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Mike Pence’s Hollow Populism

An elite in sheep’s clothing.
by Jim Swift
August 20, 2019
Mike Pence’s Hollow Populism
Just another man of the people. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Vice President Mike Pence is not a billionaire. That’s one reason Trump picked him as a running mate: as a folksy guy from Indiana, he counters the gaudy bombast of the gilded billionaire. He sounds like the GOP’s base, and largely looks like it, too.

Another reason is that Pence can communicate effectively to the GOP base. Outside of the core, he comes across like any other politician posing as pastor, in other words, contrived and insincere. And largely ineffective. But at least he’s always been able to reach the base.

On Monday, Pence visited Michigan to give a speech at the Detroit Economic Club. It was not the type of speech intended for a national audience, but an attempt to get some good local media in a state vital to the GOP’s 2020 re-election efforts.. 

Here’s a line from his close that stuck out: “And I want to promise all of you that it’s those men and women that are never far from our minds. I mean, I’m talking about the people who make things and grow things; who spend their days building more than a Facebook page; who read the local paper, not the New York Times; who wear uniforms at home and abroad.”

Pence might talk a good game (or, at least a mediocre one) with his nods to blue-collar Middle Americans. But for the last 20 years he’s been a congressman, a governor, or a vice president. His net worth might not be much, but he’s an elitist. He might have adopted an affinity for Trumpian populism, but it has a particularly hollow ring. 

While nobody really cares about what the incumbent vice president does on the unofficial campaign trail before the general election, there is plenty to take away from his speech on Monday. For the sake of context, here’s the full quote:

We’re going to keep fighting for American jobs and American opportunities and American manufacturing, not just for this great industrial heartland, but for all the hardworking men and women of this country.

And I want to promise all of you that it’s those men and women that are never far from our minds. I mean, I’m talking about the people who make things and grow things; who spend their days building more than a Facebook page; who read the local paper, not the New York Times; who wear uniforms at home and abroad.  (Applause.) I’m talking about people that put faith, and family, and freedom first.  They love this country and they know what a blessing it is to be a citizen of the United States of America.

The first paragraph makes sense as GOP boilerplate. Absent the context of the next paragraph, which fleshes out the who and why, it’s a normal line. Who is against American jobs? American opportunity? American manufacturing? Hard work in the heartland? Nobody. 

And that’s where the applause line typically came before a pivot to another topic. But Pence didn’t pivot, and chose to segment who works hard and who doesn’t. (And that’s leaving aside the irony that a candidate who benefited from Russian-controlled Facebook pages and Twitter accounts in 2016 would suggest that “making” and “growing” things are “building more than a Facebook page.”) 

The GOP’s Josh Hawley-run Neo-Luddism cult notwithstanding, Pence is suggesting that working on social media pages, like one on Facebook, is somehow less dignified than growing corn or building cars as a form of work. This is ass backwards and fundamentally stupid. Pence here is trying to ding the Silicon Valley elite as out of touch, but if you ask business owners in the Midwest, especially those who “make” or “grow” things, I’d bet they’d tell you that Facebook pages and social media are pretty important. (Do local papers thrive on social media? Bueller?) Basically, it’s Mike Pence taking a silly, unprincipled stance to cater to his employer and to his base.

And then there’s his shoutout to local media. Newsflash: Pence is hardly a champion of hometown newspapers and local TV affiliates. As governor, he literally had plans to set up his own “Pravda on the Plains.” A government-run news service. He eventually backed off after he was rightly mocked, but nothing says “I love local media” more than having a state government propose its own news source as competition. 

But let’s go back a bit further, back to when he was a radio host in the early 1990s. Talk radio hosts, as they’ve risen in the post-Fairness Doctrine era, have often loved to rag on local papers. Keep in mind: In the early 1990s through the early aughts, before the Internet and cable news took over everything, the radio guys were pitted against the local papers and TV stations for ads, eyes, and/or ears. 

So when Pence says “We’re going to keep fighting for… people… who read the local paper, not the New York Times” that’d make you think that normal non-elites like Pence were always on the side of good, local journalism. Right?

If only. As Politico reports from an old tape of his 1990s talk radio show, Pence attacked the Indianapolis Star for critical coverage of the Indianapolis 500. WEIRD! Does Mike Pence love the world’s oldest automobile race? Sure, I’ll buy that. But was it a coincidence that the station who ran his show also owned the Indianapolis Speedway? Surely.

I don’t have the time or resources to peruse five years of daily audio archives of Pence from the 1990s, but I’d wager you a stanley nickel that this wasn’t the only time Pence went after the local press. In talk radio at the time, it was a feature, not a bug. And not an insignificant reason people joined the talk radio brigades (free) instead of paying for local journalism.

Which brings me to Pence’s seeming aloofness to the decline in local journalism. I get it. Pence is trying to be a populist: Facebook and the New York Times are bad; local journalism is good. There aren’t many weekly papers in the U.S. left. There aren’t many in Michigan, nor are there a lot of daily papers. There used to be, but if your argument is the GOP is mostly fighting for the few people who still pay for local papers, you’re admitting you have a very small base

Lastly, there’s a sort of Sarah Palin angle here. Remember when Katie Couric asked her what publications she read and she couldn’t name a single one? Pence suggesting there’s a disconnect between the New York Times and the local daily paper shows he doesn’t read local dailies. Because they’ve been hollowed out. Hundreds of papers have shuttered over recent years, and the remaining ones have largely closed their non-local bureaus in favor of getting national and international coverage from wire services. Local papers send, if they’re in good financial shape, maybe one person to Washington. If that.

The last time Mike Pence had a job that the populists could identify with was back in the early 1980s, when he was a college admissions counsellor. Even that is a white collar job. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Mike Pence has been a white collar guy for 40 years and we can drop the charade. 

It’s a shame that Mike Pence is such a hollow populist, what’s even sadder is that people have bought his schtick. Pence has shown that he’s not a reluctant defender of Trump, he’s both an enabler and an evangelist of the destruction of a once great party. 

Years from now will he think it was worth it? Will he care? A conservative estimate of his net worth a few years from now would suggest “no.”

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.