The nation has been through a grueling, unprecedented post-election period. President Donald Trump, who lost the election by a wide margin in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, refuses to accept the judgment of the American people and has bombarded the courts with lawsuits to overturn the results. Even as those were failing, Trump urged governors and state legislators to ignore the will of the voters and name electors who would hand him a second term. According to The New York Times, he’s now flirting with imposing martial law.
Since Election Day, the nation has witnessed an appalling, fundamentally un-American series of moves, a fusillade of blazing arrows fired directly into the heart of our democracy. Trump sought not just to undermine time-tested principles like fair elections and the right of Americans to choose our leaders but to lay waste to them.
Did this have to happen? Given Trump’s massive ego and his bottomless capacity for self-delusion, that question is debatable. But there is one man who carried within him the possibility of derailing, or at least slowing down, Trump’s runaway train of chaos. Yet this man not only did nothing to stop Trump, he actually made the situation worse by enabling him.
That man is Vice President Mike Pence. If Pence, who prides himself on being an evangelical Christian of unmatched principles, had stood up early on and stated bluntly that Trump did not win the election, if he had extended a hand to President-elect Joe Biden, if he had dared to live in the real world for the past six weeks, it might have made a real difference. Yes, Trump’s cult of personality is strong – but had Pence chosen to lead, enough conservatives might have followed him to spare the country so much pain.
But Pence didn’t lead – he cowered. A dutiful sycophant, he used code words, calling for the nation to “count every legal vote” (except, of course, for the hundreds of thousands of ballots Trump and his supporters sought to exclude in several battleground states) and discard “illegal” ones (if there were any, they were not enough to change the outcome). The best he could muster was to remain silent over some of Trump’s more outrageous claims. But if Pence believes his silence shields him, he is sadly mistaken; indeed, it speaks volumes about the kind of man he really is. Pence knew Trump was lying. He also knew that Trump’s lies were doing great damage to the country Pence claims to love. Pence had the power to correct the lies, yet he made the conscious decision to do nothing. He is morally culpable.
And let’s be clear about one thing: Trump’s lies did massive harm. They undermined faith in our democracy; they misled people; they led to threats of violence against government officials; they inspired marauding crowds of racist, misogynistic goons to rampage in the nation’s capital and attack Black churches.
How hard would it have been for Pence to break with Trump and condemn even one of these things? Yet he couldn’t find the moral courage to do it.
When the nation really needed him, when our very democratic institutions were under attack, when a raging demagogue and his allies seriously suggested that we ignore the will of tens of millions of Americans, Pence could have stood for the country and spoken out, as a precious few GOP leaders did. Instead, he was right there alongside Trump, tacitly endorsing his assault on democracy.
Why did Pence fail to stand up for America and its bedrock values? Probably because he hopes to run for president himself at some point in the future and doesn't want to make an enemy of Trump. Thus Pence, an evangelical Christian who makes a big deal of his claims of virtue, proved himself to be the thing he always told the Religious Right he was not: another power-obsessed politician whose claims to morality can be put aside if they get in the way of ambition.
There are times in life when we are tested. Truly principled and ethical people know that when these tests come, you may have to sacrifice something you really want and value to pass. For Pence, this would have meant possibly putting aside his dream of higher office because he was called to do something more important: protect our democracy.
For all his talk of values, morals and decency, when that test came for Pence, not only did he fail – and by extension, fail our nation – he didn’t even try to pass it.
Remember that the next time Pence or one of his “values voters” starts to lecture you on morality.