As the featured keynoter for the third night of the Republican National Convention, Mike Pence is getting the traditional spotlight accorded to the heir apparent, though plenty of other 2024 possibilities have already spoken or have yet to speak. Throughout his tenure as the vice-president to a president famed for a bottomless appetite for flattery and paranoia about disloyalty, Pence has understandably chosen to serve as Sycophant-in-Chief, forever extolling the Sun King’s strength and brilliance (most famously via tributes to Trump’s “broad shoulders”). As the Pence-watchers Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner noted in 2018, the veep’s obsequiousness can become just too much for some observers:
[T]he intensity of Pence’s fawning has led George Will to describe him as “America’s most repulsive figure.” The vice president reached the nadir of his toady ways at the end of last year when he spent three minutes extolling Trump at a Cabinet meeting and managed to work in one note of praise every 12 seconds.
All this makes you wonder how exactly Pence is going to manage to stand out at a convention in which hymns of praise for POTUS have already filled the air regularly? I mean, how can he compete with Eric Trump’s heartfelt “Love you daddy!” plea for attention (right out of the HBO series Succession) on night two?
Perhaps one key to Pence’s mission is to recall that he has a unique role in the administration on one issue where generalized flattery of Trump is not quite enough: management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first two days of the convention have made it plain that promotion of two particular lies are central to the event’s strategic purpose. The first is that Joe Biden wants to defund police and turn over America’s white suburbs to Black rioters. But the second, perhaps even more important, is to rewrite the history of Trump’s disastrous engagement with COVID-19. As chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and its most visible symbol in the early days of the pandemic, Pence can — and really must — reinforce the claim that the administration saved millions of lives with its speedy and effective response. The convention has already spent considerable time promoting that fairy tale, as Slate’s William Saletan notes:
Convention speakers and videos extolled Trump’s response to the virus as “swift” and “quick.” One speaker, a nurse, claimed that the president “made rapid policy changes” because he “recognized the threat this virus presented for all American early on.” Another speaker, a doctor, said Trump’s “decisive leadership led to a rapid and efficient response.” That’s all nonsense. A thorough review of the record shows that Trump dragged his feet, downplayed the threat, and slowed every element of the government’s response.
Trump has lied about the virus all along. He’s still lying. “We just have to make this China virus go away. And it’s happening,” he declared in a convention video, even as thousands of Americans continue to die. But the president is no longer alone in his fictional universe. He’s backed by a party that glorifies him with fabrications: that he stood up to North Korea, that his impeachment was “fake,” and that he “ended once and for all the policy of incarceration of Black people.” The tale of his struggle against the virus is just another heroic myth.
As Trump’s copilot in his perilous flight of epidemiological folly, Pence can be expected to breathlessly testify to the president’s calm and courageous course of action on COVID-19.
In doing so, will Pence be damaging his long-term credibility? Quite possibly, though his conservative Evangelical friends who view him as their man in the White House have devised ways for the veep to cross his fingers behind his back whenever he’s called upon to bear false witness on behalf of his self-aggrandizing boss. One theory is that he is bound by the biblical principle of “servant leadership” to tug his forelock in the presence of his demanding superior. Another more elaborate theory casts him in the role of the Hebrew scriptural figure Daniel, hiding his Judaism in order to serve the interests of God’s people in the court of the pagan King Nebuchadnezzar. Either way, if lying for Trump is the only way to keep Pence’s feet on the path to his own presidency, as some of his fans (and perhaps the veep himself) believe is his divinely established destiny, then so be it.