Pence’s Particular Responsibility to Denounce Trump’s “Electoral McCarthyism”

Yes, we all should be grateful that Pence ultimately did the right thing on January 6. And, yes, we all should feel sympathy for Pence and his family given the grave personal threat he faced from the “Hang Mike Pence” insurrectionists that day.

But I’ve long believed, and continue to believe, that Pence bears considerable responsibility for the “Big Lie” cancer that has so dangerously metastasized and threatens to destroy the nation’s democracy. If on December 15, 2020, Pence had given the kind of concession speech that Mitch McConnell gave–recognizing the election to be over after the presidential electors had cast their Electoral College votes and acknowledging that Biden and Harris were the valid winners after all the litigation that the Trump-Pence campaign had filed and lost–Pence would have undercut Trump’s capacity to build momentum for his “Big Lie” grievance. Instead, Pence continued to flirt with Trump’s completely spurious claim of a stolen election all the way to January 4, when in his speech at a Georgia rally (at 26:14) he declared: “I know we all got our doubts about the last election.” He then immediately added: “I want to assure you I share the concerns of millions of Americans about voting irregularities.” While these words didn’t go so far as to say explicitly that he believed himself and his running mate to have been the rightful winners of a second term, he strongly hinted in that direction. He continued with his own support for the effort to challenge the Biden-Harris victory in the joint session of Congress scheduled for two days later: “I promise you come this Wednesday we’ll have our day in Congress, we’ll hear the objections, we’ll hear the evidence.” This is hardly the message of a candidate who acknowledges he lost the election for the basic reason that the voters preferred the opposing ticket.

Accordingly, I agree wholeheartedly with Henry Olsen’s new column that Pence has an obligation to forcefully denounce Trump’s persistent “Big Lie” assertion that he and Pence were the true winners in 2020. As Olsen correctly observes, Pence doesn’t have to say that everything was perfect in the administration of the 2020 election. It wasn’t. No election ever is, and in my judgment there were some serious missteps by some state officials in the battleground states (particularly Pennsylvania, in my view). But these mistakes of election administration didn’t come close to changing the outcome in any of the states that gave the Biden-Harris ticket their Electoral College majority–much less enough of them to flip the Electoral College outcome in favor of Trump-Pence. It has been utterly irresponsible for Pence to go along with Trump as much as he has in causing rank-and-file Republican voters to believe that the election was stolen and that Biden and Harris were wrongfully inaugurated on January 20. As Olsen rightly argues, Pence owes it to the nation–far too belatedly in my view, but better late than never–to declare unequivocally that Biden and Harris received enough valid votes to give them the victories in the states that formed their Electoral College majority. It was an authentic win, and Pence should make emphatically clear that he repudiates Trump’s constant and abhorrent claim to the contrary. In Olsen’s words, Pence should “state clearly and forthrightly that he — and by extension, Trump — lost.”

I don’t know if Pence’s doing this will be enough to deflate the Electoral McCarthyism that has gripped Republican voters and so threatens the Republic. The insidious danger of the “paranoid style of American politics”–of which Trump’s Electoral McCarthyism is an especially grave threat because it directly afflicts the crucial component of self-government entailed in the counting of ballots–is that it’s so hard for rationality to negate the irrationality of McCarthyism-like paranoia once it’s taken hold. But it is essential that Pence attempt to repair the damage that he has done in letting the Big Lie get to this point without his full-throated opposition to it. Crass political calculations might cause Pence to continue to hold his tongue on this crucial point (for reasons that Olsen elaborates), but if Pence has any sense of patriotism he should see his duty to the country clearly: “government by the people” in America is threatened by Trump’s Big Lie in a way it has never been before, and Pence as Trump’s running-mate in 2020 has a unique role to play in the effort to negate this increasingly serious risk.

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