When Donald Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate in July 2016, there was a strong sense that the Indiana governor could serve as his new boss’s ambassador to the more conventional conservatives whose party Trump had taken by storm. Pence had been a leading member of the right wing of the House Republican caucus for years. He was especially close to the Christian right, an important segment of the party that wasn’t initially keen on the great orange heathen, with his crude ways and history of ideological heterodoxy. Pence’s approach was cool while Trump’s was bubbling hot. And in the wake of either victory or (as seemed more likely in the summer of 2016) defeat, the stolid Hoosier looked like an ideal bridge between Trumpists and conservatives who were either resisting the new tribal chief or going along grudgingly.
Now, nearly two years later, Pence is ostensibly in a much stronger position, as conservatives have become Trump’s base of support in the electorate and the Congress. The veep still has an indispensable function as the central figure in the conservative Evangelical supposition that Trump is surrounded by genuine men and women of faith who will continue to shine a light unto his path and perhaps even bring the self-absorbed worshiper of the golden calf of money and power to Jesus.
But in a White House known for extreme turbulence and the constant ebb and flow of POTUS’ affections, fears, and moods, Pence has chosen to maintain his status via a degree of obsequiousness that is embarrassing even to watch. As Jonathan Chait observed last year, the vice-president has made a particularly cringeworthy habit of publicly admiring Trump’s “broad-shouldered” leadership traits. Becoming Chief Toady may have solidified Pence’s position as putative successor to Trump as leader of the GOP and of MAGA country. But it is beginning to destroy the subtle separation of the party from Trump and Trumpism that made him especially useful to Trump-o-skeptic conservatives.
That is made plain by a remarkable column from the man who in the days before Hannity and Breitbart News was often regarded as the high priest of conservative punditry, George Will. One of the few #NeverTrump figures on the right who has neither wavered nor flagged in his disdain for the 45th president, Will has become so disgusted with Pence’s behavior that he is deeming him to be worse than Trump himself. He has, says Will, now replaced Trump as “America’s most repulsive public figure.”
Last June, a Trump Cabinet meeting featured testimonials offered to Dear Leader by his forelock-tugging colleagues. His chief of staff, Reince Priebus, caught the spirit of the worship service by thanking Trump for the “blessing” of being allowed to serve him. The hosannas poured forthfrom around the table, unredeemed by even a scintilla of insincerity…. The vice president chimed in but saved his best riff for a December Cabinet meeting when, as The Post’s Aaron Blake calculated, Pence praised Trump once every 12 seconds for three minutes.
What seems to have provoked Will’s fury more than all this routine of over-the-top brown-nosing was Pence’s decision during an Arizona appearance to give a big shout-out to convicted-and-pardoned felon Joe Arpaio, the great champion of racial profiling and a big buddy of Trump’s:
Pence, oozing unctuousness from every pore, called Arpaio “another favorite,” professed himself “honored” by Arpaio’s presence, and praised him as “a tireless champion of . . . the rule of law.” Arpaio, a grandstanding, camera-chasing bully and darling of the thuggish right, is also a criminal, convicted of contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order to desist from certain illegal law enforcement practices. Pence’s performance occurred eight miles from the home of Sen. John McCain, who could teach Pence — or perhaps not — something about honor.
Arpaio is also running for the Senate, which makes Pence’s praise not just morally offensive but politically significant. But Pence is playing his assigned role as the great symbol of the compete surrender of the Republican Party, and of the conservative movement that is supposed to animate it, to dark forces typified by Arpaio.
And so Will hurls an anathema at the whole pack of them:
Because [Pence’s] is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing …
There will be negligible legislating by the next Congress, so ballots cast this November will be most important as validations or repudiations of the harmonizing voices of Trump, Pence, Arpaio and the like. Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic. Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying.
Now even more than in 2016, when Will never even came close to coming to the aid of his party, the columnist is self-isolated in openly encouraging Democratic votes in November. But his contempt for Pence nonetheless signifies that if the whole Trump political enterprise comes to grief, the vice-president no longer has the reputation for independence that could make him the politician to pick up the pieces. He’s worked very hard to become Trump’s most loyal acolyte. He cannot survive the destruction of his boss’s cult.