WASHINGTON – On a national convention stage that includes the kettledrum personalities of Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is more in the snare or bongo category. His speech to the convention on Wednesday night took a quieter, more sophisticated approach to the campaign (at least when compared with the convention’s signature refrain of “Lock Her Up!”). Pence positioned himself as a man of faith, shaped by small-town Hoosier values, doing outreach to blue-collar Democrats whom the Democratic Party has forgotten. That strikes me as a smart maneuver – the expression of some guiding political intelligence that the Trump campaign has generally lacked.
Pence is respected by Indiana politicians whom I respect. And the choice of a generic conservative has been reassuring to other generic conservatives in the party who hope to surround their ideologically unpredictable candidate with good influences. Pence did his part at the convention. He displayed considerable political and rhetorical skill. And he brought great shame on himself and the Republican Party in the process.
There is a Trump effect or syndrome that forces his surrogates to live in a fantasy world. To avoid inner ideological and moral conflict, they must project an image of the nominee as they would wish him to be. And then they must learn to maintain that image by defending the indefensible. Their loyalty requires them to disfigure reality. So, in Pence’s account, Trump has a “colorful style” – which includes mocking the disabled and decades of casual misogyny. He “can be a little rough with politicians on stage” – which includes accusing his Democratic opponent of complicity in murder.
The Trump syndrome was on full display in Pence’s convention speech. The vice-presidential nominee praised Trump as the natural heir of Ronald Reagan, which, no doubt, Pence wishes Trump to be. Pence said that Trump would stop “apologizing” to American enemies. He would “stand with our allies.” He would “lead from strength.”
But the same day as Pence’s speech, Trump gave a revealing interview to The New York Times. The candidate who would stop apologizing said: “I don’t know that we have a right to lecture. … How are we going to lecture when people are shooting our policemen in cold blood?” The candidate who would stand with our allies raised a cloud of questions about the United States’ commitment to NATO allies near Russia’s borders. We might come to their aid, said Trump, if they “fulfill their obligations to us.” The candidate who would lead from strength proposed a retreat from bases around the world. “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger,” Trump said.
There is a type of isolationism in which the United States is corrupted by engagement in the world, its ideals sullied by the lure of empire. And then there is Trump’s type of isolationism, in which the United States is too corrupt to engage in the world. In the mouth of any Democrat, Republicans would describe these words as anti-American. I cannot imagine such thoughts even crossing Reagan’s mind, much less leaving his lips. I think it is fair to say that if Reagan were alive today, Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric would make him puke.
This is not “America First.” It is “Blame America First.” And to this unfortunate tendency, Trump adds a consistent, un-Reagan-like defense of despots. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be given “great credit … for being able to turn 1 / 8the attempted coup 3 / 8 around.” In the past, Trump has argued that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, did not have a “firm enough hand.” His assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin? “At least he’s a leader.” By repressing the Tiananmen Square uprising, Chinese leaders demonstrated “the power of strength.” Saddam Hussein was “good at killing terrorists” even though he “throws a little gas.” There is no denying that Trump has a soft spot for authoritarians. Whether he has a soft spot for authoritarianism, too, is a matter of serious debate.
There are many radiating effects of having a Republican nominee who is entirely ignorant about U.S. foreign policy but who wants to fundamentally redefine it. One of those effects is to make Pence look like a fool. His description of Trump had no connection to reality, which was demonstrated on the same day. Remember that soon after House Speaker Paul Ryan’s reluctant endorsement, Trump attacked a Hispanic judge in a manner that Ryan called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Every serious Republican who crosses the event horizon of endorsing Trump is sucked into a black hole of compromise and self-deception. And many of us – still loyal to a humane conservatism – will never be able to think about such leaders in the same way again.
The culminating moment of comedy and tragedy in Pence’s speech was his mention of “the party of Lincoln.” How dare he. On the first day of Trump’s campaign, he asserted that Mexican migrants are coming to rape American women. His proposal to round up and deport 11 million people still lies on the table. His breakthrough moment during the primaries was his embrace of a ban on Muslims entering the country. Trump has returned nativism to the center of American politics. And when any politician calls Trump the heir to Lincoln, it is not just self-deception; it is deception.
The reputation of any politician close to Trump will eventually be ruined. But it is particularly sad when good and decent people vouch for Trump’s character, knowing almost nothing about him. They surely believe that they can guide and shape a political novice in helpful and positive ways. There is no evidence of this – no proof that Trump is willing to internalize good advice. In fact, the best of the Republican Party is being exploited. And such politicians are viewed as weak (see Trump’s announcement of Pence) by a candidate with contempt for weakness. The only politician who will be proud of what he did on Wednesday evening is Ted Cruz, who refused to endorse. He may have been booed on the floor, but I imagine he slept well. And he won’t be ashamed to recount that night to his children and grandchildren.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell said: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The construction of an imaginary narrative of virtue and insight around Donald Trump is a form of political corruption, no matter how skilled or well-intentioned the effort. “In our time,” said Orwell, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” A fitting epitaph for the 2016 Republican convention.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.