The other day, while watching the Vice Presidential Debate, I had a revelation. It was a minor revelation, especially compared to the Presidential Debate that followed it (the storm of abusive and predatory behaviors and words from a racist, sexist, orange-toned human flame war) but it is certainly a relevant one. Before we learned of Trump’s continued belief in the guilt of five innocent people of color, before he outed himself as a sexual predator (and in the process lost the support of his own party), and before he pulled out all the stops to physically intimidate his opponent, there was a fairly boring encounter between two white Christian men, and Mike Pence won that encounter.
Mike Pence: Donald Trump’s steady, sure-footed running mate. Mike Pence: calm, silver-haired, and friendly-looking. Mike Pence, one of the most dangerous and backward thinking figures in American politics. Who doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming. Who signed a bill forcing aborted fetuses to be cremated or buried. Who hates Roe v. Wade. Who hates the LGBTQ community. Who caused a goddamn HIV crisis in the state of Indiana. Who believes in conversion therapy.
I’ve heard many claims that Mike Pence is worse than Trump, claims that have merit. But I have also heard the same claims that he is “presidential.” These claims also have merit. The fact that he can exist within both of these spheres is deeply troubling, and that speaks to something that has been clear for everyone to see: The 21st-century Republican Party is the most radical, reactionary mainstream political movement in living memory.
I’m welcome to face any evidence to the contrary, but as early as Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination, the rhetoric that was once fringe—the claims of “taking our country back,” accusing the left of holding it hostage, the cries of revolution, misrepresentations of history—oozed its way into actual political discourse. Let’s not forget the 2010 election, when the Republican congress became an obstructionist machine. Looking at their platform, which involves gutting Planned Parenthood because of a practice that isn’t actually government funded, reducing rights for people of color and the LGBTQ community, refusal to act in the wake of tragedies caused by gun violence, it is clear that the party represents literal extremism. It is a political philosophy that involves digging heels into the ground and not only fighting change, but actively seeking regression.
Republicanism is not inherently evil. I do not subscribe to it, but I do not believe it is healthy to inherently reject an entire system of belief. Conservatism, the belief in a highly limited governmental structure, has its appeal in a world that is increasingly (and almost frighteningly) interconnected. I don’t personally believe in the functionality of such a system, but I understand why someone would buy into it. But that is not what the GOP stands for. When Mike Pence is among the most prominent, emblematic members of the party, it’s clear that the political philosophy has been overtaken by a radical fringe.
So how is this a mainstream party? How has half of the American population come to support this radical, dangerous platform? The answer was laid out incredibly clearly in the Vice Presidential Debate.
It’s because Mike Pence sure doesn’t look or sound radical.
This platform has been sustained by the kind of affectation that Mike Pence thrives in. At that debate, Tim Kaine was energetic and aggressive, but pitted against the cool, calm performance of Pence, he came across as rude. Pence is a master of affect, using the cadence, tone, and presentation of his words to appear thoughtful and sane, even when he’s calling for the electro-shock therapy of gay children. That calmness gives him power. It makes him sound and seem like an authority. It makes his every gesture and shake of the head matter. It’s the kind of self-control that dominates any room he walks into. Back when he was announced, he seemed like a second-rate choice for Trump, but his calmness, to some extent, is a masterful foil to Trump’s unhinged awfulness. But it extends beyond that.
If you look at the most prominent figures in the Republican Party at this moment—Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John McCain—they all have this affect. It exists in different forms. Ryan punctuates his words with youth and energy, McCain with age and wisdom, McConnell with Southern charm, but it’s all fundamentally in tune with Pence’s performative elements. It’s all a show, a distraction, which has helped them put forth their Randian reactionary platform. They’ve been here a great deal longer than Trump has, and they have been putting out his same agenda in far more subtle dog whistles. Through those dog whistles, they have sustained this party, in its toxic form, for far too long.
It looks like, with Trump’s continued attacks on the GOP, the party won’t exist functionally for too long. But this is not because of any new philosophies. No. It is because the GOP is a party of good actors, and Trump is a terrible one. He has exposed its awfulness. He has stripped away the affect. And if he becomes president (God forbid), and then resigns (which, if that’s the case, he probably will), President Mike Pence will try to revive the performance. Don’t let him.