Should Mike Pence become president, the Left will surely lead us in a national chorus of “Whew! Back to normal.” Correct? After all, our friends in the Democratic party have been saying for many months that President Trump is not normal, that he is uniquely unfit for office, that his brand of mendaciousness, volatility, poor character, and immaturity have no precedent in the Oval Office, that he is a Nazi sympathizer and even a fascist, that he is an extremist who exists outside the bounds of ordinary political disagreement.
Mike Pence, on the other hand, is so normal that one of the things that the late-night comics mock him for is being too normal. If the Resistance or Trump’s own folly actually succeeds in separating Trump from his current office, then the Left will sing hosannas to the Pencian restoration of the agreed boundaries of disputation. The political temperature will recede from scalding to balmy. The volume dial will spin sharply in a counterclockwise direction. Hysterical shrieking will be replaced by reasoned conversational tones.
Right? Of course not.
If Trump leaves office prematurely for any reason, President Pence will immediately be denounced as far worse. In fact, it would happen before he even took office. In fact it’s already happening. That this is true is testament to the fundamentally unprincipled nature of the Left. Whatever looks like a winning strategy on Thursday is what matters, even if it nullifies everything you said you believed on Monday.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen did some preliminary construction work on what will become the new party line if it appears Pence is likely to replace Trump in office. In his absurd May 15 take — “Trump doesn’t embody what’s wrong with Washington. Pence does.” — Cohen blasts Pence for being a “bobblehead” who nods too much when standing near Trump at press conferences, for publicly stating things that Trump told him, and for having failed to quit being Trump’s running mate while Trump said rude things. In other words, Pence is worse than Trump for being in Trump’s proximity while Trump misbehaves. By that standard every hack and flack who went on TV to defend Bill Clinton in 1998 is worse than Clinton, including the person who blamed the true reports about his misconduct on the lies of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
John Oliver, the spirit animal of so much left-wing punditry, said on his post-election show that “Trump is not normal. . . . He’s a human, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’” He added, “But that is when you remember Mike f***ing Pence, who might be even worse — because he looks like he’s from the 1950s, but he thinks like he’s from the 1650s.” To Oliver, Trump is a “racist” “Klan-backed, misogynist Internet troll,” but Pence might be worse because he looks funny — or rather, because he doesn’t look funny.
I have long concurred with many of the points the Left makes about Trump, and some of those points are becoming more salient by the day. He really does seem frighteningly erratic, unprepared, sloppy. It’s hard to believe he would provide reassuring leadership in the event of a foreign-policy crisis. And it’s possible he committed obstruction of justice with respect to James Comey’s investigation of Michael Flynn.
If Trump is a shock to the system, Pence is a cup of chamomile tea.
But as unprecedented as Trump is, Pence is just as precedented. As unheard-of as Trump’s communication habits are, Pence’s are equally heard-of. If Trump is a shock to the system, Pence is a cup of chamomile tea. If “This is not normal” is your mantra, you could hardly hope for a more normal Republican than Mike Pence.
“Normal Republican,” though, the thing the Left has openly wished for all these months, reverts to being an oxymoron should Pence come within sight of the presidency. His promotion would make progressives reach for the old playbook: Attack as a dangerous theocrat who hates women, minorities, and gays. No matter that the evidence for any of this is thin (unlike, say, the evidence for Trump’s volatility or unfitness). Opposition to abortion, or even opposition to government funds being directed to the nation’s leading abortion provider, will be recast as posing a supreme danger to “women’s health.” Disagreeing that we need a federal bathroom policy will be recast as “hate.” It was completely unacceptable even to “normalize” the man who earned 306 electoral votes on November 8. But Pence will be called even more abnormal because he deflects questions about evolution as beyond his pay grade.
Because Pence is a man of faith, the ludicrous attempt to tie the secular, non-moralizing Trump to the neo-Puritan misogynist dystopia imagined in the new TV series The Handmaid’s Tale will be recharged, only this time at 10,000 volts. Pence will be labeled an extremist for being part of the American Christian majority. We’ll be told that Pence’s misogyny is even more outlandish than Trump’s because he declines to have boozy one-on-one dinners with women other than his wife. We’ll hear lies about how Pence wants to electrocute gays to convert them to heterosexuality, or at very least that Pence hates gay Americans.
Democrats can’t have it both ways: It can’t be that the garden-variety conservatism epitomized by Pence is worse than Trumpism, and that Trump is a unique threat to the country because he is outside the mainstream. It can’t be the case both that Trump is uniquely unfit for high office and that Pence, with 16 successful years in government inside as well as outside the Beltway, as both Washington legislator and chief executive of Indiana, is even more unfit for office. It can’t be the case that a man who walks in on half-naked teenage beauty-pageant contestants while they’re changing is as poor a role model as a man who is scrupulously correct and sober toward women.
It can’t be the case that Trump is uniquely bad because he isn’t an ordinary Republican, yet Pence is even worse because he is.