The Brute and the Bureaucrat: Donald Trump and Mike Pence
An essay about two types of democracy destroyers. One kills the frog in public and leaves its body on the street as an example, the other boils it slowly and conceals its remains
The speeches former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence gave this past week brought to mind two types of democracy destroyers. There are the brutes with the stick, who act loudly and quickly, and there are the soft-voiced bureaucratic types who act methodically. To use a popular metaphor, one whomps the frog to death in public and leaves its corpse there as an example to others. The other boils the frog slowly, attracting less notice, and then conceals its remains. The latter is no less deadly but is more discreet.
Trump has doubled down on brutishness, endorsing an openly autocratic agenda in his remarks to the America First Policy Institute. He outlined a future American police state and raised despot Xi Jinping's criminal justice system in China as a model, with its "quick trials" and sentencing in "two hours." "We need an all-out effort to defeat violent crime in America...and be tough and be nasty and be mean if we have to," he concluded chillingly.
With the excuse of fighting crime, Trump also foreshadowed an authoritarian design to "go beyond governors" and order in the National Guard to tame dangerous cities. We need only recall Trump's responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, when his administration experimented with junta-style counterinsurgency tactics, to understand the danger.
Helicopters buzzed protesters, a vast array of law enforcement forces were mobilized in the capital (some units were unmarked for extra psychological warfare value), record numbers of journalists were assaulted or arrested, and protesters were beaten and forced into unmarked vans. All of this and more would likely be common in Trump's police state.
This clear autocratic intent makes Pence's decision to emphasize GOP unity in his talk to the Young America's Foundation all the more disturbing. Pence cultivates a statesman-like profile as he tenaciously continues his crusade to dismantle reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, separation of church and state, and other foundations of liberal democracy. "I don't know that our movement is that divided," he stated, positioning himself as a relative voice of reason as he counseled Republicans to let go of the 2020 election loss and look forward.
The price of Pence's presidential ambitions is silence about the most important feature of the Trump-Pence relationship: Trump tried to have Pence harmed or killed on Jan. 6 to prevent him from ruining the coup by certifying Joe Biden's victory.
This monstrous fact, which has spawned a massive cover-up operation by GOP elites, the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and more, must be at the center of any discussion of a Trump 2024 candidacy.
And yet some media outlets seem to be conforming to Pence's codes of discretion by referring merely to a "dramatic split" between the men and how it testifies to "an intraparty fissure." It's as though it has become unseemly to bring up the brute with the stick, precisely when the Jan. 6 hearings are revealing just how violent and dangerous he is.
I am calling this out because I have spent years writing about brutes with sticks. They routinely turn on their allies, who then must go silent about their tribulations in order to survive. It never ends well for such individuals, who live in the shadow of the brute, knowing that he could use his stick on them again.
Pence could free himself from subjection to Trump and achieve statesman status--if he talks. Pence could claim the moral high ground for his actions on Jan. 6: Refusing to abandon the Capitol, being the one to ask Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for reinforcements to stop the attack; and certifying the election results, ending Trump's plans to arrive at the Capitol and proclaim victory.
A rule of authoritarian history is that there are always elites who are secretly tired of the brute and his stick, and wait for someone among their peers to break ranks. We've already seen that the compelling testimonies of former White House aides like Cassidy Hutchinson have brought forth more cooperators.
In this case, Pence, as a uniquely placed witness, could give testimony that would make Trump so toxic that it would make another presidential campaign all but unworkable.
Of course, Pence knows he is extremely unpopular in the Republican world. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll finds that only 6% of Republican voters would back him for the presidency (vs. 49% in Trump's case). Even if Pence told the truth, wrecking Trump's reputation, the beneficiary, in terms of the 2024 campaign, would more likely be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis than the former vice president.
That's why Pence will likely continue quietly working to take away democratic rights, in the best bureaucrat-destroyer manner. And he will continue speak publicly about everything except that time when the brute with the stick tried to kidnap and perhaps kill him. As Pence knows better than anyone, that brute is not giving up, but thirsts to get back into the White House and amass enough power so he will never have to leave again.
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