For just a fleeting moment this past weekend, it looked as if Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence might escape from his decaying orbit around Donald Trump with what is left of his dignity intact.
Talk of Pence's escape came amid the weekend of fallout over the leak of Trump speaking on a hot mic about his treatment of women he finds attractive, in the process revealing an attitude towards the opposite sex so gross and demeaning that even a Neanderthal might say, “Whoa, dude; that’s over the top.” The tape was the breaking point for many Republican officeholders who had long grown weary of the candidate and his smoking ruin of a campaign. Quite a few took advantage of the moment to officially withdraw their support, suggesting Trump should quit the race and Pence should replace him at the top of the ticket.
Had Pence made a statement that, of course, he would not accede to a plan that subverted the will of Republican voters who had made Trump the presidential nominee, he might have tamped down at least that part of the crisis. Instead, having condemned the remarks and saying that he was grateful Trump had “expressed remorse” over his comments, he mostly disappeared.
That left only rumors. Ashley Parker of The New York Times reported that Pence called Trump and told him he was on his own for the next 48 hours. The vice presidential nominee's schedule of upcoming campaign appearances, including flying to Wisconsin to take Trump’s place at a festival with House Speaker Paul Ryan on Saturday, disappeared from the Trump campaign website. When Trump holed up inside his eponymous New York skyscraper to confer with advisers about handling the crisis, Pence was not there, though as a longtime politician he certainly might have had some good advice to offer.
By the time of the debate on Sunday night, rumors were spreading that Pence would quit the ticket on Monday. They were exacerbated when, during the debate, moderator Martha Raddatz mentioned to Trump that his position on what America should do about the Syria crisis differed from that of his vice president pick. Trump fixed her with a stern squint and said, “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree” in a voice so icy you could have played hockey on it.
But minutes after the end of Sunday night's debate — a grotesque spectacle that saw Trump threaten to jail his opponent, all but stamp his feet over what he claimed was moderator bias in Clinton’s favor, and generally act like a toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed — Pence was tweeting out his congratulations to the candidate “on a big debate win.” By Monday he was stumping hard in North Carolina and telling several television interviewers he had never considered quitting the ticket.
Journalist Josh Marshall has coined a term that he uses to describe the Republicans who try to make common cause with the Trump campaign and wind up humiliated and dominated by the alpha male at the top of the ticket: dignity wraiths. They are once ostensibly serious people in the GOP, who having climbed aboard the Trump train, find themselves making ridiculous excuses for the outlandish and offensive behavior that would have forced any other candidate out of a presidential race 100 times over by now. In between, the dignity wraiths have to show fealty to Trump by blatantly lying for him in public forums, mounting absurd attacks on enemies, or through even less dignified displays, like when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was spotted picking up the candidate’s to-go order at McDonald’s.
Mike Pence is the latest dignity wraith to succumb to the Trump campaign. Granted, for purposes of this argument, we have to stipulate that Pence had a well of dignity to begin with and is not just another opportunistic politician who took a flier on running as Trump’s vice president because he was likely to lose — bigly — his re-election race for governor of Indiana.
But Pence is — outwardly at least — a religious man who wears the story of his conversion and his faith on his sleeve. He publicly broke with and chastised Trump on Friday night over the contents of the tape. He kept quiet all weekend instead of coming to the candidate’s defense. And it was not the first time he and Trump have split publicly. In August, Pence endorsed Paul Ryan’s re-election bid while Trump, who has feuded with the House speaker, supported Ryan’s primary challenger.
Pence might have become unpopular in his home state of Indiana over the last couple of years of his governorship, but he is a conventional Republican politician, a former seven-term congressman who was at one time the third-highest ranking member of the GOP caucus in the House of Representatives. For a minute this weekend, it looked as if he might take a different side in the developing civil war within the party by joining those who have denounced their nominee for being a racist, misogynistic jackass.
Instead, perhaps remembering that he will be unemployed in January if Trump loses, Pence has now abased himself by praising Trump for “showing his heart” to America, claiming the candidate is a “big man” who showed “great humility” to 66 million people on Sunday night. It is an interpretation at odds with what voters saw out of Trump at the debate. I fully expect by the end of the week we will see footage of Pence delivering a 20-piece bucket from KFC directly to Trump’s seat on his campaign jet.