslim ban is a stupid idea, an act of bigotry that cannot be implemented and that would be counterproductive to the effort against violent extremism. (Pence tweeted last year that it was “offensive and unconstitutional.”) They also are smart enough to realize that encouraging supporters to chant “lock her up” demeans the national debate and undermines political stability. In another setting, they probably would acknowledge that such ignorance, arrogance, and bullying ought to be a disqualification for anyone seeking to become the commander in chief.
Still, most of the GOP elite—including elected Republican officials and the brass and staff at the Republican National Committee—have accepted Trump, and Pence is the grand marshal of this parade. A former House member and a stalwart conservative, he was a wise pick for Trump because he had the cred to legitimize Trump. And Pence has enthusiastically tried to wrap the cloak of normalcy around the former reality television star. As a loyal No. 2, he repeatedly makes excuses for Trump’s conduct—even when it contradicts Pence’s core principles. In 1990, Pence ran for Congress and lost in a race that was notably marked by a barrage of nasty ads from Pence’s side. Afterward, he swore off such tactics and wrote a confessional article in which he denounced negative campaigning. “First, a campaign ought to demonstrate the basic human decency of the candidate,” he opined. “That means your First Amendment rights end at the tip of your opponent’s nose—even in the matter of political rhetoric.” He added that negative attacks are “wrong” because they distract voters from the important issues. He claimed that after his loss in the 1990 election, he underwent a “conversion” on the topic of negative ads: “A campaign ought to be about the advancement of issues whose success or failure is more significant than that of the candidate.”
With that noble tenet in mind, Pence went on to win a House seat. Yet as Trump’s sidekick, Pence has had to put his principles in a blind trust and kick his clean-campaigning values to the curb. It is without question that in modern times Trump has been the nastiest major-party presidential candidate. He bullied and name-called his way to the GOP nomination, and he has maliciously assaulted Clinton, labeling her a criminal, claiming in fact-free and sexist fashion that she does not possess sufficient “stamina” or a “presidential look,” and, most recently, accusing her of cheating on her husband (without offering any evidence). And Pence has been Trump’s defender at each turn. To make the situation even more ludicrous, Pence has lashed out at Democrats when they have criticized Trump, saying, “I don’t think name calling has any place in public life.” Unless you’re on the ticket with the best name-caller of all time. Pence, it seems, is playing the Michael Palin part in Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot sketch: denying the obvious to an infinitely absurd degree. At the debate, he continued to depict Trump as the victim of harsh assaults.
With such a performance, Pence essentially speaks for the GOP elite, refusing to acknowledge the reality of Trump. Many Trump-accepting Rs will say they have no choice because they find Clinton so odious. Oh, they don’t believe the balderdash about Benghazi or the conspiracy theories about the Clinton Foundation, and they don’t think the the email controversy is a capital crime. In fact, many of them feel more comfortable with Clinton’s centrist foreign policy reflexes than Trump’s inconsistent stances and Putin-coddling. Their problem is not with Clinton; it’s with their own voters.
During the Obama years, the GOP base has been encouraged to believe the worst about President Barack Obama—he’s a secret socialist Kenya-born Muslim who is plotting to destroy America!—and that hatred has been easily transferred to Clinton, who in the 1990s, with her husband, was the primary target of right-wing loathing. Republican elites cannot get on the wrong side of this raging Clinton animus. Nor can they stand against the bigotry and populist anti-government antipathy within their party that they have fueled or played footsie with. One example: In 2012, Mitt Romney eagerly embraced Trump, when the real estate developer was going full birther. (Romney, earlier this year, was one of Trump’s chief antagonists. But he has gone silent in recent months. A Romney confidant tells me that Romney reached the conclusion that further attacks from him could well help Trump.) Another example: Three years earlier, when a couple thousand tea partiers gathered on Capitol Hill to protest Obamacare, they questioned Obama’s citizenship, depicted him as Sambo, and called him a traitor. Referring to Obamacare, the crowd shouted, “Nazis! Nazis!” The entire House Republican leadership, led by Rep. John Boehner, was there, and Boehner did not admonish the crowd for its excessive rhetoric. He got into the spirit, calling Obamacare the “greatest threat to freedom I have seen.”
By exploiting instead of addressing the anti-Obama fever within their party, Republicans leaders helped set the foundation for Trump’s towering candidacy. And with his nomination came crunch time. The choice was this: keep trying to ride the tiger or denounce the beast within. Not prepared to confront a plurality, if not a majority, of the GOP base and trigger a bloody all-out civil war that could well put their own political careers at risk, Republican poobahs had only one course of action: to pretend that Trump is acceptable. They did not have the courage, spunk, or fortitude to take on the forces they had encouraged. So now many GOPers must make-believe that Trump would be a fine president and offer a never-ending series of excuses and rationales—that is, when they cannot avoid talking about him.
This is not ideological. Trump is no conservative hero for whom Republicans must fall in line. Michael Reagan this week said that neither Nancy Reagan nor his father, Ronald Reagan, would have supported Trump. But doing so is no problem for Pence, who proudly describes himself as a Reagan conservative. Pence also is a self-proclaimed evangelical who is now crusading for a fellow who has not practiced family values. And he has had to put aside bedrock policy principles—free trade and support for the Iraq War—to saddle up with Trump.
Pence is the GOP’s primary justifier for Trump—his only serious, brand-name surrogate. (Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie have become clownish Trumpbots.) This is his job. And as unattractive as it might look from the outside, this might be a better position than that of a losing gubernatorial candidate, for his reelection prospects were dim. (All this national attention could be helpful should he run for president in 2020 or 2024.) So when Trump says Obama was the “founder” of ISIS, Pence explains what Trump really meant. When Trump says Clinton’s Secret Service detail should be removed, Pence explains what Trump really meant. When Trump falsely claims that Clinton started the racist birther allegation, Pence explains what Trump really meant. He has regularized Trump’s cruelty, bigotry, vulgarity, and say-anything dishonesty.
In 1964, Republicans adopted this slogan in support of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Fifty-two years later, it’s pretty clear that for many elite Republicans, this mantra does not apply in this election. In green rooms across Washington, DC, Republicans admit that and shake their heads, upset that their party has reached this (sad!) point. In their heart, they know Trump is wrong for the White House. They just don’t have the guts to do anything about it.