Whose Trump is it anyway?August 27, 2020
America will be introduced tonight to a man they’re not familiar with — the Donald Trump of Mike Pence’s imagination.
More than anyone else in today’s Republican Party, the vice president has mastered the ability to describe his boss in ways that both flatter him and defy realities apparent to anyone who has watched or listened to the president himself.
If skeptics were furious last night upon hearing first lady Melania Trump observe that, “Total honesty is what we as citizens deserve” — which collides with her husband’s long record of distortions and outright lies — then Pence’s speech could very well give them a nervous breakdown.
From the moment he joined the ticket in 2016, Pence has sought to sand off Trump’s rough edges and add shine to his partner’s unvarnished statements. What began as an exercise in translation, however, quickly morphed into a routine of misrepresentation. When Pence spoke at the 2016 convention, and when he represented the ticket during the vice presidential debate that year, he could be mistaken for believing his running mate was Jeb Bush or John Kasich. Pence didn’t just defend Trump from controversy; he often furrowed his brow in confused disbelief, carrying on as if the controversy had never happened, speaking of his running mate as a man who could never be characterized as the sort of demagogue he was made out to be.
Make no mistake: This is a role Pence is playing. The vice president knows full well how Trump has inflamed racist and xenophobic instincts on the right because, back in 2015, he called Trump’s proposed Muslim ban “offensive and unconstitutional.” He knows exactly how crude and misogynistic the president can be because, after the “Access Hollywood“ tape dropped in October 2016, Pence went into a bunker and contemplated quitting the campaign.
That Pence personally knows Trump‘s innumerable flaws but professionally describes him as flawless illuminates not only Pence’s loyalty to Trump but Trump’s loyalty to Pence. For all the breathless intra-party speculation about the president replacing his No. 2 in dramatic fashion, perhaps elevating Nikki Haley to the ticket, that was never going to happen, and for one simple reason: Trump sees Pence as his most reliable, most steadfast surrogate, someone who puts on a positive face no matter how negative the circumstances.
Pence will reward that faith tonight by doing what he does best: paying homage to the valiant, faultless president most Americans have never heard of.
Here’s what else I’m watching:
Women in power
The lineup is dominated by female voices: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, among others.
If portions of Tuesday’s programming — the pardon of a black ex-convict, the naturalization ceremony of five people of color — were meant to combat the narrative of Trump being a racist, then the heavy presence of conservative women on Wednesday suggests an effort to neutralize allegations of presidential sexism and misogyny.
At the halfway point, this convention hasn’t featured a whole lot of speeches from elected officials. What’s particularly notable is that Republicans have made scarce efforts to promote their up-and-coming crop of future party leaders. That will change Wednesday night.
A host of 40-and-under Republican officeholders will take the stage on night three, including Stefanik, Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, New York Rep. Lee Zeldin. Also featured will be 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, the Republican nominee for Congress in North Carolina’s 11th District.
How these and other young Republicans perform this week will give a good window into the quality of the party’s farm system, which will be tested in the post-Trump era.
The most consequential speech of the week, politically speaking, won’t be given by Donald Trump. It will be given by Mike Pence.
The president is a known commodity; nothing he says or does during his turn on center-stage tomorrow will change perceptions of him. Pence, on the other hand, remains a layered and somewhat mysterious character. He is best known for smiling and nodding (and smiling and nodding some more), paying dependable tribute, often in comically exaggerated terms, to his boss. We know that Pence has Trump’s back in supporting his every decision. But we also know that prior to becoming vice president, Pence held very different stances on many relevant issues. Which prompts the question: At what point, if ever, will Pence shed the role of supporting actor and emerge as his own leading man?
Don’t look for that transformation tonight — at least, not with any explicit show of breaking from Trump. Pence knows better than to nakedly upstage the boss. That said, there are subtle ways in which the VP can begin to articulate his own vision not just for America but for the Republican Party, knowing that he will likely begin the 2024 GOP primary in the pole position. The degree to which Pence sells a worldview broader than that which the MAGA coalition has spent four years embracing will give a good indication of his eagerness to escape Trump’s shadow.