The Chilling Normalcy of Mike Pence’s Debate Performance

Everything is not fine. But to hear it from the vice president, it’s all going according to plan.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Since President Donald Trump’s diagnosis with Covid-19, decency compelled most people to wish him well despite whatever schadenfreude they might have secretly harbored. Boaters for Trump may have sunk, but Trump himself seemed immune to the consequences of nature or law. Then a cascade of diagnoses stemming from the White House’s Amy Coney Barrett celebrations suggested a superspreader event. Within a week, some people broke down and started tweeting about karma and acts of God.

And perhaps in a cosmic sort of butterfly effect, whatever comeuppance is at work, last night in Utah it landed atop Vice President Mike Pence’s snowy hair.

The vice presidential debate carried the timbre and intensity of normal discourse—the tone, the demands for fair time, the avoidance of questions the candidates didn’t want to answer. It was notable for its resemblance to other debates, an experience that left viewers less wrecked than the out-of-control debacle a week ago. Of course, the extraordinary nature of Sen. Kamala Harris’s candidacy, as a Black and South Asian woman on a major party presidential ticket, made it historic. The professional and personal authority with which she responded to Pence’s denial that implicit bias exists was powerfully necessary. But Pence’s retread of talking points he’s uttered so many times in this campaign were also notable — not for their animatronic delivery or folksy demeanor but in their undeniable detachment from reality. It takes a near-bottomless gall to tout the administration’s work on the pandemic as Covid-19 continues to sweep the nation and threatens the president himself. There’s great nerve in trying to rattle a nation by evoking what could have happened, in a parallel reality, if under the Obama administration the swine flu had been as dangerous as Covid-19, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described a “complex, multi-faceted and long-term response” to H1N1. We are still living through a year stacked with the actual traumas of Covid-19.

In the past four years, Pence has dutifully mastered the art of feeding and celebrating Trump’s alternate reality, mustering as Jane Mayer wrote in the New Yorker, “a devotional gaze rarely seen since the days of Nancy Reagan.” He raised the unfounded specter of voter fraud in mail-in voting. Asked about climate change by moderator Susan Page, Pence touted the administration’s conservation record and denied hurricanes have grown more numerous annually — sidestepping the reality of their increased severity and devastation. Harris had to remind voters that the Trump administration removed the words “science” and “climate change” from government websites.

It takes a near-bottomless gall to tout the administration’s work on the pandemic as Covid-19 continues to sweep the nation and threatens the president himself.

Last night, Pence focused his dog whistles on familiar baddies, from socialism to the Green New Deal. In remarks just a few weeks ago in Iowa, Pence warned, “I think between now and November 3, it’s not going to be so much whether we end up more Republican or more Democrat, more liberal and more conservative, more red or more blue. I think the choice we face in this nation, in this year, is whether America remains America… whether we’re going to take that hard left turn.”

The preachy cadence is old as Puritanism. Its content is doomsday.

It’s not just that many of Pence’s claims did not stand up to fact-checking, but his prophecies of a Biden-Harris administration are unrecognizable to anyone who hasn’t fully embraced the current administration’s worldview.

Hearing the outlandish come from a mild-mannered Pence instead of caged in Trump’s energy-consuming bluster gives a person the needed time for critical thought. It leaves behind a different flavor of dismay.

This national reality show based on false premises has come with serious consequences. One of Harris’ strongest moments of the night came when she simplified the art of foreign policy, saying “really, it’s relationships.” Relationships at any level are about loyalty, being true to your word. “And the thing that has always been part of the strength of our nation in addition to our great military has been that we keep our word,” said Harris. “But Donald Trump doesn’t understand that because he doesn’t understand what it means to be honest.”

That’s a simple argument. It’s about truth or lies. One comes with stability; the other creates chaos.

The Christian nationalism so often espoused by the administration echoes its base’s deepest fears: the increasing religious plurality and secularization of America, and in that, a loss of cultural and political power. It’s a love language Pence speaks adeptly, one that resulted in such God-and-country mashups as the evangelical hymn “Make America Great Again,” first performed at the First Baptist Church of Dallas in 2017.

As much as Pence is reviled for his persistent attacks on the rights of LGBTQ people, to those who fear loss of “religious freedom” above all else, he has justified tolerating Trump’s chaos. Pence is as ambitious as he is faithful — his faith justifies the power he demands. The vice presidential debates concentrated in Pence’s person the reality-bending many Americans have thrilled to under Trump, all in the name of retaining that power.

Just as it became nearly intolerable during the debate to hear Pence spew obvious falsehoods, a fly landed on him and stuck itself there for two full minutes as Pence denied that Trump had refused to condemn white supremacists during the last debate.

The Biden campaign responded swiftly with a “Truth Over Flies Fly Swatter” for sale on the campaign website. Actor Zach Braff suggested on Twitter that the “fly drank homophobic robot blood.” Within an hour of the debate’s end, the fly had a spoof Twitter account. Soon, there were more than a hundred accounts buzzing about.

It has been a dark year, a scarring presidential term. The administration has so deftly and repeatedly lied to us about our lived experiences that the term “gaslighting” has nearly lost meaning. Over 211,000 Americans have died, and the president released a video Tuesday calling his catching the virus a “blessing from God.” There has been rampant devastation. Family members passing away alone in hospital isolation. Businesses shuttered from coast to coast. So many people worry about eviction. The West is burning with the first gigafire in history. Our coasts have been pounded by hurricanes; a derecho ripped through Iowa. As a nation, we’ve faced down generations of racial injustice while the administration denied its reality.

Throughout it all, Pence came off as sort of normal, dispatched with the same sales pitch Trump pounds out without pause or conscience, just dull enough to allow the listener mental space to dwell on how surreal his claims are. And then the happenstance of nature — or to some, divine intervention — landed on his head, and we laughed.

The collective, screaming, silly relief seen all across social media over a fly is the laughter of an exhausted people. Maybe we’ve cracked a bit. However, it also may be a lightening of the weight of these years in a country that senses we could be entering the home stretch. Already, six million people have turned in their ballots. At the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes, even while the emperor’s servants still carried his imaginary cloak, the people knew. And the emperor knew they knew when they all called out together and laughed.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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