Two paths for the Republican Party were on display in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday—at least according to several media reports. Dueling speeches from former President Donald Trump, appearing at the America First Policy Institute, and his lackey turned (sort of) rival Mike Pence, appearing at Young America’s Foundation, were billed as competing political visions. On the one hand, there were Trump’s apocalyptic ravings about out of control crime and homelessness, paired with his obsessive focus on imagined fraud in the 2020 election; on the other, there was Pence, insisting that the party must look toward the future—an implicit, thinly veiled rebuke of his former boss.
A New York Times story noted their “unique rivalry”; the Associated Press, meanwhile, noted that a “stark GOP divide” was on display in the speeches, which “highlighted the divisions within the party between Trump loyalists who still refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election and other Republicans who believe the party should instead focus on the future heading into this fall’s midterm elections and beyond.” Politico Playbook highlighted several questions raised by the speeches: “Which vision do they want the party to follow? Which do they think is more appealing to the voters they need in order to win a majority? And even if they agree with Trump on the issues, is his focus—with its dark tone and feedback-loop quality—helpful in that pursuit?”
Trump and Pence do have a rivalry. But that rivalry tells us much less about the present, let alone future, of the Republican Party than these analyses suggest. The rivalry essentially boils down to one thing. Trump wanted Pence to steal the election for him on January 6, 2021; Pence probably couldn’t do this but also didn’t try. Trump not only blamed—and continues to blame—Pence for him “losing” in 2020, but also unleashed a mob of his supporters on him at the Capitol on that day. Pence’s true feelings about Trump’s complicity in that assault aren’t known. They probably won’t be. Pence wants to be president and therefore can only break so far from the most powerful and popular person in the party—his old boss who, again, almost got him killed. That, in essence, is what the “rivalry” between Trump and Pence is about.
There is a larger extrapolation in these pieces, though one that’s largely left unsaid. While Trump continues to rail about the “stolen” election, Pence had a softer message: “Some people may choose to focus on the past, but elections are about the future,” he said at Young America’s Foundation. Trump has, and will continue to make, baseless allegations about voter fraud in the 2020 election the centerpiece of his political project; Pence, meanwhile, would prefer to talk about other stuff.
But this is a conversation about optics more than anything else. In substance, there’s little actually separating the two. Pence may not want Trump to talk so much—and certainly not so rabidly—about voter fraud, but he isn’t exactly going around loudly insisting that the two actually lost in 2020. Few Republicans are. Pence, for what it’s worth, has never acknowledged this fact and has instead merely said that his ex-boss was “wrong” to suggest he had the power to overturn the election.
Pence, and other Republicans like him, are more than happy for figures like Trump to whip up their base with ridiculous charges—and then turn those ridiculous charges into laws that restrict the right to vote in states across the country. Whether or not Republicans should talk so much about voter fraud is one thing. But they’re in agreement that using the fake furor over a stolen election to pass laws that increase their odds of winning elections is hunky-dory.
Pence may want Republicans to look to the future, but he’s hardly offering a sunny vision for the future. In the spring, Pence released a pamphlet-length policy agenda called the “Freedom Agenda,” largely focused on Trumpish fearmongering about “critical race theory,” socialism, and, above all, rising crime. On Tuesday, he may not have been as voluble or as ominous as his predecessor, but he sounded many of the same notes. He decried the “pernicious woke agenda,” saying it was “designed to control the American people and destroy the American dream.” He lambasted the “radical gender left” and accused Democrats of dumping “toxic waste into the headwaters of our culture.” He attacked Democrats for rising crime and said, “Our borders are under siege.” This isn’t as rhetorically unhinged as what Trump said in his speech. But it more or less offers up the same basic platform and the same analysis of what currently ails America.
This isn’t true of just Pence. Republicans are running on Trumpism everywhere. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin was praised by many in the press for keeping his distance from Trump, but this was mostly true in a literal sense: The two didn’t appear together, and Youngkin largely didn’t mention the former president. But he nevertheless ran and won the governorship in late 2019 on a Trumpish program, one that insisted that Democrats were forcing students to learn a “woke” curriculum and were preventing police from responding to increases in violent crime. Ron DeSantis, the current governor of Florida who seems most likely to succeed Trump, has won plaudits for forging fake culture wars against Disney and denying the severity of Covid-19. Would-be usurpers of Donald Trump have a simple problem: Why would voters go for something different when the real thing is very much available?
Pence on Tuesday said it best. Asked about the “divide” between himself and Trump, Pence responded, “I don’t know that our movement is that divided. I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, but we may differ on focus.” He’s right.