I got a tension headache from watching the vice presidential debate.
I recognized the source instantly, because it felt exactly like the throbbing pain I’ve felt every time I’ve had a man shout me down, cut me off and interrupt me during what’s supposed to be a public conversation. And I honestly cannot imagine that millions of women didn’t also instantly recognize the same feeling after watching Mike Pence’s performance on the debate stage.
People spend a lot of time emphasizing the supposed odd-couple pairing of Vice President Pence and the president—contrasting the corrupt evangelicism of the former with the corrupt hedonism of the latter—but what quickly became clear over the course of the only 2020 vice presidential debate is that Pence, like Donald Trump, thinks the rules don’t apply to him. If this debate proved anything, it’s that the two powerful white guys on the current GOP ticket believe they’re the only voices that matter.
Again and again, Pence talked over moderator Susan Page and interrupted Senator Kamala Harris, steamrolling past his two minutes of allotted time and ignoring Page’s way-too-polite requests to wrap it up. He did this flagrantly, even flamboyantly, not just crossing the time limit by a few seconds in order to bring his argument to a neat close, as nearly every debating politician does, but emptily speechifying for as long as he liked, waving off the rules to which the campaign had agreed. Every second he did so was a second that to millions of women across the country screamed white male entitlement.
The display was made even more gross by Pence’s total unwillingness to actually answer any of the questions he’d been asked—he deflected and obfuscated at nearly every single turn. At one point, Pence responded to a question about his stance on abortion with a bit on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani; at another, when asked about the president’s ongoing refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he rattled off nonsense conspiracies about the FBI spying against the Trump administration.
The moment that should forever be regarded as the pinnacle of Pence’s horribleness came when he—after a whole debate of batting away questions he didn’t like for talking points he preferred—demanded that Harris answer his questions about whether the Biden team plans to pack the Supreme Court. In the ultimate show of his indifference to the rules as a debater, he literally crowned himself moderator and demanded a Black woman enator answer to him.
Let’s be clear: Page did a piss-poor job of shutting Pence down as he verbally bulldozed his way through the proceedings. (Seriously–find some moderators who either understand the role of moderating or know how to work mic-cut off buttons.) But this debate proved that Pence is an astoundingly cool and effective liar, a master at evasion, and a disrespectful ambassador of white male arrogance, whose strategy was to merely reestablish the rules as he saw fit. He’s Trump with all the coarse, loud edges buffed down to patronizing smoothness. The gall floweth over.
Here’s the thing about all this: Try to imagine for a second Harris, who remained totally measured and calm—despite Page effectively moderating only when it was the senator’s turn to speak—behaving in this way. You can’t, because no woman in politics—and certainly no Black woman in politics—would have made it to that debate stage if she showed even a fraction of that smugness and rudeness. Harris has been yoked with the “angry Black woman” label her entire career, and that’s continued into her time on the campaign trail.
She’s well aware that no matter what she says or does, she’ll be saddled with misogynoir—a toxic cocktail of racism and sexism—from people who tell on themselves every time they ignore her words and critique how she said them, the tone of her voice, the look on her face. And in this forum, as this mediocre white man flaunted his smugness, she had to keep swallowing the acidic annoyance again, a feeling I’m sure she’s well familiar with. It was a fatiguing demonstration of white male verbal peacocking by Pence, and Harris certainly deserved to be pissed.