New Pence Who Dis
Jokes about Trump are like a thin tarp spread over a boiling vat of acid. Politicians, pundits, and private citizens routinely throw on that tarp to assuage their uneasiness about the increasingly divisive trends in American politics. But how should we react when the Trump campaign seems to bring the boil down to a simmer by choosing a mild-mannered running mate—a man who for the most part inspires the reaction, “Who?” Is this newest character outrageous enough for witty commentators to pick apart, or will he prove innocuous and even inconsequential?
Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, whose selection was leaked to the media last Thursday and formally announced Saturday morning in Manhattan, is set to be an unexpected force despite having been off the radar until now. Sure, his embodiment of small-town values and self-characterization as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order” suggests a profile that might not be at home in Trump’s high-octane bid. Sure, his past disapproval of a ban on Muslims and his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are critical points of departure from Trump that may suggest discord within the campaign. And sure, his 12-year record as a Congressman was exceptionally undistinguished, and the 2015 religious freedom bill he signed as governor was widely derided as an affront to gay rights. It might seem that Pence lacks the punch to be an impactful VP candidate, and Trump’s reported last-minute vacillation on choosing him certainly doesn’t help.
Nevertheless, it is precisely his reputation as a no-gimmicks, old-school Republican that makes him a quietly valuable asset to the Trump campaign. Choosing running mates is about taking advantage of contrasts to capture swaths of voters that aren’t quite convinced by the main man (few examples are less subtle than McCain and Palin). In Trump’s case, contrast meant picking a career politician who speaks deliberately, an establishment anachronism. Pence, who spent his time in the House (2001-2013) fighting big government long after most Republicans had given up trying, once called himself “a frozen man…a minuteman who showed up ten years too late.” And that profile is at once complementary and compatible— complementary because his by-the-book conservatism may appease GOP officials who fret about Trump’s wild policy swings, and compatible because many Trump supporters are frozen men, pining for (white) America’s good old days.
Are policy disagreements between the two even worth discussing? Here lies the hypocrisy: even though Pence brings comfort to establishment voters, he will most likely fail to sway Trump from his simplistic policies. It will be Pence who quickly and unconditionally conforms to Trump, not the other way around. On a recent Hannity interview, for example, Pence began to soften his opposition to a Muslim ban. Whatever long-awaited values promised by Pence’s arrival won’t be the ones that shine through in the end.
If nothing else, the selection Pence has offered critics a window into the messy mechanics of the Trump campaign. As for jokes, few will be made about the governor: Chris Christie will pick up the ridicule instead, just as he had reportedly picked up Trump’s fast food as his manservant. The Trump campaign, strangely, is now in the presence of a serious and proper man. We can lift the tarp of comedy and stare straight into a vat that, despite having cooled down a bit, might have become even more pungent.