Mike Pence’s Trumpism With a Human Face

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During the Longwood debate, Mike Pence hinted at a kinder, gentler version of Trump’s white-identity message.Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The consensus take on Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence has always been that he represents a bridge between the Trump campaign and a more ideologically rigorous and politically conventional pre-Trump conservative tradition. Much of what he did in the vice-presidential debate will reinforce that impression. He delivered a textbook conservative disquisition on deregulation and lower taxes being the key to reviving the economy. Because neither the moderator nor Tim Kaine so much as mentioned Trump’s promises to abrogate or renegotiate a long series of trade deals that Pence has supported, that area of conflict between Trumpism and conservatism was left unexamined.

Something similar happened on foreign policy, where Pence articulated an attitude toward Russia, Syria, and NATO that must have reassured neoconservatives that their claim to the GOP was not totally lost. (Both Kaine and the moderator brought up Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin and his hostility to NATO as currently constituted, but did not get into the mogul’s broader Jacksonian foreign-policy views.)

But as much as he tried to keep the debate away from his running mate, it’s not true that Pence ignored Trump’s distinctive messaging entirely. As Dara Lind argued at Vox today, you can make a pretty good case that the Hoosier governor embraced Trumpism even as he detached its themes from the Big Man’s personal flourishes.

When Pence talked about the issues that Trump has made his bread and butter — immigration, terrorism, race — he talked about them through Trump’s lens and in Trump’s terms. If you don’t have borders you don’t have a country. Islamic radicalization in Europe is proof that we shouldn’t allow Syrian refugees into the US. The real problem with race relations in America is bias against police officers.

In other words, the absence of Trump’s often brutal language and crude dog whistles to racists does not necessarily mean Pence represents pre-Trump conservatism, much less some post-Trump, post-racial moderation. It’s more like Trumpism with a human face, to borrow the late Cold War term for Eurocommunism.

[Pence] didn’t articulate an “alt-right” conservatism. But he didn’t articulate a pre-Trump conservatism — the conservatism of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, a “post-racial” conservatism that dismisses any discussion of racial difference — either. He was identifying the same problems as Trump — threats from abroad and within — and the same priorities in fixing them. That’s a big shift from the doctrinaire conservatism of the last decade or two, with its focus on fiscal issues and sexual morality.

If Trump and Pence lose by a respectably narrow margin, which is the most likely outcome at the moment, the hope of #NeverTrumpers that the whole Trump phenomenon will go away like a bad dream is probably naïve. Maybe a kinder, gentler Trumpism, with its appeal to white-identity concerns and fears — a “law and order” conservatism that encourages profiling of suspect populations in immigration, anti-terrorism, and policing strategies — has a serious future within the GOP. That could be in the form of Mike Pence, or it could be through appropriation of Trump’s themes by other ambitious pols.

If Trump wins, of course, all bets are off.