Mike Pence: The Republican Party Personified

Mike Pence, vice president to Donald Trump, has suspended his 2024 Republican presidential campaign months before the first votes will be cast, in the face of abysmal poll numbers and empty coffers. No man’s fate more clearly exemplifies the truth and trajectory of the entire Republican Party since it allowed itself to be hijacked by a reality TV grifter and his moron cult in 2016. No man more perfectly epitomizes the folly and the fallout of rationalizing irrational compromises of principle.

When I look at all those men — Kelly and Mathis and Barr and Pompeo and Bolton and Tillerson and on and on and on — who served in Trump’s administration on some farcical hope of stabilizing the ignoramus or bringing a sense of adult responsibility to the infantilism of his stewardship, all of whom have since been cast to the dogs by their old boss for daring to assert some limit to the extent of the willful blindness they had assumed in the service of a demented child’s boundless vanity, I see…well, I see a remarkably tempting opportunity for “I told you so” self-satisfaction at the sight of their collective comeuppance. For back at the beginning of all this in early 2016, before so much of the Republican establishment, old and new, had sold its soul to the authoritarian populist devil, supposedly in a desperate attempt to save the party, I was shouting from every rooftop at my disposal that the outcome would not be as they imagined. That they would not tame and co-opt the cult. That they would not steer Trump toward reasonable and conservative courses of action. That they would not manage to convert Trump’s mass appeal among the simple and the hopeless into some kind of general enthusiasm for conservative ideas or “Republican solutions.” That, in short, they would get exactly what they have in fact gotten: provisional acceptance by the personality cult on the condition that each of them serve Trump’s interests by lending popular credibility to his candidacy and presidency, but without ever daring to limit or question Trump’s whims, lies, or dangerous fantasies in any way.

In other words, all these influential and respected Republican figures, in choosing to hitch their wagons to the Trump train, whether in genuine support of his populism or in a quasi-noble effort to salvage the party platform, only served to weaken the public resistance to Trump’s megalomaniacal demagoguery, while irrevocably diminishing or destroying their own political influence and worth, just as I frequently predicted would happen. Does anyone remember Jeff Sessions, the very first well-placed conservative politician to throw his weight behind Trump’s candidacy in 2016? The last anyone saw of him, Sessions’ “weight” was spiralling up into the nothingness, like a crumb of dried hamburger bun flicked off of Trump’s oversized red necktie. His offense against the cult hero? Simply not being quite sycophantic and subservient enough.

In the long run, however, no one did more for Trump’s mainstream credibility than Mike Pence, the longtime conservative talkshow host, governor, and hyper-moral “Christian conservative” stalwart who consented to serve as the creepy idiot’s vice president, and did so with near-perfect deference and about as much dignity as one could ever bring to the thankless task of covering for madness. He also survived in his Trumpy role — that is, escaped the social media wrath of the orange sissy and his fifty million dupes — longer than any other pre-Trump Republican figure. When everyone else was gone, Pence was still there. When the others had ignominiously skulked or stormed away from roles they never should have lowered themselves to accepting in the first place, thus shamelessly denying personal responsibility for the monster they had, through their calculating choices, helped to create, Pence remained, loyal and without cynical excuses. For over four years, Pence defended or deflected from Trump’s sucking up to tyrants, adding a hint of sternness to his own voice to mask his boss’s open fawning over Vladimir Putin, his gullible collegiality towards Xi Jinping, and his utter “great deals” spanking by the trivial punk Kim Jong Un. Even in the weeks after the 2020 election, in the indefensible aftermath of Trump’s outrageous and petty exploitation of his voters’ heartbreak, using his election night bully pulpit to level overt accusations of a stolen election, deliberately riling up millions of the dejected and desperate against their country and their own better angels without providing a scintilla of evidence (that night or any night since) to support his bold assertions, there stood Mike Pence, calling, in his reasonable- and moderate-sounding tones, for investigations and lawsuits, based on nothing but the inability of Trump’s frail ego to accept defeat. 

Even for the loyal and mild-mannered Christian conservative Pence, however, the end of the line would come. It came in the most jarring and telling way, in what should have been the final nail in the coffin of the Trump cult’s credulity, but instead became one more reinforcement of their blind faith. And it came in a way that proved, once and for all, the sickness at the heart of the Republican Party’s craven and shortsighted decision, in early 2016, to embrace Trump’s juggernaut of demagoguery, rather than reject it outright and pay the short-term price for angering his idolators. 

Trump, run out of plausible options for delaying the certification of the election results in Joe Biden’s favor, played the only card he had left, namely calling for the effective suspension of the U.S. Constitution, by demanding that Pence, who as vice president had the ceremonial function of accepting the states’ electoral votes in Congress, should reject the votes from certain states that had voted against Trump, though without providing any legitimate grounds for so doing. In other words, since Pence himself was part of the Trump presidential ticket, the president was demanding that Pence assume the authority to overturn the official state-certified results of his own election loss. Even worse than this, since of course Trump’s inability to understand the logical absurdity of his wishes is hardly unusual, his desperate self-seeking and punctured vanity caused him to carry his demands to the very bottom of moral depravity, openly shouting to his large, angry crowd of followers, on the eve of their Trump-instigated march on Capitol Hill, that Pence’s failure to carry out this tyrannical mission on Trump’s behalf proved him a coward and a terrible disappointment, all but declaring Pence a traitor to America, as personified by Trump himself. And then, when some of his cult members, believing they were fulfilling his wishes, charged into the Capitol building and committed various acts of violence and threat against the central institution of their republic, many of them loudly chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” — would anyone seriously like to argue that the mob chanting this threat meant it only poetically? — Trump sat on his hands for hours, enjoying the show, in spite of numerous attempts by people in his inner circle to persuade him to issue a statement renouncing violence and calling off his MAGA hounds.

Could Pence really have been murdered that day? Yes, I believe he could have been. That it never came very close to that is a testament only to security measures, not to the sanity of the mob or the emotional stability of its leader. In any case, the events of those final days absolutely killed Pence’s viability as a Republican electoral candidate for the foreseeable future, a fact which can only be explained by the continued dominance of the Trump cult within the Republican Party’s mainstream.

And here we come to the point. Pence’s personal case captures the essence of the Republican Party’s usurpation with a perfection that makes it almost an allegory, or a living symbol, of the lesson the GOP ought to have understood in advance, and yet still has not learned eight years later. Imagining that he could join forces with Trump’s popular appeal in a way that would allow him to moderate Trump’s irrational impulses while simultaneously taking advantage of Trump’s large and ardent following to further his own political and career intentions, the end of Pence’s road came with the realization that it would be not Trump but he himself who would finally come out compromised and “moderated.” He would be faced at the dead end of his public service with this basic choice, the choice that had been implicit all along, but was suddenly made completely explicit at the beginning of January 2021: Sell your soul to the aims of populist demagoguery — reason, reality, and the constitutional republic be damned — or be obliterated. 

The entire Republican Party, with the rarest exceptions, from the Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy heights of the uniparty establishment to the Mike Lee and Rand Paul depths of the Tea Party underground, along with their respective allies in the “conservative media,” made more or less the same Machiavellian choice in 2016. Believing they could hop the populist train and steer it to success for their party, they ended up destroying their party forever by allowing anti-American demagoguery to insinuate itself into the party machine. At last, it was too late to turn back the processes set in motion, and now the whole party, each and every member of it, elected and otherwise, has been left with the choice Mike Pence had to make: reject the cult and blow up your career, or stay on the train and give up your soul and your credibility permanently. To Pence’s credit, he made the right choice, albeit years too late. For the party as a whole, it is already too late to save itself at this point. The damage is done. When they had the chance, back in 2016, to make the honorable and small-r republican choice against their shortsighted goals and greed, they failed, thereby sacrificing any hope of rebuilding their party after the potential brief storm of a few election losses precipitated by a scorned cult of personality — a cult that would undoubtedly have been rendered a weaker and shorter-lived phenomenon had it been denied the legitimate platform of mainstream party leadership. Now they are done, but unlike Mike Pence, who as an individual can simply suspend his campaign and get on with his life, the party machine itself will make no such choice. For it makes no difference how strongly they stand against the Trump cult now; having already granted Trump himself legitimacy and acceptance as their own leader and the country’s Republican president, they have no escape. They will continue to lose to his populism and demagoguery, even after he is gone, because they have allowed that anti-republican and increasingly unhinged, authoritarian vision to become the party’s mainstream.

They can, if they finally wish to do so, reject and rescind their foolish and self-destructive choice. But they cannot escape the consequences of that choice, having made it and stuck to it for so long, with such broad and electorally corruptive results. They have no one but themselves to blame. It looks good on them. I am happy that Mike Pence had the guts to stand on principle at last, even against a mob, operating at the direction and to the delight of his boss, chanting for his execution right there in the same building. But he did make his bed, as did the entire Republican Party. He is accepting the necessity of sleeping in it now. Will the rest of them? Not, I suspect, for quite a while yet. In the meantime, the red shame of allowing even the likelihood of yet a third Trump candidacy under their party’s banner looks good on them.

Told you so.

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