Somewhere under the cornfields and backyard hoop courts of Indiana is a small black box holding the conscience of Vice President Mike Pence. He buried it four years ago, when a tape emerged of Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women.
Pence and his wife, Karen, whom he reportedly calls “Mother,” had rushed home to pray during the biggest campaign crisis of 2016. Ever since an evangelical conversion in college, Pence had been a beacon of Hoosier holiness, using his talk radio show and his political perch to preach biblical values in the public sphere.
But, of course, he buried them in a heartland moment. And by 2017, Pence would have this to say about Trump to religious conservatives: “This is somebody who shares our views, shares our values, shares our beliefs.”
As we saw in Wednesday night’s debate, Pence is not just the great enabler of Trump’s awfulness, but the man who puts a godly sheen on it. In that sense, he’s more dangerous, and arguably more evil, than Trump.
You have to think that he knows better, that he knows the man he serves is rotten to the core. But his sycophancy is not all connivance and cunning. No — he’s simply playing his role in God’s plan.
It’s taking potshots at a three-legged moose to note that if God planned to put kids in cages, to destroy much of creation with wildfire and flooding, to send more than 210,000 Americans to an early grave from a pandemic, such a plan would call for some dissent with the master architect.
Not from Pence. In the earthly realm, nobody expects the vice president to stand up to his president. Nor, even, to not do his bidding in the dark arts of Trumpism. But it’s putting a moral — and to Pence, religious — gloss on this American nightmare that makes his deep complicity so chilling.
His task Wednesday was to lie and dodge with civility and aw-shucks earnestness. With his flat Midwestern accent and his silver-haired gladhandedness, Pence is the silk to Trump’s sandpaper. He has the mien of a man trying to sell you dog food laced with Ambien. By the grace of God, both you and your pet will sleep soundly!
Trump is bulldozer blunt about violating norms, decency and the truth. He may not honor election results if they don’t go his way. He wants to put his political rivals in jail. Household disinfectants are good for COVID-19. Pence is the one to say, Gosh and gee willikers, he doesn’t really mean this stuff. He’s cleanup on the aisle of atrocities at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Indiana gave us Kurt Vonnegut and David Letterman and was a cradle for early African American jazz recordings. But for a time in the 1920s, no state had more members of the Ku Klux Klan than Indiana — nearly 1 in 3 native-born white males. And this uniquely American domestic terror group was soaked in the rituals and piety of rural conservative values.
Pence doesn’t seem like a hater or a race-baiter, but he certainly makes his boss, who is one, more palatable to those who profess to live by godliness. When Trump gave the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville a pass, Pence was quick to the rescue, saying that under Trump, “We’re going to continue to see more unity in America.”
When the world was appalled at the cruelty of family separation at the border, Pence paid a visit, and said nothing to see here, because “We spoke to cheerful children who were watching television, having snacks.”
And just before the pandemic took a huge swing for the worse, Pence penned an essay in The Wall Street Journal in June saying no second wave was coming, because “the progress we’ve made is remarkable” and was “a cause for celebration.”
Since then, another 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. And a White House that refused to follow the basic medical advice expected of every other American has produced more new cases of the coronavirus over the last week than entire countries in that same period.
Pence, as head of the White House pandemic task force, should be crawling under a rock in shame. Instead, he’s all bromides and excuses. That “super spreader” event in the Rose Garden, with all the hugs and only a handful of people wearing masks? Well, it was outdoors, Pence said. Tell that to the wedding planners now going under because they couldn’t have their own special rules.
On health care, perhaps the biggest of the Big Lies of Trumpism, Pence said, “President Trump and I have a plan.” In fact, they have never unveiled a plan and are currently in court trying to dismantle “Obamacare” and its protections for preexisting conditions. As with the pandemic, this is no mere policy difference, but blatant disregard for human life by an administration that professes to be “pro-life.”
As important as it will be in the coming months to purge the country of Trump’s dehumanizing legacy — the hatred of “others,” the normalizing of lying, the rejection of science and reality — it will be equally important to confront the enablers and collaborators.
And when historians go looking for answers as to how this country could go so bad so quickly, they will find all they need in the words of the 45th president’s chief enabler and collaborator.
Timothy Egan, winner of The National Book Award for “The Worst Hard Time,” is a Seattle-based opinion writer for The New York Times.