Euan McColm: The madness of the US debate

It’s a measure of the madness of our times that last week’s debate between the candidates to be the next vice president of the USA was remarkable for its relative civility.

Sunday, 11th October 2020, 12:35 am
Updated Sunday, 11th October 2020, 12:42 am
US Vice President Mike Pence during the vice presidential debate with US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California Kamala Harris in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah
US Vice President Mike Pence during the vice presidential debate with US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California Kamala Harris in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah

That Mike Pence – Donald Trump’s number two – and his Democrat challenger, Kamala Harris, were able to get through the event without it descending into an unseemly slanging match was something of a relief after the first presidential debate. That event saw Trump at his most unpleasant and mendacious while his Democrat challenger, Joe Biden, was frequently slow and seemingly uncertain.

And, so, here we are: a debate has been judged a success not for its substance but for its tone.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But let’s not rush to praise Pence for managing to rise above the level set by his running mate. The incumbent vice president may not have descended into the gutter inhabited by Trump, but he is completely complicit in the commander-in-chief’s denigration of democracy.

Minister for the Cabinet Office, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, arrives at Downing Street on September 8, 2020 in London, England.

Politics is full of big personalities and weak people. Trump is among the former while Pence is a textbook example of the latter. He is an enabler, a beta, willing to ignore or excuse the most appalling behaviour in the interests of his own career.

Pence may not, for example, have said anything racist during his debate with Harris, but he serves and supports a man who can barely open his mouth without attacking some minority group or other. The Pences of this world allow the Trumps to prosper.

Back in 2016, when the Republican Party was going through the process of selecting its presidential candidate, Senator Lindsey Graham warned that if the party nominated Trump it would get destroyed and it would deserve it.

Now, Graham is just another enabler, another weak man supporting a president whose unfitness for office has been confirmed on every day he occupies the White House.

Where once Graham attacked Trump’s character now he’s among his most fierce defenders, a golfing buddy on whom the president can rely to go out and bat for him. Polls now suggest that Graham may struggle to hold the Senate seat for South Carolina – a fate he would richly deserve.

Political enablers are not unique to America. Here in the UK, there are countless examples of morally weak politicians willing to overlook the failings of their leader in the name of electoral victory. When Boris Johnson planned to challenge for the Conservative leadership after victory for the Leave campaign in the EU referendum prompted David Cameron to step down as prime minister, cabinet minister Michael Gove fired a rocket through his campaign. In a most remarkable intervention, Gove – who had been working to build support for a Johnson leadership bid – announced that he had “reluctantly” come to the conclusion that his colleague could not provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. Johnson withdrew from the race and Theresa May went on to succeed Cameron.

But just three years later, Gove had decided that – in fact – Johnson was precisely the man for the job. All that chatter about Johnson being unfit to lead was quickly forgotten and now Gove is among the PM’s loudest cheerleaders.

Lest anyone think we Scots are immune to this sort of thing, it’s worth remembering that when Alex Salmond returned for a second stint as SNP leader in 2004, he did so with the support of a number of nationalist politicians who harboured grave doubts about his character. SNP spin doctors privately conceded that Salmond could be difficult and even unpleasant but insisted that he was working hard to change.

Of course, all politicians – if they want to change the world – require power, and so it should hardly be a surprise when they fall into line behind leaders. But, in the case of Trump, this support represents complicity in something dark.

The US president has spent the past four years fomenting racial division, undermining the national security of the country he leads, and lying to the world. He has shifted the line of what is acceptable in public life and the ground lost may never be recovered.

The fingerprints of Pence, Graham and countless others are all over this political vandalism.

In the aftermath of the VP debate, much was made of the fact that the participants were unusually close to power. It is often said that the vice president is just a heartbeat away from power. Should the leader become incapacitated or die, the VP steps up. Trump is now 74, while Biden is 77, so it is entirely possible that Pence or Harris could find themselves in the top job.

US commentators added that both VP candidates were showing what they were made of with a view to launching their own presidential campaigns in the future. Pence, said some, was surely the front-runner to be the next Republican nominee.

But is that really so? Should, as polls now predict, Trump lose the election next month, why could anyone with a lick of sense decide to back Pence in future? The VP has thrown his lot in with a man who has made a mockery of the office he holds and there will surely be consequences for that.

Pence may have managed to get through last week’s debate without saying anything especially outrageous but that does not change the fact that he is a Trump enabler. And if Donald Trump’s political career is ended by the American people next month, so, too, should Mike Pence’s.

Political enablers who dine on scraps handed down by unfit leaders deserve to starve when those leaders are found out.