Shortly after the 2016 election but before Trump took office, Saturday Night Live did a cold open where Alec Baldwin (playing Donald Trump) said something to the effect that Mike Pence was his greatest insurance against being impeached. I hope everyone has noticed by now how poorly that joke has aged.
First there’s the obvious: Trump was impeached twice. Second there’s the equally obvious: Pence would have made a far less damaging president than Trump. For one thing, there would have been no January 6 insurrection. For another, there probably would have been no deadly performative outrage about Covid-19, the wearing of masks and the efficacy of vaccines — and a few other things.
Pence would have been a disaster in many ways, of course, but he would never have been as bad as Trump. I think I can state with confidence that hundreds of thousands of Americans would be alive today if Trump had been found guilty and ejected from office after the first impeachment and Pence had handled the pandemic instead.
Pence would have made a dull, ineffectual caretaker president. A placeholder as forgettable as Gerald Ford. A milquetoast a la Dan Quayle. Pence would have finished Trump’s first and only term with vanilla predictability. There would have been no endless golf games, no hate-tweets, no Ivanka and Jared, no graft, no love affairs with dictators (or other women). Putin would have hated it.
We have seen how Pence’s attitude towards Trump has shifted now that he’s no longer beholden to him. Pence already lost the ultra-MAGA crowd for all time by refusing to attempt to decertify the 2020 election when he had the chance. So he has nothing to lose by saying what he said on Saturday.
On Saturday at the Gridiron Dinner in Washington, Pence told journalists and their guests: “President Trump was wrong. I had no right to overturn the election, and his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day, and I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
I hate to break it to you, Mr Vice President, but history already holds Trump accountable for January 6. Media outlets in America and across the world hold Trump responsible for January 6. Historians hold him accountable. The only exceptions are the nut jobs who don’t count, such as propaganda tools like Fox News and the idiots who watch and believe them.
It’s time that we all acknowledge the obvious. Fox News, OAN and Newsmax are as credible as Pravda and Izvestia were during the Cold War. Back then it didn’t matter that commissars and gullible Russians lapped up their bullshit with rabid, fanatical zeal. The crap the Russians were printing and saying back then were lies every bit as obvious as the lies being told today by MAGA zealots.
The fact that Pence can now speak freely about what he really thinks is proof that Trump is slowly losing his grip on power. Pence can get away with a certain Gorbachev-like frankness because it’s possible to speak plainly and survive. The political backlash is no longer instantly deadly.
“What happened that day was a disgrace,” Pence told the Gridiron audience. “And it mocks decency to portray it any other way. For as long as I live, I will never, ever diminish the injuries sustained, the lives lost, or the heroism of law enforcement on that tragic day.”
With those words, Pence has drawn his line in the sand, and he’s hoping he can use his position as a springboard to win the 2024 Republican nomination for president. Pence is gambling that he will attract enough undeclared voters, moderate Republicans and even the odd MAGA-head who will begrudgingly vote for him anyway, to win the nomination and possibly the presidency.
Until now, Pence rarely addressed January 6. In a memoir released in November he accused Trump of endangering his family. As he tests the waters he is becoming cautiously more critical of Trump.
It’s possible that Pence might squeak his way to a nomination then lose the general election. That might be what the Republican Party needs in order to drag it back from the brink of fanaticism.
Surely by now Republican party bosses must know (even if they’re afraid to admit it) that Trump has proven to be death at the polls every single time. A narrow but respectable loss by a middle of the road candidate like Pence could do the trick, and make Republicans wake up and realise that MAGA is not the way forward. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.