By now, you’ve seen the adoration heaped upon President Donald Trump by members of his team and congressional leaders on Wednesday.
House Speaker Paul Ryan praised his “exquisite leadership, “and Senator Orrin Hatch declared that “one of the great privileges of my life [is] to stand here on the White House lawn with the president of the United States who I love and appreciate so much.” But nobody came close to reaching the level of obsequiousness that Vice President Mike Pence has mastered.
Upon viewing the tape, the most common response, once the gag reflex was suppressed, was to say “get a room!”
Seriously, it was so bad that Seth Meyers mocked it by comparing it to the scene from the movie Love Actually, where a would-be suitor shows up at a door with cue cards reading, “To me, you are perfect.”
This wasn’t an exaggeration. According to The Washington Post, “Pence offered 14 separate commendations for Trump in less than three minutes—math that works out to one every 12.5 seconds. And each bit of praise was addressed directly to Trump, who was seated directly across the table.” All the while, Trump sat there, chin held high like Il Duce. Dictionary.com seized the opportunity to teach us all what the word “sycophant” means. (“There’s a word for a person who would praise someone every 12 seconds.”)
To be sure, passing tax reform was a big accomplishment, and there’s nothing wrong with giving credit where it’s due, but at some point appreciation crosses the line and becomes adulation. Nobody knows quite where the line gets crossed, but like pornography, you know it when you see it.
This sort of slavish hero worship offends me on a couple of levels. First, it strikes me as patently un-American. We don’t have a king in this country—because we overthrew one. Our aversion to strongmen is so visceral that criticizing a president—any president—almost feels like one’s patriotic duty. In this regard, one wonders if feeding Trump’s authoritarian tendencies satiates these tendencies or encourages them. This deference to authority also feels a bit antiquated. Granted, the position of Potus deserves respect. But the saying goes that one salutes the rank and not the man. This feels like they are saluting the man.
Since we are headed into Christmas season, I should probably also confess that this sort of worship strikes me as a form of idolatry. Seriously, Trump demands the kinds of public praise usually reserved for the Almighty. I’m fully expecting to flip on a Cabinet meeting some day and hear: “Gracious and eternal President Trump, we are humbled to come before you today to give thanks for the tax cuts that you have so generously blessed us with. We know that we are but humble servants, President Trump, and that is a blessing to serve you…and the American people.”
Interestingly, I believe it is Pence’s evangelical faith (perhaps coupled with ambition) that gives him the peace to humbly submit himself. I recently interviewed McKay Coppins about his essay in the Atlantic titled “God’s Plan for Mike Pence.” You can never really get inside someone’s head, but Coppins’ reporting (which included interviewing people who have known Pence at different points in his life in order to put together a biographical sketch) provides some clues.
I came away with the sense that Pence views his role through the prism of servant leadership. What some of us might call “independence,” he sees as a rebellious spirit to be tamed. He humbly submits the work of his carnal hands to earthy authority in the same way that he submits his spirit to heavenly authority.
That’s the theory, at least. And frankly, it’s a kinder interpretation than one that suggests he is merely an ambitious climber. What else explains his willingness to prostrate himself before Trump? If Pence runs for president one day, this footage may prove highly problematic. That’s part of the reason why I think chalking his brown-nosing up to rank ambition misses the mark.
Of course, there is a third theory that, if true, would mean that all mainstream conservatives and standard issue Republicans owe Pence a big “thank you.” In case you haven’t noticed, while Trump’s rhetoric and tweets tend to undermine democratic norms, his actual governing legacy—from Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch to tax reform—are generally the kinds of things that, say, a President Pence might have supported.
Could it be that praising Trump is but a small price to pay for keeping the president on the straight and narrow? Perhaps Pence is making the ultimate sacrifice (his dignity!) in order to keep Trump’s agenda from veering into the fever swamps of nationalism. James Carville and Paul Begala once observed that “you never stand so tall as when you stoop to kiss an ass.” If that’s the case, then Mike Pence is a giant among men.