Mike Pence complaining about populism is like Renfield complaining about vampirism.
I don’t mean that entirely as an insult. Remember that Renfield, like Pence, redeemed himself in the end by betraying his evil master.
The analogy occurred to me as I read about his speech in New Hampshire yesterday describing a Republican “time for choosing.” Pence surely used that phrase deliberately, knowing how it would resonate with his intended audience of traditional conservatives. “A Time for Choosing” was the title of Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech framing the ideological stakes for America as a choice between oppressive collectivism on the one hand and individual liberty on the other. It made him a national figure and charted the political course of the conservative revolution domestically and abroad.
But Reagan’s timing was off. His preferred candidate, Barry Goldwater, was crushed that year in a historic landslide by “Great Society” liberal Lyndon Johnson. It would take three more presidential cycles—and a long detour through the sludgy centrism of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—before Republicans at last arrived at Reaganism.
Pence spoke stark truths Wednesday about his ideological opponents, as Reagan did decades earlier. And as with Reagan, his timing was, uh, a little off.
A populist movement is now rising in the Republican Party. This growing faction would substitute our faith in limited government and traditional values for an agenda stitched together by personal grievances and performative outrage.
Republican populists would abandon American leadership on the world stage, embracing a posture of appeasement in the face of rising threats to freedom.
Republican populists would erode our constitutional norms. A leading candidate last year called for the “termination” of “all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” while his imitators have demonstrated willingness to brandish government power to silence critics.
“Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party, the GOP as we have long known it will cease to exist,” Pence declared.
To which I must gently reply: Mike, I have bad news.
It is true, as Pence went on to say, that the divide between populism and conservatism is “unbridgeable,” but it was equally true seven years ago when many of your friendly neighborhood Dispatch pundits were eagerly pointing it out. That didn’t stop Pence from agreeing to serve as Renfield to populism’s Count Dracula, a role he performed dutifully from mid-July 2016 until the morning of January 6, 2021.
I’m not sure Reagan’s stern warnings about collectivism would have packed the same punch if he had previously spent four years as an enthusiastic vice president to Franklin Roosevelt.
Needless to say to readers of this site (and this newsletter especially), right-wing populism is not “rising” in the Republican Party. It’s risen. It’s a cake in the oven with waaaay too much leavening in the recipe that’s already escaped the pan and now threatens to blow open the oven door. There was a time for choosing, but that time is past. When the moment came, Mike Pence chose—and he chose poorly.
But there’s good news. He’s right that conservatives will soon face another time for choosing. And it’s useful that he’s calling their attention to that choice early.
How will he choose this time?
Upon reflection, there may be a better literary analogue than Renfield.
I’m thinking, of course, of Ray Stantz.
You’ve seen Ghostbusters. Remember the scene where Gozer demands that the gang “choose the form of the destructor”? All of the Ghostbusters defy her by clearing their minds, refusing to choose—except for poor Ray, who can’t keep his thoughts from wandering toward a figure from childhood so comically innocuous that he couldn’t possibly destroy the world.
The choice is made, Gozer declares. All hell breaks loose. The innocuous avatar of doom proves to be not so innocuous.
Mike Pence is the Ray Stantz of the Republican Party.
There’s a compelling case to be made that no single person did more to choose the form of conservatism’s destructor than him. McKay Coppins laid it out in a piece for The Atlantic in March, zeroing in on the great irony of Pence’s 2024 campaign. By reassuring wary social conservatives that a louche sociopath from Manhattan was morally fit for office in 2016, Pence rendered his own brand of evangelical rectitude politically irrelevant. “In effect,” Coppins wrote, “he spent four years convincing conservative Christian voters that the very thing he had to offer them didn’t matter.”
That argument could conceivably be extended to the entire conservative project. Pence smiled and nodded as Trump slapped tariffs on American allies, gladhanded Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, flirted with pulling out of NATO, defended the status quo on entitlement spending, ran enormous deficits (even before COVID!), and day by day inculcated an ethic of authoritarianism on the right that almost led to Pence himself being hanged at the Capitol for refusing to midwife an autogolpe.
All of that being so, how can any conservative take a tweet like this seriously?
It’s not a time for choosing, Mike. The choice is made. You made it.
The innocuous TV game-show host whom you helped mainstream in 2016 has proven not so innocuous. Now there aren’t enough conservatives left to cross the streams and blow up the marshmallow Mussolini who’s lumbering toward Washington.
To answer the question CNN posed to Pence in an interview on Thursday morning: Yes, the war is over and our side lost.
Don’t think so? Come, walk with me on a brief journey of despair.
Everyone knows that Trump is way ahead in national primary polling, but if you’re not following the numbers regularly you might not realize just how big his lead is. In three of the last six surveys included in the RealClearPolitics polling average, he’s led by no less than 45 points. We’re long past the stage where he’s doubling up Ron DeSantis, who hasn’t pulled as much as 20 percent in any poll since mid-July. In some surveys, Trump is now quadrupling the Florida governor’s vote share.
He, DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy—the three most illiberal candidates in the field—hold the top three positions in the national numbers, accounting for 75 percent or so of Republican preferences in most polls and more than 80 percent in some. For all the hype about a Nikki Haley surge following her strong debate performance, she remains stuck in fourth place with about 6 percent. Only once since February has she reached double digits in any poll, and that one was conducted immediately after the first debate. Ramaswamy, by contrast, has hit double digits in six different surveys since August alone.
Mike Pence is currently polling in fifth place with an average of about 5 percent. In the buzzworthy survey that the Wall Street Journal published this past weekend, he notched a whopping 2 percent. While he’s busy wondering whether Republican voters will choose populism or conservatism, Republican voters themselves are busy effectively ratifying the choices Trump made in 2020 that nearly got Pence killed.
What if we took Trump out of the equation, though? If MAGA voters were suddenly left in search of a candidate, surely they would take a hard look at their hero’s former VP, no?
No. A Trump-less race would devolve quickly into a death match between the two “Trump-lite” candidates. Pence is an afterthought:
Imagine having served as a congressman, a governor, and vice president and finding yourself getting smoked by this simpering weasel:
The data tells only part of this story, though. To get a fuller lay of the land, let’s check in with a few Republicans who made their bones politically as, ahem, “conservatives” in the pre-Trump era.
Here’s a well-known evangelical Christian who finished second to John McCain in the 2008 Republican primary predicting that people will die if his political goals aren’t met like some Salafist imam.
Here’s McCain’s running mate that cycle, herself an outspoken Christian, musing that the sort of “good guys” willing to organize a seditious conspiracy to keep Trump in power might not be so good now that they’ve seen unfairly long prison sentences doled out to their confederates.
It was just a week ago that I defended Palin from the leftist smear that she condoned violence against Democrats in 2011. This clip is the thanks I get for that.
Here’s the top also-ran in the current primary, himself a staunch small-government Tea Party conservative prior to 2015, echoing Palin’s point that seditionists have gotten a bad rap and might deserve clemency.
And here’s a new banner that’s increasingly turning up in MAGA crowds and is sure to be a popular bit of paraphernalia as the general election campaign heats up.
I ask you: If this is what the party looks like during “a time for choosing,” what will it look like after populism has been fully and finally “chosen”?
One would think a guy who knows firsthand what it’s like to have these menacing degenerates baying for his blood would be the first to abandon any illusions about where we are in the right’s slide toward fascism. As it is, if Mike Pence insists on pretending there’s still doubt about whether populism or conservatism has prevailed, I invite him to identify any and all media outlets on the American right that are willing to challenge the insurrectionist hagiography showcased above. You’re reading one right now; I can think of two or three others. Otherwise the trend runs entirely—entirely—the other way.
The choice is made.
But there’s another choice ahead of us, one Pence doesn’t dare talk about. Yet.
If this primary ends the way it looks like it’s going to end, he and other prominent conservatives will face a dilemma. What will they recommend grassroots conservatives do on Election Day next November?
Right-wing populism and left-wing progressivism are “fellow travelers on the same road to ruin,” Pence warned on Wednesday. If he believes that, there’s no reason for any Reaganite to prefer Trump over Joe Biden. A vote for the right-wing populist or for the left-wing progressive (who’s not all that progressive, but fine) is a vote for ruination. What sort of fool would vote for ruination?
Well … Mike Pence, maybe. He’s pledged to support the eventual Republican nominee next year, no?
He isn’t the only conservative who seems confused about the implications of his own rhetoric. Last week, Brian Kemp admirably rejected the push by Trumpist cronies to remove Fulton County DA Fani Willis from office before she can prosecute their messiah. “In the state of Georgia, as long as I’m governor, we’re going to follow the law and the Constitution, regardless of who it helps and harms politically,” Kemp declared. That’s the second time since the 2020 election that he’s quashed authoritarian efforts to interfere with the law in Georgia to Trump’s benefit.
Now here’s the same Brian Kemp a month ago, seemingly prepared to board the Trump train again next fall if Republican primary voters force that choice on him.
It doesn’t compute.
The choice between whether populism or conservatism will be the dominant force on the American right has been made, alas, but no conservative need choose between two forms of ruination in a general election. Nothing would be worse for the long-term viability of the conservative movement, in fact, than continuing to vote mindlessly along partisan lines. The more Trump-style populists know they can count on the Mike Pences and Brian Kemps of America to fall in line in a general election, the less incentive they have going forward to nominate anyone other than a Trump-style populist in the primary.
This is the old point about the GOP hostage crisis back again to haunt us. If Mike Pence figured out a way to win this primary, there’s little doubt that Trump devotees would cost him the general election by boycotting that race to punish him for his heroism on January 6. The same goes for another conservative, Nikki Haley, whom a critical mass of populists would inevitably dismiss as just another member of the warmongering neoconservative “uniparty.”
Populists are prepared to see Democrats win in the name of asserting their leverage over the Republican Party. That’s a highly effective strategy in convincing party leaders to cater to their preferences. They’ve taken a hostage and they’re prepared to shoot it. They’re not to be trifled with.
If conservatives like Pence want to assert their own ideological leverage over the GOP’s direction, they need to show that they’re willing to shoot the hostage as well. There are more than enough conservatives left on the American right to destroy Trump’s chances at a second term by simply not getting off the couch on Election Day 2024—or, if they insist on voting in order to preserve Republican leverage down ballot, by leaving the presidential line on their ballot blank.
Did your party insist on nominating a candidate whose politics you abhor, who will in fact lead the country to “ruin”? Then walk away. You’re under no more obligation to support an authoritarian “uniparty” than populists are to support an interventionist.
Deep down, Pence is a good man. He knows the right thing to do. He let his ambition steer him away from that in 2016 but he gets a second chance in 2024. When the time for choosing comes between holding his nose and supporting Trump or withholding his vote from a rotten influence that’s wrecked the American right, what choice will he condone?
Ray Stantz ended up a hero when he helped destroy the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Like Renfield, he made a mistake and then atoned. Insofar as Pence and other Republicans who know better can help create a permission structure for grassroots conservatives to ditch Trump next fall, they’ll have atoned as well.
The time for appeasement is over. All we need from principled conservative leaders is some nerve and a willingness to make enemies of the worst people in America. Mike Pence is used to that by now.