I’ve been praised in recent months for having some handle on the Trump phenomenon. The truth is a little different. Early on I realized that when it came to Trump if I figured out the stupidest possible scenario that could be reconciled with the available facts and went with it, that almost always turned out to be right. The stupider, the righter. So with this rule of thumb in hand, as the empiricist my Dad taught me to be, I just kept following that model and it kept working. Last night there was chatter – half tongue-in-cheek but not totally – about whether Trump’s decision to postpone his vice presidential announcement wasn’t simply some gambit to gain advantage from the massacre in Nice but an effort to play for time and possibly back out of his apparent decision to place Mike Pence on the ticket. That couldn’t possibly be true. Not really. But it’s Trump. So who knows?
Now of course we find out early this afternoon that it was true. Because of course it was.
As I was writing the first version of this post in the early afternoon, there were already multiple reports from credible journalists that Trump was up late into Thursday night trying to find a way or find out if there was any way he could back out of his offer to put Pence on the ticket. Now, late in the evening there’s this even more detailed version of events in the Times. Trump was some mix of miffed at the leaks, unimpressed by Pence, unable to let the other guys down easy and looking for some way out of the Pence box. He just couldn’t find it.
On its own terms, this turn of events perfectly captures the mix of unsteadiness, cynicism and derp that characterizes everything about the Trump campaign. But the bigger story isn’t so much that it happened as that it was leaked, so quickly, and at such a devastating moment for Pence and the ticket. I’ve gone back and forth in my mind over whether these leaks are coming from the Trump campaign itself or others on the outside – perhaps people Trump called last night to sound out the possibility of tossing Pence overboard. On the one hand it seems inconceivable that the Trump campaign itself would leak these details by design as opposed to having some indisciplined or rogue elements in the campaign choosing to do so. But remember: the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts.
Yet the precise motivations, the exact origins of the leak pale before a larger reality. They send an unmistakable message. Coming into the orbit of Mr Trump, taking his yoke as it were, requires not only total submission, a total relaxation of every muscle and defense but a farewell to all independence and dignity.
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate …
Look at Chris Christie, a once strong-arming figure now reduced to being the iconic symbol of a shudder-inducing, oddly voluntary and seemingly perpetual cycle of abject humiliation. In addition to all the ‘hostage Christie’ memes we saw over recent months, Trump forces made sure to tell numerous reporters that as recently as Thursday night – last night – Christie was literally pitching himself to Trump on the phone, again begging to be picked for Veep even after the decision for Pence had apparently already been made. As recently as Friday morning, according to the Times, Christie still thought he was still in the running. It seems quite likely Christie only finally learned his fate from Trump’s twitter. As the Times put it with some understatement in a separate article dedicated entirely to Christie’s public humiliation, “Mr. Trump appeared to relish poking fun at his effusive booster.”
It is a genuine mystery what sort of hold Trump was able to take over Christie. But it seems to have been total. Like a vampire, Trump drained Christie of all dignity and filled the space he once occupied with a raked carcass of dignity loss.
Newt Gingrich didn’t do quite as badly. But it was close. According to the Times Gingrich confirmed by email that he still hadn’t heard from Trump about his final decision, only minutes before Trump tweeted it to almost 10 million followers around the world. The pattern was the same, a deepening cycle of greater submission and more abject humiliations.
And now we have Mike Pence.
Trump apparently chose Pence or got very close to choosing him and then decided against him or got extremely cold feet. Pence, it seems, finally had to give Trump an ultimatum that he had to commit, publicly, before Friday’s noon filing deadline. But now the Trump forces have managed to spread the word, through some largely irrelevant mix of intention and indiscipline, that Trump spent a day trying to get out of his commitment to Pence, doubting Pence was really someone he even wanted. So Pence gets the veep slot but at the cost of being publicly branded as someone Trump didn’t want. Junk that was forced on Trump, someone to whom he owes nothing, except possibly contempt. As the Times put it in tonight’s article, after his audience with Trump earlier today, “Mr. Pence did not respond to questions about Mr. Trump’s reported vacillation over choosing him.”
Eventually he won’t be able to ignore that question. And what will his answer possibly be? Trump has already managed to take Pence the governor of a major state and recast him as a ridiculous figure, the guy who managed to bag the vice presidential pick only to have the guy at the top of the ticket broadcast to the world that he’d rather not have him. This will hang over Pence regardless of how the ticket fares. He’s also now publicly renouncing various past statements about Trump and his policies. Almost every vice presidential candidate has to do some version of this. But Trump’s positions are far more extreme and the criticisms of them are too. So Trump’s Muslim ban goes from being “offensive and unconstitutional” to … well, awesome.
This may all seem like no more than riffing on a handful of entertainingly pitiful figures. But it’s more than that. As we discussed in the early Spring, the entirety of Trump’s political message is dominance politics. To paraphrase McLuhan it is both the messenger and the message. Trump attacks, others comply and submit. Whether or not that is always true it is the story and the promise he has sold his supporters. Trump’s handling of his vice presidential pick casts him in an extremely unflattering light. And yet the heaviest weight undoubtedly falls on Pence. It is simply no accident that those who come into his orbit, who join with him, are rapidly visited with a string of indignities that stand in a bracing contrast to the power and status they earlier enjoyed. On the field of other political actors, other would-be ‘alpha males’, for Trump you are either his enemy or his property. The only exceptions are those – think of Cruz and Rubio – who remain far enough from Trump’s event horizon not to get pulled in.
None of this is an accident. We can confidently expect a string of new indignities for Pence from now until election day.