The sad incurious case of Mike Pence: Why he's a perfect fit for Donald Trump

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is the perfect hype man for Donald Trump's rolling circus

Published July 14, 2016 5:38PM (EDT)

Mike Pence   (AP/Darron Cummings)
Mike Pence (AP/Darron Cummings)

The Donald Trump veepstakes reached a fever pitch on Wednesday. Thanks to mechanical issues with his private jet, Trump was stuck in Indianapolis for the day. The result was a frenzy, as would-be VP's boarded planes and scurried to Indiana for a few minutes of audition time before Trump makes his official announcement Friday morning.

A lowly pool has been reduced to four B-list candidates: Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, and Jeff Sessions, three of whom found their way to Indianapolis on Wednesday (Christie reportedly spoke with Trump over the phone). You could make a case for all four. As I wrote last week, both Newt and Christie are plagued by scandals (much like Trump) and have bottomed out as politicians. Neither has much to lose at this point, which makes joining Trump's dumpster fire campaign less risky. Sessions is a largely unknown conservative senator from Alabama. An anti-immigration culture warrior, he was among the first Republicans to publicly endorse Trump. But he's the obvious outsider here. Of the final four, Sessions seems least likely to get the nod.

Although it's still unofficial, The Washington Post is reporting that Pence is the pick. If true, that makes the most sense for Trump, and here's why.

First, we have to remember that Trump's campaign is essentially a TV production. As such, he needs a hype man, someone who can pump propaganda without overshadowing the star of the show. Newt is shameless enough to do this, but his penchant for pomposity will invariably threaten Trump. Newt is too impressed with Newt to take a backseat to anyone. Christie, for all his faults, is a very gifted politician. But he's also loud and aggressive and his personality may eclipse Trump's in the course of a campaign. The Republican nominee wants an “attack dog,” but not someone who can upstage him. Both Gingrich and Christie, in their own ways, are capable of this.

Pence, however, appears quite comfortable playing second fiddle, and he clearly wants the job. He's prostrated himself before Trump, lobbying about as hard as any candidate I've seen. And his Twitter feed is littered with over-the-top pleas. “We will not rest until we elect @realDonaldTrump as the next President of the United States,” reads one tweet. “Donald Trump knows that the boundless potential of the American People awaits,” another one says. “Donald Trump knows that we can make America great again,” yet another says. This is what a grown man groveling for attention - and a job - looks like.

Normally, VP nominees feign indifference, dismissing inquiries or referring reporters to the presidential candidates. The idea is to express interest without careening into desperation. But this is not how Pence rolls. Behold his introduction speech for the Republican nominee earlier this week at a rally in Westfield, IN. Here we see the Platonic form of the political hype man. His first sentence set the tone: “My fellow Hoosiers, we are 119 days away from a great victory in the United States of America when Indiana becomes the first state on the board to make Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States of America.” Right out of the gate, Pence lavished praise on Trump, making it all about him.

But then he donned his bootlicker cape and went full ham: “You know, Donald Trump understands the frustrations and the hopes of the American people like no other American leader in my lifetime since Ronald Reagan...Donald Trump gets it. Donald Trump hears the voice of the American people. He's been successful on Wall Street but he's never turned his back on Main Street. He's never forgotten or forsaken the people who work with their hands, who grow the good, build our roads and bridges, tend to our sick, teach our kids.”

This would be pathetic if it wasn't so patently absurd.

If Pence believes Trump is the greatest leader since Reagan, why did he endorse Ted Cruz for president 10 weeks ago? Trump “never turned his back on Main Street”? We know Trump loves “the poorly educated,” but I doubt that's what Pence means by “Main Street.” We know Trump has outsourced much of his labor in order to cut costs and avoid paying American workers a livable wage. Was that a boon for “Main Street?” We know that Trump inherited $40 million dollars from his father and has now convinced hordes of working-class whites that he feels their pain and knows their struggle. Perhaps that's what Pence is referencing here.

It's probably best not to analyze Pence's remarks too closely. They're not supposed to make sense. This was a performance, and Pence, a former talk radio host, knows how to perform. The goal was to show Trump how effectively he can wag the pom poms. On that score, he succeeded.

There's another, perhaps more obvious reason why Pence wants this job: He might lose his. After his disastrous attempt to impose the anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Restoraction Act on Indianans in 2015, Pence's popularity has plummeted. Even the business community turned against him. According to a May poll, his approval rating is down to 40 percent, with only 60 percent of Republicans supporting his re-election. The Indiana GOP would be happy to dispense with Pence and make way for a more attractive candidate.

In any event, a man this shameless in his pursuit of the nomination suits Trump well. Trump likes lackeys, and he appears to have found one in Pence. And because he's staring down defeat in his home state, a VP nomination is an escape hatch for the Indiana governor, a chance to skirt failure and boost his national brand. Pence is also a safe pick with less baggage than Newt and Christie and a fair amount of experience on Capitol Hill. In addition to bowing to Trump, he'll appeal to social conservatives and bring message discipline to a campaign without any.

So Pence might not be the sexiest pick for Trump, but he's the safest. And considering the paucity of respectable candidates willing to stand on a stage with Trump, this is as good as it gets.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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