The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Pence is what you get when you add a veneer of seriousness to Donald Trump

He's the talk radio host to Trump's reality TV star.

Tuesday's vice presidential debate revealed breaks between Pence and Trump on policy issues. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

When Mike Pence was selected as Donald Trump’s running mate, the descriptions followed a familiar pattern: “Pence is widely seen as the most sober choice,” “a sober, conservative legislator,” “a seasoned politician who could help bring together disparate blocs of the Republican coalition” and “the best choice Trump could have made.”

Tuesday night, stuffed somewhere between the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays, the pattern continued: The National Review deemed him “more serious, more mature, more knowledgeable, more his own man, more presidential” than his opponent Tim Kaine. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said that Pence “looked like a grown-up. … He came across as a grown-up.” Overseas, Le Monde ran the headline that Pence “rekindled the Republican flame.”

With a candidate like Trump at the helm of their party, it’s no wonder Republicans are in a hurry to cast Pence as the sober counterpart to wild and unpredictable Donald, a kind of check on his running mate’s propensity for immaturity and bombast. The problem is simply that Pence is an inane man — not just silly, but a little bit empty, too; something that journalist Josh Barro and Republican strategist Steve Schmidt both picked up on. Pence isn’t so much a balance for Trump’s frenzied, aimless energy as he is a translator for it, someone who can lend the veneer of seriousness to the patently absurd, but only briefly, and with very little to add of his own.

Consider: Pence is a man who opposed the 2008 bailout (and, for those who might be coming into political consciousness now, let’s make this clear: The world financial economy really was on the verge of collapse in 2008); who claimed that — in his words, even though 1 in 3 people die from smoking — no one dies from smoking; that the movie “Mulan” was liberal propaganda. Pence signed a law that required funerals for fetuses, once claimed a law that would allow businesses to refuse service to gay people wasn’t about discrimination (it led to discrimination within a week of its signing), and once said that money shouldn’t be given to AIDS groups that “celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus” — as if people were perhaps attempting to fight against HIV by spreading it, as if this were the reason PEPFAR was created.

By way of substance in the transcript of the debate, Pence was thick on platitudes and low on tangible plans: “We are going to meet obligations to our seniors.” “Really restore law and order.” “[Talking about institutional racism] really has got to stop.” He cited Trump’s Arizona speech as Trump’s immigration plan. He advanced the canard of false equivalence that to be a Syrian refugee is to be a terrorist. He criticized Obama for not getting a status of forces agreement in Iraq, though there’s no guarantee that a perpetual U.S. soldier presence would have made the situation in Iraq any better. He spoke about the need to demilitarize North Korea. He also repeated the false claim that ICE endorsed Trump, which did not happen. Pence also claimed Trump had never uttered a series of insults he most definitely did, many in the past several months, some on camera.

That sort of rhetorical paucity was on display when I went to see Pence speak last month on an exceptionally rainy night in colonial Williamsburg, Va. On the fringes of his small crowd I wondered “what sort of man decides that he will be the vice-presidential pick for Trump? What goes through his head? If he’s sincere, why is he sincere? If he’s insincere —  if he thinks it a decent enough shortcut to get to the front of the line come the next election cycle  —  why does he think the insincerity is worth the risk?”

But Pence’s presentation provided nothing by way of reply: Indeed, it didn’t provide much of anything at all. He was a sleepy version of Pappy O’Daniel from “O Brother Where Art Thou,” telling the crowd how great it was, and how he’d be “call[ing] the man” that was Trump on the phone after the rally was over and finished to tell him what a great crowd the great crowd was, letting the tautological loop carry itself off into the great unknown. It was a solid Trumpism, yet another sign that the potential VP is only quieter than his running mate, but not much more substantive.

In his 2005 essay “Host,” which follows the work and world of radio host John Ziegler, David Foster Wallace considered the strange climate wherein passionate disquisitions on O.J. Simpson were de rigueur (with Ziegler assuring a black caller at one point that “the last thing I am is racist on this”), and observed that “it’s unlikely that any middle-aged man could really go around this upset all the time and not drop dead. It’s a persona, in other words, not exactly fabricated but certainly exaggerated … and of course it’s also demagoguery of the most classic and unabashed sort.” This is the role of a talk radio host: To channel the anger and discontent of his listeners and to translate it into some language that sounds at once respectable and valid and provocatively familiar.

And that’s where it hit me: if — as its most reductive — Trump is the man from reality TV, then Pence is the man from talk radio.

He is a host.