In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, Donald Trump was reportedly livid: not because his running mate, Mike Pence, did poorly, but because he did well—far better than Trump himself fared in his own dismal debate performance. And the precise method of Pence’s success only made things worse.
Trump hates to be outshined. But Pence only managed to “upstage” Trump by strategically diminishing and disclaiming Trump’s political antics, adding insult to narcissistic injury.
In the days since, Trump has coped with Pence’s superior performance by congratulating himself for Pence’s success.
“Mike Pence did an incredible job,” he told a crowd of supporters in Henderson, Nevada, “and I’m getting a lot of credit because that’s really my first so-called choice, my first hire as we would say in Las Vegas.”
But Trump hasn’t fully coped yet with being disrespected by his “first hire.” Whether or not Trump claims credit for Pence’s debate victory can’t change the fact that Pence contradicted Trump under pressure and declined to defend Trump, repeatedly, when prompted. Pence’s strategy was ineluctable—Trump’s basic indecency has forced his supporters to find creative ways around defending the indefensible—but he was also providing a template for the Republican Party’s post-Trump reckoning.
After November, if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Republicans will be tempted to gloss over the entire ugly Trumpian chapter in their history; Pence has shown that, under certain circumstances at least, such a strategy can be successful. The challenge the party will face is Trump himself, who interprets all efforts to play him down as personal indignities. If Sunday’s town hall–style presidential debate isn’t the forum he has in mind for righting Pence’s snub, Clinton will probably bait him into doing it anyhow.
Eventually, though, there will be no mistaking the fact that Trump commandeered the GOP and remade it in his image. And if he loses next month’s election, it’s a safe bet that he’ll lash out just like he did this week, with devastating consequences for the party.
If you’ve paid close attention to the news since Tuesday, you’ve already seen Trump struggle with the desire to reassert himself.
During the VP debate, Pence feigned umbrage at Democrat Tim Kaine’s completely accurate observation that Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail. Pence further contradicted Trump by calling Putin “a small and bullying leader.” His attempt to invert the clear record was ultimately unsuccessful, but Trump couldn’t let well enough alone. Instead, before the same Henderson crowd, he felt compelled to re-establish the fact that he still sees promise in the Russian autocrat: “I don’t love [Putin], I don’t hate. We’ll see how it works. We’ll see. Maybe we’ll have a good relationship. Maybe we’ll have a horrible relationship. Maybe we’ll have a relationship right in the middle.”
Pence likewise grappled with Trump’s mass deportation plan, his proposed Muslim ban, and his nuclear proliferation advocacy by simply denying they exist. His lying was likely an act of self-preservation, but in an axiomatic sense it was also disrespectful. Trump tops the ticket, he sets the agenda, and Pence isn’t supposed to have unilateral authority to rewrite the playbook or speak before Trump has spoken. Even if Pence was simply trying to make it through the debate without self-destructing, he still took liberties Trump can’t be seen to tolerate.
We can be sure that Clinton won’t be generous in her interpretation of Pence’s performance, too. She will emphasize the extent to which Pence overrode Trump, or at least the extent to which Pence’s performance is evidence of complete dysfunction within Trump’s campaign. At some point, whether on the debate stage or in a future rally, Trump will respond by reaffirming his positions, and by implication his dominance.
And this is what Republicans who think they can quietly turn the page on Trump after the fall campaign are missing.
Trump’s narcissism stands in the way of everything Republicans stake their hopes on. He can’t soften or polish his performance because to study and stick to script is to implicitly acknowledge imperfection. Trump claims credit for Pence’s debate performance because to commend and imitate him would be to admit inferiority. He certainly can’t let Pence outmode him on the ticket, and for the same reason he won’t allow other Republicans to imitate Pence—to unctuously fall back on tired right-wing shibboleths as if Trump’s candidacy had just been a bad dream—when their time comes.
Not only did Trump leave an indelible mark on their party, he co-opted its base, which is now primarily loyal to him, not to the GOP as an institution. He also has an immense social media following and writes his own ticket on cable and broadcast news. That’s why Republicans have had to treat him gingerly through all his ugliness, and why they will have to continue to do so after the election. Even if Trump ultimately decides not to launch his own media empire in 2017, he will be able to reach his supporters and, at his discretion, turn them against the GOP. He will punish Republicans if they abandon his anti-immigrant, anti-trade agenda, and there will be hell to pay if they humiliate him personally in the public square or try to write him out of existence.
Republicans are thinking wishfully if they believe this campaign is coming to a merciful end. It will shock them how much Trump happened.