Mike Pence Is Dead Right About Where the GOP Is Headed And Dead Right to Face It Head On — Conservative Media Should Join Him

Donald Trump, Mike Pence

Photos via Associated Press

So much of American politics can be explained by its practitioners’ calculation that the worst sin they could ever commit is offending their own political base. From this poisonous proposition, Mike Pence dissents.

Last Wednesday, the former vice president took to a podium at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College to forthrightly make the case that both Donald Trump and the forces that have turned him into the GOP’s lodestar are holding the party back electorally, intellectually, and morally.

In remarks styled after Ronald Reagan’s “Time For Choosing” speech, Pence called the divide between traditional conservative values and today’s Republican populism “unbridgeable.”

The ascendent political fad described by Pence has an agenda “stitched together by little more than personal grievances and performative outrage.” That agenda, he said, consists of a fondness for “appeasement on the world stage,” a desire to “erode our constitutional norms,” and a willingness to “trade in our time-honored principles for passing public opinion” to secure power.

Pence acknowledged the modern challenges and elite-level failures that have led to populism’s increasing popularity on the right, but argued that the solutions volunteered by Trump and his imitators are only crude distractions from those that might actually prove effective.

Many have lamented the transformation of the Republican Party over the last eight years. But few with both the credibility and enduring political ambitions Pence boasts have formulated such an unqualified, yet sober critique – one that pushed beyond petty policy disputes to the worst aspect of the GOP’s turn: That it makes people worse.

This author was surprised, then, to read the assessment of Pence’s speech produced by his old friends at National Review, whose editorial board accused Pence of having “misidentified the target.”

“The basic problem is that it’s hard to define populism. Is it an emotive, anti-elitist mode of politics or a set of substantive beliefs? It can be both. Another complicating factor is that it can be difficult to disentangle it from conservatism,” argued its editors.

“Pence said the party has to choose either conservatism or populism. But this isn’t true,” they continued. “Prior to the rise of Donald Trump, successful Republican presidential candidates had integrated populism into their political appeal for decades, from Richard Nixon, to Ronald Reagan, to George W. Bush. Populist-flavored conservatism can be a powerful mix; the more one replaces the conservatism with the populism, the worse it gets.”

Addressing Pence’s obvious concern that Trump may reprise his role atop the Republican ticket, they concede that Trump is a populist, but submit that “there’s nothing inherently populist about, say, his appalling conduct after the 2020 election, which had to do with his character flaws, not any political ideology.”

This line of argument is the stuff of insisting that true communism has never been tried, or stopping to ponder what the Revolution really was, anyway, amidst the Reign of Terror.

Pence did not deliver a hysterical peacetime judgment on “populist-flavored conservatism.” He delivered a clear-eyed account of the sins and aims of a destructive, self-interested faction of the Republican Party.

It was only two and a half years ago that Trump and his allies embarked on a months-long, extra-constitutional attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Those efforts culminated in an assault on the Capitol Building and in a crowd of Republicans calling for Pence’s summary execution. Even as his right-hand man was evacuated, Trump assailed Pence on social media for his lack of courage.

In spite – or more frighteningly, for some voters because – of his behavior, Trump is the prohibitive favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. Worse yet, Trump’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, authoritarian impulses, and scorn for civility have trickled down to many of his supporters.

The dispiriting preferences of the electorate are observable in the comportment of so many of the conservative movement’s valued institutions and relevant actors.

It’s discernible in Tucker Carlson’s resurrection of tawdry, evidence-free accusations leveled by a drug-addled convict against Barack Obama. It’s discernible in the Heritage Foundation’s cobbling together of demagogic arguments against aiding Ukraine’s righteous cause. And it’s discernable in elected Republicans’ near-collective decision – regardless of their ideological tastes – to line up behind Trump in 2024 to bolster their own political prospects.

These developments are a consequence of these entities catering to the perceived Republican id, not honest soul-searching or considered inquiry.

Populism, that is.

Pence knows full well that the danger is not in some policy debate resulting in the Republican Party platform being altered so as to moderate its commitment to free trade or lower taxes. The threat he warns against is posed by a broader governing philosophy focused on little more than rewarding friends and punishing enemies – the philosophy he explicitly identified in his speech.

By widening his target beyond Trump to the successful temptation of the GOP writ large, Pence told an essential truth about the state of the movement. His clarity may impair his electoral efforts, but it also places him in rarified air as a modern statesman.

In his recognition that the aims and values of American conservatism and populism as it is practiced today are irreconcilable, Pence is prescient. For that prescience, he deserves only applause and the provision of aid to his righteous cause.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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