In an earlier Salon piece, I suggested that if the 2016 Republican presidential race were a horror movie in which Donald Trump is the maniac armed with a chainsaw, Mike Pence is the gentleman serial killer. The vice presidential debate on Tuesday reaffirmed my conclusion.
During his 90-minute contest with Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, Pence lied with effortless grace and efficiency all the while maintaining a straight face and acting offended at being confronted with facts.
Pence lied about Trump’s support for the second Iraq war, admiration of dictators such as Vladimir Putin, lack of transparency about his taxes and belief that more countries — not fewer — should have nuclear weapons. And in a moment of gross delusion and fantasist fable telling and mendacity, Pence even went so far as to suggest that it was Hillary Clinton and not Donald Trump (a man who calls women “pigs”, believes that Mexicans and Hispanics are rapists, says that black people’s lives are a living hell, and wants to ban all Muslims from the United States because they are “terrorists”) who was waging an “insult-driven” campaign.
As Jamelle Bouie at Slate has so sharply pointed out, Tuesday night’s debate was Mike Pence’s attempt to gaslight an entire nation when he lost the debate on matters of political fact and substance but delivered a masterfully stylish performance. Pence “won” only because he was able to lie so effortlessly and consistently.
During Pence’s 90-minute assault on reality and the truth, the moderator, Elaine Quijano, asked several questions about police brutality and “race relations.”
The responses by Pence and Kaine embodied the empty rhetoric, vagueness, dishonesty and emphasis on white folks’ hurt feelings, instead of life and death matters for people of color, which typifies so much of America’s tedious and seemingly unending “national conversation” on race in the age of Obama.
For example, the concept known as “implicit bias” was referenced by Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine. Implicit bias is not a mere opinion but rather a well-documented psychological phenomenon whereby individuals internalize, and to varying degrees, reproduce the prejudiced values, attitudes and beliefs of their society. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton, Kaine and other Democratic and progressive politicians have made “implicit bias” a new talking point and buzzword instead of thoroughly explaining the science and evidence behind it.
Pence predictably deflected to the reverse racism script and summoned up hurt feelings about how white people and police are not all “bigots.” His comments are part of a larger social dynamic whereby white folks’ hurt feelings about being called racist are somehow worse than the actual harm done to people of color by racism. This is ethically and morally perverse. It is also the new normal in the United States.
Both Kaine and Pence participated in the cultlike worship of America’s police. Afraid to be perceived as “soft on crime,” Kaine recited obligatory statements such as “we put a lot on police shoulders” and “criminal justice is about respecting the law.”
Pence was less restrained and cited the endorsement of the extremely right-wing organization the Fraternal Order of Police as proof of his and Trump’s “law and order” bona fides.
Both candidates ignored how America’s police are not victims and constitute a class of public employees with the power to kill and who often do so against innocent people of color with near impunity. Moreover, neither Pence nor Kaine dared to tell the truth that America’s police do not have an especially dangerous job and are not necessarily “heroes” because they chose a profession that requires them to wear a uniform and carry a gun.
And contrary to Pence’s assertion, social scientists and other researchers have repeatedly shown that America’s police do, in fact, exhibit implicit bias in their unfair and racist treatment of black and brown people.
But in their answers to Quijano’s question, there was a moment that should give even more pause to those Americans who believe in equality and fundamental fairness under the law and who are concerned about how a Trump administration would violate those values.
When asked about his fellow Republican Tim Scott and how the latter has been repeatedly harassed by police because he is African-American, Pence’s response was:
"Well, I have the deepest respect for Senator Scott and he's a close friend. What I would say is we need to adopt criminal justice reform nationally. I signed criminal justice reform in the state of Indiana, Senator, and we're very proud of it. I worked when I was in Congress on a second-chance act.
We have got to do a better job recognizing and correcting the errors in the system that do reflect an institutional bias in criminal justice, but what Donald Trump and I are saying is let's not have the reflex of assuming the worst of men and women in law enforcement."
"Law enforcement in this country is a force for good. They are the — they truly are people that put their lives on the line every single day. But I would, I would suggest to you, what we need to do is assert a stronger leadership at the national level to support law enforcement. You just heard Senator Kaine reject stop and frisk. Well, I would suggest to you that the families that live in our inner cities that are besieged by crime."
This type of response is in keeping with Pence’s earlier statements at an event in Colorado that police are “the best of us” and "We ought to set aside this talk, this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias." Pence also believes that discussing racial bias by police is the "rhetoric of division."
Again, the facts are not kind. Stop and frisk policies are an ineffective policing strategy. Stop and frisk is racist and classist in practice, theory and application. Stop and frisk undermines the relationship between communities of color and police.
Pence and Trump are racial authoritarians: they want to create a gestapo force to deport “illegal aliens,” violate the constitutional rights of Muslims and fashion a Terrordome for black and brown people who live in America’s inner cities.
Ultimately, Pence and Trump will not stop police brutality against black Americans and other people of color because they — and their white voters — do not believe that equal protection under the law should exist on both sides of the color line.
Pence’s insensitivity to justice and fairness to black Americans extends beyond his comments in Tuesday night’s debate. In his role as governor of Indiana, Pence is refusing to pardon Keith Cooper, who was convicted of murder almost 20 years ago but was wrongfully put away and has since been proven innocent — and who is, conspicuosly enough, black.
As Esquire’s Charles H. Pierce has suggested, “This is not conservative. This is not Christian. But making Cooper go through another trial when you know he's innocent and because it will fob an easy decision off on your successor is sure as hell Republican. Mike Pence is demonstrably both cruel and cowardly. He's perfect.”
Comedians have joked that Pence looks like the character Cotton Hill from Mike Judge’s animated cartoon series "King of the Hill." Judge’s goal with the show was to depict the day-to-day life and misadventures of Cotton's son, a Texan named Hank Hill, who happened to be a Republican. Hank Hill was a good man, reasonable, sensible and someone who maintained his core beliefs while negotiating an increasingly diverse and multicultural world. In an era of extreme political polarization "King of the Hill" looks like one of the last bastions of bipartisanship.
Decent people like Hank Hill would not support Trump or his vice presidential candidate Pence. Trump’s Republican Party is centered on catering to the wishes and wants of sexists, racists, nativists and bigots. This is the “basket of deplorables” that Hillary Clinton so accurately described several weeks ago.
Trump’s domination of the Republican Party is the proof of concept for how white identity politics and overt white supremacy can now be publicly embraced by conservatives. Pence will be the production model of this brand of reactionary far-right-wing politics going forward to the 2020 presidential election.