If you happen to be a Republican Party member of Congress it would be really convenient to believe that Ross Douthat, Erik Erickson, Rich Lowry, Jay Nordlinger, David Frum, and all the other conservative writers and intellectuals horrified by Donald Trump are mistaken. It would be nice to believe that Trump, while maybe not the strongest candidate the GOP could field, is at least okay. And most of all, it would be nice to believe that Trump, while maybe not the ideal president from a policy viewpoint, would at least do a pretty good job.
People are pretty good at coming to believe things that it would be psychologically and emotionally comforting for them to believe.
Which is why congressional Republicans — lead by House Speaker Paul Ryan — are currently in the process of convincing themselves that this is all true. And Mike Pence, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, is that evidence.
As Burgess Everett and Matthew Nussbaum recently reported for Politico, "Capitol Hill Republicans believe Pence could be their man in the White House, a liaison they're hoping would bend the nominee toward the conservative agenda they're hoping for — and make the pride-swallowing they've done to back a man who spent the primary belittling them worth it after all."
"Now, I think if you look at one of the big reasons that I chose Mike, and one of the reasons is party unity," Trump said during his bizarre speech introducing Pence to the nation. "I have to be honest. So many people have said 'party unity,' because I'm an outsider."
It seems to be working. And if you believe it, you might be gullible enough to be interested in enrolling in Trump University.
Mike Pence is a replacement-level Republican
Once upon a time, Mike Pence was the leader of the Republican Study Committee, an insurgent group of hard-right House members who created hassles for the Bush/Hastert/Delay Republican Party of the mid-aughts.
But since becoming governor of Indiana, Pence has discovered a bit of a pragmatic streak, and the Republican Party as a whole has moved much closer to RSC positions on a wide range of issues.
That’s turned Pence into the very model of the modern generic Republican. Except he turns out to actually not be that good at it. One big reason Trump picked Pence is party unity. But one big reason Pence put himself forward so aggressively for the job is that he’s become unpopular in his home state and was in very real risk of losing his reelection fight. Other Republican governors in states from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio to Massachusetts, Maryland, Texas, Tennessee, and beyond have shown a defter political touch.
Pence is basically a replacement-level Republican. Unremarkable, not especially skilled, but good enough if you’re into that sort of thing.
Mike Pence suggests Trump will build a normal administration
After Barack Obama’s underdog win to capture the Democratic Party nomination in 2008 and then defeat John McCain in the general election, he went on to staff an administration full of veterans of Bill Clinton’s administration — exactly what Hillary Clinton would have done.
Which is to say that we are living through the era of what Williams College political scientist William Skinner has termed the "partisan presidency," in which a more or less fixed pool of party people can be counted on to staff an administration regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were fierce rivals during the GOP primary, but their administrations would have had very similar people doing very similar jobs had they won. But so would Rick Perry or Scott Walker. It takes a lot of people — thousands — to staff the federal government, after all. You can’t do it without tapping the party network.
The reassuring signal Pence sends is that Trump gets this. If he puts a generic Republican in place as VP, then he’ll surely recognize he also needs a generic Republican as national security adviser and another one as Treasury secretary. His Cabinet will be full of known quantities familiar to the congressional leadership and eager to work with them.
A Trump administration may end up being a little weirder or more flamboyant than a Romney administration or a Jindal administration, but in all the ways that matter it will be basically the same. That’s the theory, at least.
There’s no sign Trump actually respects Mike Pence
Selecting Mike Pence was clearly designed as a gesture of party unity.
It’s a gesture Trump immediately undermined by going on television and saying he has to "be honest" and say he picked Pence because of "party unity."
It’s a weird longstanding tic in Trump that we saw in his books: He sometimes comes right out and admits that he’s bullshitting you. He even does this in his campaign book, Crippled America.
And he did it again in his Pence introduction. He didn’t pick Pence because he genuinely values Pence's judgment and thinking and intends to rely on him as a mentor in the ways of Washington and governance. He picked him for party unity.
You saw the same thing during the joint interview on 60 Minutes when Lesley Stahl pressed Trump on how he could slam Hillary Clinton for favoring the Iraq War (NB: Trump did not actually oppose the Iraq War, but Stahl doesn’t seem to know this) while his running mate did the same thing.
"Your running mate voted for it," Stahl said.
Trump’s reply? "I don't care."
Lesley Stahl: But you've harped on this.
Donald Trump: But I was against the war in Iraq from the beginning.
Lesley Stahl: Yeah, but you've used that vote of Hillary [Clinton]'s that was the same as Gov. Pence as the example of her bad judgment.
Donald Trump: Many people have, and frankly, I'm one of the few that was right on Iraq.
Lesley Stahl: Yeah, but what about he—
Donald Trump: He's entitled to make a mistake every once in a while.
Lesley Stahl: But she's not? Okay, come on—
Donald Trump: But she's not—
Lesley Stahl: She's not?
Donald Trump: No. She's not.
Lesley Stahl: Got it.
Trump isn't saying he talked this through with Pence and they reached a meeting of the minds on foreign policy. He’s not saying he talked this through with Pence and they agreed to disagree but he deeply respects the quality of Pence’s thinking, and knows from business experience that it’s important to have a free and open dialogue. He’s not saying that despite the disagreement over Iraq, he and Pence have a broadly shared outlook on national security issues.
He’s saying he doesn’t care what Pence did or thinks. He’s entitled to make mistakes. Why not.
Republicans should be very afraid
Okay, this next part is a giant Godwin’s law violation.
And I want to be clear about something — I’m not saying that Donald Trump is similar to Adolf Hitler, I’m just making an analogy between two broadly similar situations knowing that World War II is a historical period many people are familiar with. There just don’t happen to be a lot of famous historical turning points that involve the selection of a vice head of government.
So here goes.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazi Party didn’t have a majority in the German parliament and didn’t hold the then-powerful post of president, which was in the hands of Paul von Hindenburg, an establishment conservative. Hindenburg agreed to appoint Hitler chancellor on condition that one of his close advisers, Franz von Papen, serve as vice chancellor and that the vast majority of cabinet posts be allocated to establishment conservatives.
"Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in the corner that he'll squeak," Papen boasted to friends, according to historian Ian Kershaw. When warned that he and his allies in the establishment had placed themselves in a dangerous position by empowering Hitler, Papen responded: "No, we’ve hired him."
The good news is that Trump does not, as far as I know, plan to establish a totalitarian dictatorship and then embark on a campaign of conquest and genocide.
The bad news for GOP congressional leaders is that the idea that if Trump obtains not just the nomination but the presidency then they’ll finally be able to control him is insane. They have less leverage over Trump today than they had a month ago, they had less a month ago than they had three months ago, and they’ll have less leverage than ever if he wins. It’s true that Trump would need Ryan’s help and collaboration to pass an ambitious legislative agenda, but Trump doesn’t have an ambitious legislative agenda.
He needs some money appropriated for a wall (or maybe he’ll get Mexico to pay for it) and to beef up the border patrol, but that’s easy enough to get. He can largely implement a de facto Muslim ban through executive action, and the rest of his "policy agenda" — arresting Hillary Clinton, creating a climate of impunity for people who commit violent acts against his political opponents, regulatory retaliation against publishers of hostile media coverage, and stealing foreigners’ oil — are all executive matters as well.
Trump can’t unilaterally kick all Hispanic judges off the bench, but presumably appointing jurists who’ll rule in a manner favorable to his business interests will be a top priority, and he doesn’t need Ryan or Pence for any of that.