The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Pence demonstrates the challenge of living in both Trumpworld and reality

Vice President Mike Pence joins a Senate procession to the House chamber on Jan. 6. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

There’s a line from former vice president Mike Pence’s interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Monday that stands out as remarkable. The two were discussing the aftermath of the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, during which protesters — agitated by Donald Trump’s regular assertions that Pence had the ability to overturn the results of the election — turned their anger against the vice president. Pence could not do what Trump wanted, but because the president had created this illusory world in which fraud was rampant and the solution simple, the furious mob saw the vice president as the enemy as surely as they did Democrats and supporters of Joe Biden.

“I know a lot had been made over the disagreement you had with the president as it relates to January 6,” Hannity said, wildly understating that “disagreement.” Trump wanted Pence to challenge settled law to reject the result of a democratic election; Pence chose not to, provoking Trump’s repeated fury, including over Twitter as the mob was already within the Capitol’s walls.

“My sources, my understanding is that you two have a strong relationship to this day,” Hannity continued, carefully lobbing the softball. “What is your relationship with the president?”

“Look, you can’t spend almost five years in a political foxhole” with someone “without developing a strong relationship,” Pence replied. “And you know, January 6 was a tragic day in the history of our Capitol building.”

Well, yes, it was. It was a tragic day for that building. It was also a tragic day for those who lost their lives, for the police officers who were assaulted and injured, for those who later took their own lives, for those who face criminal charges after thoughtlessly joining the riot, for those inside the building — like Pence — who feared for their lives and, primarily, for the American tradition of peaceful transfers of power and for centuries of elected executives who didn’t try to reshape democratic elections into triggers for authoritarianism.

Maybe this was a slip by Pence, but it’s a revealing one. The Capitol building could be, and was, quickly repaired. None of those other things have been, if they even can be. And given Pence’s eagerness to reframe that attack so that Trump supporters are its victims, it seems less likely every day that the damage to the republic will be fully mended.

The media, Pence said, wants “to use that one day to try and demean the character and intentions of 74 million Americans who believe we could be strong again and prosperous again and supported our administration in 2016 and 2020.”

I’ll quickly pick one nit to note that 74 million people didn’t support his administration in 2016. The argument more broadly, though, is a familiar one, amplified on Fox News itself in the weeks after the attack. It’s a pivot from “these people did this horrible thing” to “that thing is now being used to disparage hard-working Republicans.” Perhaps this analogy is fresh in my mind after having watched “The Many Saints of Newark” this weekend (meh), but this particular iteration of the argument is a bit like Carmela Soprano complaining that police investigations into Mafia activity are directly intended to disparage Italian Americans.

In reality, while Trump supporters have consistently been sympathetic to the events of that day (certainly in part thanks to how it has been downplayed by conservative and far-right media), it’s easy to draw a distinction between the hundreds who protested and the millions who didn’t.

But what’s Pence going to do? He’s obviously still thinking about running for president in 2024 and needs to figure out how to navigate the turbulent waters of the Republican base. Polling conducted in March by Trump’s former pollsters found five distinct groups in the party, including the conspiratorial fringe (10 percent), the Never-Trumpers (15 percent) and Trump die-hards (27 percent). In total, about two-thirds of the party were excited about renominating Trump in 2024, though more recent polling indicates doubt about his ability to win.

Pence needs either to win over those voters or have Trump not run, neither of which seems terribly likely. After all, while he insisted to Hannity that the two remain compadres, Trump is still telling his rallies that Pence is why he’s no longer president.

“I only wish that my friend Mike Pence had that additional courage to send the results back to the legislatures because it all happened so quickly,” Trump said on July 24. “When you have more votes in some places by a lot than you have voters” — which didn’t happen — “I think Mike would have had the right to say, ‘Excuse me, we have more votes than we have voters. If you don’t mind, please take a look at it.’ Just a couple of the basics. Just a little basics. So I wish he did that. I wish he did that.”

One can see the Pence 2024 campaign ad already: “ ‘My friend.’ — Donald Trump.”

Pence isn’t the only one in this pickle, of course. The most likely contender in 2024 at this point is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who consistently comes in second to Trump in (very) early primary polling. At some point, DeSantis’s consistent fealty to Trump’s record and tactics will have to break if the two face one another, something that doesn’t seem to faze the former president.

“If I faced him, I’d beat him like I would beat everyone else,” Trump said last week. He added that if he runs, which seems likely, “I think he would drop out.”

Then there’s former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (R), who managed to navigate Trump criticism into a role with the administration — but who has also had some struggles in figuring out how to balance Trumpism with her own ambitions. The Wall Street Journal previewed a speech she is giving in California on Tuesday, including well-honed lines like this one: “There was fraud in the election, but I don’t think that the numbers were so big that it swayed the vote in the wrong direction.”

Since Nov. 3, when Trump lost, Republicans have been trying to figure out how to both agree with the base’s incorrect belief that fraud was rampant — a belief stoked by Trump repeatedly — and to acknowledge that the belief as formulated is incorrect. Often, that takes the form of dubious legalistic claims about states expanding voting access during the election. Here, Haley is more narrow: There was fraud, just not enough.

It’s a good example of a line that will probably please neither Trumpworld nor reality. After all, no one says there was no fraud. There are always a handful of examples of people casting ballots illegally, as there were in 2020. The point entirely is whether there was any rampant or systemic fraud, the claim made by Trump for which there remains zero evidence. Trump supporters won’t be happy that Haley claims the fraud was unimportant (as she tacitly does), and denizens of the electoral real world will not be happy that she implies fraud was rampant (which it wasn’t).

But what are you going to do if you want to run for president (as Haley also clearly does)? You end up saying things like: “We need [Trump] in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump” — a message that will not be hard for Trump to reframe should a primary contest come down to him and Haley.

The reality is that there is no way for a Republican to navigate a more-conservative primary battleground while both agreeing with and running against Trump. There’s no way to assert that reality is real and surreality is real. You’re left doing things like identifying the most prominent victim of the Jan. 6 attacks as the Capitol building’s windows.

“I truly believe we all ought to remain completely focused on the future,” Pence said at the end of his Hannity interview. “That’s where I’m focused.”

Of that, there’s no question. But good luck getting Trump to share that focus.

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