The Perks of Being a Carnival Barker
There was only one time I seriously considered dropping my support for Donald Trump: when he selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. My reaction was very visceral, and was mostly due to Pence’s reputation as a hardcore social conservative. Trump had managed to marginalize social issues during the Republican primary –- something that I thought I would never live to see. For the first time in a long time, the GOP primary debates were not dominated by questions about the age of the earth, the definition of marriage, or abortion. I was on cloud nine, and Pence threatened to bring me back to earth. As soon as Trump confirmed him as his vice presidential pick, I could see the Democrats salivating at a fresh opportunity to revive the War on Women, raise the prospect of the LGBT community being stripped of their newly acquired civil rights, and distract from Trump’s powerful economic message. My heart sank. I was also not impressed with Pence’s performance during the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy, where he somehow managed to anger all sides of the debate, and often came across as unsure, looking like a deer in the headlights as he dealt with a hostile press. I feared that Trump had made a fatal mistake on the scale of John McCain’s mistake in choosing Sarah Palin as his vice president — I even went as far as labeling Pence as the male Sarah Palin.
I am thrilled to have been proven wrong. As I predicted, the Democrats did try to turn Pence into politically radioactive material. Within a day of Trump’s announcement, the Democrat-designated mudslingers and their media helpmates began their familiar attacks, which were very effective in the past. But this time they gained no traction. Unlike in the case of John McCain, who threw Palin to the wolves and stepped away, Trump helped to blunt the attacks against Pence by drawing attention to himself, allowing his running mate to fly under the radar. After the GOP convention, Pence barely received any coverage, and was free to focus on his key task of bringing home recalcitrant Republicans. Whether inviting Russia to produce Hillary’s infamous emails or getting into an extended spat with Khizr Khan, Trump never ran out of new shiny objects to keep all eyes on him, leaving the Democrats talking to themselves about Pence.
The same dynamic that helped Pence is now helping Trump’s Cabinet nominees though the confirmation process. Whatever negative headlines Democrats tried to generate during the hearings have been quickly upstaged by Trump’s brouhaha with John Lewis. Trump also aided his nominees by instructing them to ‘be themselves and not worry about him,’ freeing them from the burden of having to defend his most outlandish statements. More importantly, it also allowed them to come across as mainstream or more moderate and reasonable than the incoming president. Democratic hopes to portray Scott Pruitt, nominated to head the EPA, as a climate denier who would endanger civilization were quickly dashed when he disagreed with Trump’s statement that climate change was a hoax. Other nominees were able to reassure nervous Republicans still attached to the neoliberal world order established after WWII by distancing themselves from Trump’s statements on NATO. And I suspect the same dynamic will hold true after the Trump Administration comes into power. Trump will continue to serve as the provocateur, keeping the press occupied, while his cabinet will fly under the radar, free to focus on their assigned tasks. At one point during the campaign, Obama disparagingly referred to Trump as a carnival barker, but it turns out that’s maybe not such a bad thing after all.