One of the most powerful ideas of the Trump era has been a liberal yearning for a return to “normal,” the impulse to get rid of Donald Trump, get back to brunch, and simply stop paying attention to politics for another four years. It’s what helped give the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden, who promised that, while “nothing will fundamentally change” under him, and the national and global crises that led to Trump will be allowed to fester, you at least “won’t have to worry about my tweets when I’m president.”
Wednesday’s vice presidential debate showed exactly why that idea has always been so dangerous.
For many commentators, Wednesday’s debate, coming after a Trump-Biden matchup near-universally derided as a national embarrassment, was not just a preview of what could be the race in 2024, but the closest we’ve gotten in four years to a simpler, better time. And it’s true that the contest between California senator Kamala Harris — a corporate fundraising machine and prosecutor of the poor who postures as a born-again progressive — and vice president Mike Pence — a hard-right, fundamentalist zealot who presents himself as sober and serious — felt like a trip to a world before Trump’s election ruptured the status quo.
That seems to be exactly how a cohort of the obsessively anti-Trump crowd saw it once it was done.
“It was like a visit to Normal-Politics Land,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Sure, there was some rule-breaking, said her fellow anchor Ari Melber afterward, but it was not the “norm-busting” spectacle of the presidential debate.
“Compared to Donald Trump, Mike Pence is a prince of gentility,” marveled Lawrence O’Donnell on the network. “People who . . . endured that Trump debate, watching this tonight, you have to wonder, are they watching this and thinking, ‘Oh, so it could be like this instead of the insanity, the brawling, stumbling crazy insanity that they saw at the other debate’?”
It wasn’t just MSNBC. “Over the course of a 90-minute debate that was mostly pro-forma, occasionally illuminating and fundamentally normal compared with the ill-tempered shouting match that was last week’s presidential encounter, both [candidates] projected professionalism and competence,” wrote the Economist.
The debate was “weirdly normal” and “came as something of a relief,” wrote Yahoo! News. It was “far closer to a normal presidential contest,” wrote Politico, a “kind of normal [that] isn’t on the ballot right now” and has little to do with the Trump-driven political reality of the day, but was “welcome” right now — and, by implication, will be welcome in 2024. In one of its post-debate write-ups, the New York Times contrasted against Trump’s belligerent showmanship Pence’s “reserved and dutiful approach” and his seeming “to embody what the party thought it needed in a nominee before Mr. Trump came along.”
“The question for more traditional Republicans like Mr. Pence is whether their relatively restrained styles will seem like a comfort to voters who are eager to return to something more normal and familiar,” it concluded.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most noxious voices on the Right echoed this same sentiment. “See, what Pence is doing tonight is what the Trump administration would look like without Twitter,” a giddy Ben Shapiro wrote. “And it is GOOD. VERY GOOD.” Over on Fox, Brit Hume remarked that Pence did a better job of selling Trump’s supposed accomplishments than Trump himself did.
It’s not hard to see why figures like Shapiro are excited. A post-debate FiveThirtyEight-Ipsos poll found that, while respondents generally thought Harris did better, nearly 60 percent thought Pence had a “good” performance, compared to only 33 percent who thought the same of Trump last week, and Pence even marginally improved his “favorable” numbers.
And yet it’s difficult to understand what debate these members of the press were watching. Pence cleared the nearly subterranean bar of not being as obnoxiously belligerent as Trump, sure, but for anyone worried about Trump and the country’s “norms,” they had plenty of material. Pence often ignored both the moderator and her questions, repeatedly flouting the rules and talking over both his opponent and the moderator’s attempts to control the debate. He simply sidestepped a question about what he would do if Trump refuses to accept a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election. And, just as in 2016, he coldly and calmly lied his way through the debate.
This has always been the problem with the myopic brand of anti-Trumpism led by the establishment “Resistance.” It has always been clear that a large portion of whatever cross-party dislike for Trump existed was rooted in stylistic disgust at his personal behavior and tweeting, rather than anything of substance. Instead of viewing Trump as an unvarnished personification of the often crude and ugly politics of the US right, this form of anti-Trumpism has cast him as something unique and exceptional, in the process rehabilitating the “mainstream” US conservatism that supposedly rebels against Trump — but that, in reality, leaves little daylight between itself and him on the things that matter.
If Wednesday’s debate really was a peek into the future, it was a singularly bleak one. This is the “normal” that outlets like MSNBC pine for, and that Joe Biden promises to restore: Trumpism without Trump, packaged and sold in the form of a seemingly competent, sober, “normal” Republican like Pence, a dead-eyed religious extremist who is better positioned to bring the country on board with Trump’s monstrous agenda without inciting the kind of media and public backlash that Trump’s erratic, offensive behavior has.
For Trump’s entire presidency, outlets like the one you’re reading have chided the establishment gatekeepers of US politics. They’ve warned that, rather than using the uniquely reviled figure of Trump to inform the public about why he was really dangerous — that is, his pursuit of the conventional Republican program of nativism and ruling-class warfare that every GOP president has amped up since Ronald Reagan first got the ball rolling — establishment pundits were instead ginning up a ratings-and-sales-driven panic around Trump as something unprecedented and unique that stands apart from everything else on the US spectrum. And that rather than focusing people’s attention on urgent problems like climate change or ballooning wealth inequality and how they led to Trump’s rise, these gatekeepers were herding people’s understandable concerns about his presidency into a misguided desire to go back to an idyllic time that never really existed.
We may be getting a taste of the role Trump will play for years to come, as a laughably low benchmark by which all past and future politicians will be judged, no matter how fundamentally aligned they are with his politics. The warm response to Pence’s performance may very well be the future. And for anyone who opposes Trump for what he actually does, and not what he tweets, that’s a scary thought.