Culture

Bunnies and the Art of Total Political War

Television host John Oliver arrives for the TIME 100 Gala in New York, April 21, 2015. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
John Oliver’s trolling of the Pence family explains why conservatives now think gentlemanly behavior is for suckers.

Vice President Mike Pence is a gentleman. In spite of unceasing abuse from political opponents, including the effrontery of a gratuitous lecture from the cast of Hamilton, the veep’s commitment to good manners has never wavered. The same can be said of his 24-year-old daughter Charlotte, even after the administration’s political opponents stooped to using a children’s book — one she had written (which was illustrated by Pence’s wife, Karen) to benefit charities — as an excuse to troll her family and subject them to the scorn of liberal audiences.

That in a nutshell provides the explanation why so many Republicans have stuck with Pence’s boss, President Donald Trump.

Trump’s crude bullying of political opponents, the press, and even allies who are insufficiently obsequious or fail to do his will is unprecedented for an occupant of the Oval Office. No critique or insult aimed at him is too insignificant to be worthy of an immediate and disproportionate response, either on Twitter or in speeches before adoring crowds. Whether you accept his claim that it is merely a case of “counter-punching” or think his behavior to be a display of a juvenile temperament that ought to be beneath someone honored to be walking in the footsteps of Washington and Lincoln, Trump has changed the rules that had generally governed presidents for more than two centuries.

His willingness to act in this manner exasperates his political opponents as well as most of the press. But if you want an explanation for why he not only is still getting away with it but continues to hold on to the approval of the vast majority of Republicans, there is no better explanation than the latest example of the art of total political war as practiced by liberals: the prank being played by HBO’s John Oliver at the expense of the Pence family and their harmless children’s book. Since the Left has no scruples about personal attacks on even the most upstanding figures on the right or their families, showering them with contempt for their religious faith, many conservatives, if not most, now think gentlemanly behavior and civility is for suckers.

Oliver’s decision to prank the Pence family on his Last Week Tonight show brought far more attention to Charlotte and Karen Pence’s kids’ book featuring their pet bunny Marlon Bundo than it ever would have achieved on its own. In the spirit of past paeans to other executive-family pets, the book gives a look at a day in the life of the vice president from the rabbit’s point of view, and proceeds from its sale go to combat human trafficking and promote art therapy.

But Oliver seized on reports about the Pence book for a television segment lambasting Pence’s stance on gay marriage and his religious beliefs. At the end of the piece he promoted a book written by his staff also purporting to be about the rabbit but in which Marlon Bundo is said to be a gay bunny whose marriage to another male is being thwarted by the vice president, who takes the form of a stink bug. In his diatribe against Pence, Oliver failed to note that it was his daughter and wife, not the vice president, who had written the book. Nor did he tell them it was raising money for charity. But he did urge them to buy his book as a way of telling Pence to “go f*** himself.”

The resulting publicity ensured that Oliver’s book, which was available for sale a day before the Pences’, became a best-seller and received glowing articles echoing the liberal line about Republican “homophobia” and heaping scorn on the second family. In response, the Pences kept their cool, refusing to answer in kind Oliver’s lame histrionics and taking some consolation from the fact that the HBO hit job also turned what would have been a quickly forgotten and little-read effort into a best-seller.

But conservatives looked on this as yet another example of the same sneering condescension and vulgar attacks they always get from a popular culture where the Right is always the punchline and never fights back. To those who say that the Pences are fair game for attacks of any kind, the answer must be “yes, but.” All’s fair in politics, but a willingness to attack first or second families and their charitable endeavors to make political points is the sort of thing that is generally in short supply during Democratic administrations, especially during the presidency of Barack Obama.

One could argue that by putting family members on staff, Trump invited attacks on his daughter and son-in-law. But the willingness of the Left to tear into the Pences and their religion illustrates something conservatives have observed for generations with growing frustration. In the pop-culture wars that do so much to set the terms of engagement for political battles, the Right has always been unarmed and outnumbered. Moreover, outside of the fever swamps of the Right where conspiracy theories grow, conservative political leaders have generally behaved like ladies and gentlemen who are too proud to stoop to personal attacks on their opponents.

Of course, liberals generally tell a different story. Their current narrative is that Washington politics was a game played with civility until Newt Gingrich’s revolution, in which conservatives waged a scorched-earth campaign against congressional Democrats and President Bill Clinton. But that gets the narrative backward. Gingrich took over the leadership of House Republicans only because conservatives were convinced that leaders like Bob Michel, the man he replaced to become the head of the GOP caucus, were more interested in playing nicely with Democrats, who had run Congress for 40 years, than in winning.

That John Oliver and Donald Trump are setting the tone for political debate is helping to widen the divide between Right and Left in ways that are making the public square a toxic space.

But as much as Gingrich played rough, he did nothing to alter the Left’s ability to pour scorn on the Right as a result of its stranglehold on Hollywood and television. Moreover, while the Clintons were subjected to personal attacks, the Democrats’ vulnerability there was not so much a function of right-wing viciousness as of a flawed leader who forced them to defend indefensible behavior.

Since then, Republicans have abandoned their embrace of the politics of virtue as being indispensable to democracy — a stance articulated in William Bennett’s admirable The Death of Outrage — in order to perform a similar duty for an even more flawed president in the form of Donald Trump. But the reason for this is more than just a case of situational ethics. It’s because Trump does what no other Republican leader has ever done. He is a one-man Saturday Night Live/Last Week Tonight who is every bit as unsparing of his opponents as the liberals are. While Pence’s stoic demeanor and classy refusal to reply in kind is the way conservatives once imagined they were supposed to behave, Trump’s “nice guys finish last” approach gives them the vicarious pleasure of seeing liberal media personalities and politicians getting a dose of their own medicine.

That John Oliver and Donald Trump are setting the tone for political debate is helping to widen the growing divide between Right and Left in ways that are making the public square a toxic space in which no one is safe from abuse. A general cease-fire would be a good idea, but it is unthinkable in the current climate, in which liberals think that Republicans are authoritarians who deserve no respect. This isn’t healthy for democracy, but if you want to know why the GOP base cheers when Trump goes on a tear, you need look no further than the treatment afforded the Pences and their rabbit book to understand their lack of shame for unpresidential behavior.

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