It is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.
Something big happened on February 4 when Vice President Pence clearly rejected Trump’s continuing claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and the Federalist Society applauded. Pence stated:
I heard this week that President Trump said that I had the right to overturn the election. But President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election. The Presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone.
And frankly there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president….
And the truth is there’s more at stake than our party’s political fortunes. Men and women, if we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections — we’ll lose our country.
Has Pence, at long last, found his spine? More likely, political spines are weathervanes, and Pence senses the wind shifting. That the Federalist Society, a bastion of conservative thought that reaped great benefit from the Trump era (three Supreme Court Justices giving them a solid 6-3 majority, along with hundreds of lower court judges) is no longer enamored is yet another sign. GOP officials around the country facing what should be strong electoral prospects, are finding Trump and Trumpism toxic and distracting to their campaigns. Senate leaders have grown frustrated with Trumpist vendettas and fixations and are feeling increasingly free to push back. Reportedly Pence has received an outpouring of support from within the party (although much of it is sotto voce. At least some corners of the Republican party, particularly in elite circles, recognize that it is time to move on.
Elites play an important role in setting agendas, but there should be no illusions that Trumpism has run its course and the GOP is rejecting usurpation and obstruction. While Pence was having his say, the RNC was devoting intense efforts to condemning Representatives Cheney and Kitzinger for their participation on the January 6 committee. Trump himself remains the dominant figure in the party and is fundraising prodigiously. Other putative successors, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, hedge when asked about January 6 and the 2020 election. Trumpian Mini-Mes like Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Madison Cawthorne, and Lauren Boebert remain popular in the delusion-based voting bloc.
The End of the Beginning
That is why the Churchill quote is apt. He made the statement after the second battle of El-Alamein in 1942, which had been an unambiguous defeat Nazi forces advancing on Egypt. Hitler’s dream of an African empire went into a death spiral. This was a single victory on a secondary (albeit important) front. There were three years of hard and terrible war ahead. But, after years of defense and defeat, it was an important sign that the tide was shifting.
Similarly, Trumpism retains great force, and in some ways will intensify. The truck rally occupying Ottawa is almost certain to be imitated here. But the disruption, which may have significant economic effects, while it will rally the Trumpian base, will probably alienate the general public. As it loses on the margins Trumpism will continue to double-down with the faithful reaching increasingly ridiculous narratives. (How can that even be possible one wonders? Just watch, the stupid, crazy, and mean are bottomless.)
As internal conflicts within the GOP grow and as popular support wanes, factions will emerge and atomize. Fueled on this rhetoric of hate and conspiracy, there will be more political violence. As is the way of radical movements, the violence will increasingly drive away the public, but feed the shrinking core of true believers.
Should Trump depart the scene, one of his cannier and more capable acolytes may fill the void (Josh Hawley comes to mind) and prove more capable of pressing the boundaries of acceptable political behavior and further shredding democracy.
The era of relative partisan comity after World War II is not going to return, and even an era of basic partisan courtesy remains some distance away. It is not the end…
And what of former Vice President Pence? It is no small thing for VPs to publicly break from their presidents, whether in office or later. John C. Calhoun did, he split with John Quincy Adams and supported Andrew Jackson in 1828. Then he broke with Jackson and resigned the office. Otherwise, VPs, whatever private frustrations they may have, stay publicly cordial.
Pence, of course, wants to be president. He may see a path. As a radio personality in Indiana he described himself as “Rush on decaf.” His worldview may have been the same, but he was less bombastic and more cordial. Perhaps he believes he can play this role again, a Trump on decaf – advancing Trumpist policy but without the rage, pettiness, and cruelty (to say nothing of the endless scandals.)
Pence is unlikely to thread this needle because for much of the base rage, pettiness, and cruelty is the point.
But Pence may play a constructive role in bringing the GOP back from the anti-democratic precipice from which it threatens to pull down the nation. Perhaps he will provide cover for other Republicans seeking to break free of the all-smothering Trumpism. This is not an endorsement of Pence’s policies or worldview. But, to quote Churchill again, “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”