“It’s a visual medium.” So often said the late Roger Ailes about television. He said it to justify hiring women who looked a certain way and requiring them to dress a certain way. Ailes’s abuse of the saying does not make it any less true. The most striking thing about the Pence-Harris debate was nothing that was said. It was what we saw.
We saw a vice president with a pale face, his mouth cankered by a cold sore, his eyes pink. He looked unwell, which evoked the pandemic that has gripped America—a pandemic through which the Trump White House has modeled the most irresponsible and unsafe behavior. That irresponsible and unsafe behavior has sickened the president and the first lady, forced the Joint Chiefs of Staff into quarantine, and spread infection though the West Wing. This White House is notorious for non-transparency and untruthfulness. The president evaded a COVID-19 test before the September 29 debate in Cleveland—a date by which he very probably knew he was infected and infectious. Everybody watching tonight’s debate had to wonder: What’s going on with the vice president? At one point, Pence was at least the titular head of the White House COVID-19 response. He defied safety protocols too. He notably refused to wear a mask on a visit to the Mayo Clinic in April, despite the hospital’s clear rule that he must.
We saw a vice president who had internalized the Trump White House’s culture of disrespect, and especially disrespect to women. He talked over Kamala Harris and the moderator, Susan Page; he ignored the rules of the debate to which he agreed. At the core of the Trump political project is the reassertion of dominance over the historically dominated by the historically dominant. That reassertion of dominance was Pence’s supreme project at this debate too. Pence did not imitate his boss’s manic and undisciplined—and ultimately catastrophically unsuccessful—style of dominance. Instead, he brought to this debate the more measured and controlled disdain of a man who had considered the matter carefully—and decided that the woman in front of him had no right to control him and that the woman to his right did not deserve to be onstage with him. With the sound on, you heard Page trying and failing to summon Pence to order with a repeated, “Mr. Vice President, Mr. Vice President.” With the sound off, you saw Harris—a vice-presidential nominee, a U.S. senator, a former attorney general of the largest state in the nation—obliged to smile and smile in an effort to assert herself without seeming … well, you know, without seeming something that might offend somebody. Pence never worried about offending anybody. And he did not feel the need to smile when asserting himself.
We saw a weird moment when a fly landed on Pence’s snow-white hair—and the vice president did not react at all. No doubt, it’s a conundrum, what to do in such a situation. If Pence had shooed the fly and the fly had refused to shoo, that would have been bad. So he did nothing. And that doing nothing somehow in one powerful visual moment concentrated everything. It symbolized the whole Pence vice presidency, the determined, willful refusal to acknowledge the most blaring and glaring negative realities. Through all of the scandals and the crimes and the disasters of the past four years, Mike Pence was the man who pretended not to notice. And now there was a fly on his head, and he pretended not to notice that too.