There was a passing moment last Thursday when it appeared that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign might actually make a traditional decision. Around midday, first Roll Call and then other media outlets began reporting that Trump had finally landed on Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. Pence was an uninspiring vice-presidential choice to be sure. But with even the most milquetoast GOP backbenchers flinching at the mere thought of joining the Trump ticket, and with the unfathomably awful choices of Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie as the other finalists, choosing Pence was a downright responsible move. The fact that the pick leaked nearly twenty-four hours before Trump was set to introduce the governor through the campaign’s Swiss-cheese shaped hull was of no moment. The long awaited “pivot” was finally at hand.
It turns out Trump was just catching his breath. Over the course of a dizzying two days, Trump proceeded to thrash violently from one extreme to another. He first pushed back against the notion that he had made any decision at all. Then, he announced that in light of the Nice terrorist attack he would postpone the VP announcement from its previously scheduled time of Friday at 11:00am to a date uncertain. That dramatic nod to the solemnity of the senseless loss of life in Europe that evening did not stop him from openly speculating on the vice presidential selection process later that night on cable television, suggesting that he was closing on a pick but that he hadn’t made a “final, final decision.” All of which was a mere prelude for frenzied talks with his advisors that night as to whether he could get out of the Pence selection, followed by midnight pillow-talk with old fling Christie, who tried to convince Trump to get back together. The next morning Trump simply tweeted that Pence was his man, reversing his pledge the night before to hold off on the announcement in solidarity with the French people and eliminating the suspense that linking the revelation with a rally would provide.
As if all of this weren’t enough, the actual announcement was a see-it-to-believe-it event. Dispensing with the excitement of a swing-state rally, Trump chose to hold a press gathering to reveal the new ticket. At that event, rather than quickly proclaim his choice and introduce his man, Trump delivered a twenty-eight-minute address. And what a speech it was. As MSNBC blogger Steve Bennen put it that day:
About half-way through a long, rambling, self-indulgent diatribe that largely ignored the man who was supposed to be the subject of the speech, Trump told his audience: “Back to Mike Pence. So one of the primary reasons I chose Mike was I looked at Indiana, and I won Indiana big”…“Back to Mike Pence” was a fascinating realization that Trump apparently forgot the point of this morning’s event, but note that Trump didn’t actually transition to talking about Pence at all…Even when introducing his running mate to a national audience, Donald J. Trump really only wanted to talk about his favorite subject: Donald J. Trump.”
One thing seems reasonably clear about the presumptive nominee and his new sidekick: Donald Trump and Mike Pence seem like oil and water. Personally, the mild-mannered, deeply religious Hoosier shares none of the excitement, brashness, and shameless self-promotion of New York’s famous five-letter word. Attitudinally, the two men appear to have little in common. Pence once penned an op-ed forswearing negative campaigning. Trump relishes flaying supposed adversaries over even the mildest slight. Pence appears to have a modicum of at least feigned humility, willing to shower his new partner with effusive praise. Trump can barely get through a sentence about his ally without swiftly veering back to himself. And on policy, Pence’s newfound allegiance to Trumpism requires significant historical revision. Pence supported cuts to Medicare and the privatization of Social Security, while Trump has decried any cuts to so-called entitlement programs. Pence was a fervent free-trader who supported NAFTA and recently endorsed the Transpacific Partnership trade accord. Trump recently called the TPP “a rape of our country.” Pence was a drum-beating foot-soldier in George W. Bush’s military adventurism, while Trump has blasted the former president for lying America into war. And the Indiana Governor frequently rejected the most outrageous Trumpian proclamations before he decided to join the ticket. It isn’t a great fit.
Indeed, it is precisely these policy differences that has led the political coverage of the wisdom of Trump’s choice. Some pundits seemed to agree with the candidate’s belief that Pence would help shore up and consolidate the movement conservative, Ted Cruz wing of the party (“one of the reasons is party unity, I have to be honest”). Certainly, reluctant Trump supporters in the party leadership were heartened by the pick. On the other hand, there’s a persuasive case that Pence was not the “safe” choice he appears to be. No one, the thinking goes, could make Trump look like a stable choice for leader. Those concerned about his temperament will not be swayed by the decision to install a steady yes-man clearly destined to be ignored by his presidential counterpart for however long this ride takes them. What Pence does change, that even the ghastly Gingrich and Christie could not, is the perception that Trump is not-so-secretly moderate on (or at least uninterested in) social issues. Pence is a known culture warrior, with a long history of fighting abortion and gay rights. To the extent that vice-presidential picks matter, perhaps the Democrats can use Pence to make the argument that Trump really is a right-wing extremist on more than just immigration and race.
Far be it from this piece of political analysis to criticize that practice in others, but these standard-issue musings on the state of play seem misplaced. Those looking to reconcile Trump’s feverish actions over this bizarre long weekend or parse the meaning of Trump’s choice of Pence over Gingrich and Christie make the same mistake that the soothsayers do in divining the purpose of any Trumpian action. At this point, more than a year into this awful experiment, its abundantly clear that nothing Trump does is planned or considered ahead of time.
Take just the two most recent revelations from the latest exploration into Trump’s past—one distant and the other more recent. First, Jane Mayer in The New Yorker profiled Tony Schwartz—the man who ghostwrote Trump’s bestselling book “The Art of the Deal.” In his time shadowing Trump in the late ‘80s, Schwartz discovered that Trump was a deeply ignorant, self-absorbed man. Schwartz now describes Trump as someone with no patience for thinking or learning, a man who Schwartz doubts “has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” “This fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told Mayer. “It’s impossible to keep him focused on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes.”
Second, McKay Coppins published a fascinating read in Buzzfeed detailing the lead-up to Trump’s presidential announcement, in which his sources relate Trump’s jaw-dropping reasons for getting into the race. It is a devastating account of Trump’s dog-like attention span and his single-minded focus on attention and respect, or the lack thereof. The kicker is a description of a presidential announcement process reminiscent of the Pence rollout, replete with crippling indecision and snap judgments. After it appeared that Trump might back out of the race at the last minute after all, as he done so often in the past, his aides motivated him to go forward with the run by reminding him of the naysayers. Coppins writes: “Trump adopted this as a kind of mantra in those final, anxious days before entering the race. ‘They’re never gonna say I didn’t run,’ he recited to one aide after another. ‘They’re never gonna say I didn’t run.’” The only voices Trump listens to besides his own are those talking about him.
So throw out whatever it is you had prepared on Trump’s choice. Disregard whatever you’ve heard about Pence’s impact on the ticket. There is no meaning in Trump’s presidential quest. The bloviating is all.
The night after the Trump-Pence introduction, the new dynamic duo made a joint appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Trump continued his run of unhinged egotism by constantly interrupting his own vice-presidential nominee. Sensing that Trump might prove the source of greater material than the practiced and polished Pence, interviewer Leslie Stahl obliged Trump’s frequent disruptions and pressed the showman on the many policy differences between the two men. Iraq came up. Trump, of course, has made Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War a central indictment of her judgment. “Your running mate,” Stahl coolly reminded Trump, “voted for it.” Unfazed, Trump answered with the simple words that have defined his campaign. “I don’t care,” he said.