Vice President Mike Pence’s unreality show

A campaign stop in Wisconsin shows an administration adrift

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a press conference on Tuesday, July 14, 2020 during a visit to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a roundtable discussion with state leaders about reopening schools. (Photo by Wes Muller/LAI).
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a press conference on Tuesday, July 14, 2020 during a visit to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a roundtable discussion with state leaders about reopening schools. (Photo by Wes Muller | Lousiana Illuminator).

Mike Pence loves us. He really loves us.

The Vice President came to Wisconsin for the fifth time this year on Friday, making stops in Oshkosh, Ripon and La Crosse and delivering an uplifting speech about “freedom” the history of the Republican Party and the soul of America to a group of about 50 socially distanced people at Ripon College. (Before the event, the college clarified that it had not invited Pence, had only agreed to rent him some space on campus, would equally welcome a visit from Biden, and that it was requiring him to wear a mask). We love you, too, Mike Pence!

The crowd may have been tiny — and spread out — but you have to hand it to Pence: the man has chutzpah. As COVID-19 cases spike and the economy hits the skids for what is now projected to be a continued downhill slide well into the fall, the veep cheerfully touted the successes of the Trump administration “boosting the economy to record levels before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” according to the White House pool reporter on the scene.

Ah, but we are now living in the period after the coronavirus hit, and those old records do not play so well.

Unbothered by such pesky details, Pence called the pandemic “a time of testing.” That’s funny, because Wisconsin has had a hard time getting adequate testing supplies from the Trump/Pence administration.

“Wisconsin continues to suffer due to an insufficient federal response to our state’s testing needs,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth) stated at a Capitol Hill press conference back in April.  “The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been non-existent in its abilities to quickly get us the supplies we need or even information about the status of those supplies.”

Pocan was following up on FEMA’s nonresponse to letters urging the release of testing materials from Gov. Tony Evers and Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson. 

But “testing,” to Pence, was merely a figure of speech. He segued from the pandemic “time of testing” to the election’s “time for choosing.”

And that’s where he came to his main point — the choice we all face in the 2020 presidential election.

“I came here to the city of Ripon, Wisconsin, where the Republican party was born to describe that choice,”  Pence declared.

“When that first convention met here in 1854 they wrote that their decision to found a new political party had been ‘forced upon us by the slave power and in the defense of freedom.’ They said that they would cooperate and be known as Republicans,” Pence continued. “Six years later they elected the first Republican president who ushered in the abolition of slavery and the advancement of our highest ideals, and four months from now, I know our party will elect another Republican president when we re-elect President Donald Trump for four more years.” 

Queue scattered applause from the 50 socially distanced onlookers in Ripon.

But let’s pause a moment and unpack Pence’s words, which can so easily wash over us, imbued as they are with familiar clichés and not that interesting, it seems, even to the Vice President, who hardly seemed to hear them.

“Forced upon us by the slave power” is not the sort of language one generally hears from the Trump administration, which has drifted so far from the Party of Lincoln as to become entirely unmoored from those “highest ideals” the abolitionists were advancing. Those ideals could be accurately summed up as Black Lives Matter. 

But now we are at a new “crossroads of freedom”  Pence told the crowd in Ripon, warning darkly that Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, will take America down the road to “socialism and decline.” 

“Joe Biden would weaken the thin blue line between order and chaos” he added, while Trump would “back the Blue.” 

“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” 

So much for ideals.

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Pence attacked Biden for calling America “systemically racist” and said he “capitulated to the radical leftwing mob” by supporting cuts to law enforcement. 

There were many more attacks. “It’s not so much whether America will be more conservative or more liberal, more Republican or Democrat, more red or blue, it’s about whether America remains America.” 

It’s pretty clear that things aren’t that great. The Trump campaign appears to be shooting just to make America America again. 

Pence went on to meet with some dairy farmers, whose votes the campaign badly needs. Pulling off another slim victory in rural Wisconsin is critical to Trump’s re-election strategy. 

A lot of farmers who voted for Trump the first time were pissed off by NAFTA and years of neglect and contempt from both parties in Washington. But, as Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden wrote in a recent commentary for the Examiner, over the last four years, Trump’s trade wars and agriculture policies have been a disaster. Trump’s Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue came to Wisconsin, the number-one state for farm bankruptcies, in the midst of the worst family farm crisis in recent memory, and told family farmers if they can’t compete with giant corporate mega-farms, they might just be out of luck. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement Trump signed does nothing to change the terrible problems of depressed prices and a system based on overproduction. It’s known in Washington as NAFTA 2.0.

The upside-down reality of the Trump/Pence campaign is downright dizzying. 

Pence gave a shoutout to ICE in his speech, and took a jab at Biden for criticizing Trump’s border wall (while standing in an area of Wisconsin where the dairy industry is about 80% dependent on undocumented Latin American labor).

“Joe Biden is for open borders, an end to deportations, free lawyers and free healthcare for illegal immigrants, all paid by American taxpayers.” he declared.

And yet, in the same speech, he quoted from the dedication on the Statue of Liberty, calling America an “asylum of hope” for those “yearning to breathe free”.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

Pence trotted out the same lines he’s used in Wisconsin before about how our state is the “birthplace of education freedom” because we are increasingly siphoning taxpayers’ money into private-school tuition. That, too, is a sore point lately, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tries to rewrite decades-old federal funding rules to divert money intended for public schools that serve low-income children into private schools, including those that charge hefty tuition and mostly serve the rich.

When Pence left Ripon, he flew to La Crosse, where, according to the White House pool reporter, “A small but energetic group of Trump supporters held supportive signs, cheered and waved as the motorcade left the airport.”

The pool report made it sound like Pence got a pretty positive reception, especially considering he is campaigning in a pandemic his administration failed to tamp down and touting an economic boom that has dissolved into a looming depression. It was hard to believe, until I read the fine print.

That pool report was filed by official White House correspondent Charlie Spiering — of Breitbart News.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.