Mike Pence Is an American Hero

Democrats should honor the Republican who’s trying to end Trumpism.

An illustration of Mike Pence
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

At the January 6 Committee hearings this week, there is likely to be evidence of gross misbehavior—bordering on sedition—from President Donald Trump and his confederates. The object of the hearings is to hold these bad actors to account and propose systemic reforms to prevent another insurrection.

Here is another idea the committee might consider: Take a moment to praise Mike Pence. Congress can name a building in his honor. The House and Senate could propose nonpartisan resolutions recognizing Pence for his service to democracy. And then Joe Biden could give Pence the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Because while Pence may not be the hero you or I might have wanted, he was the hero America needed.

Pence has long been caricatured as a comically loyal stooge standing behind the president with befuddlement on his face and a fly on his head. Yet Pence did more to protect democracy—both on January 6 and since—than any other person inside the Trump administration. Or any Republican not named Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger.

Recall that Trump had demanded that Pence refuse to count the Electoral College votes and certify the election at the Joint Session of Congress that was to formalize the outcome of the 2020 election. When Pence informed him that this was not legally permissible, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported, the president told him, “You can do this. I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this.”

Pence knew what the president’s mafioso talk meant. Maggie Haberman writes that on January 5, Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, called the Secret Service to inform them that “the president was going to turn publicly against the vice president, and there could be a security risk to Mr. Pence because of it.”

Which is exactly what happened. At Trump’s January 6 rally on the Mall, the president told his audience, “You’re never going to take back our country with weakness,” and said he hoped Pence would “do the right thing” by not certifying the election. After the mob stormed the Capitol, Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”

Around this same time, some of Trump’s supporters erected a gallows—an actual hanging station—outside the Capitol building. Other Trump supporters attacked police, breached the building, and roamed the halls chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.”

Whether Pence knew these details at the time remains unclear—he was being hustled out of harm’s way by the Secret Service. Pence was probably unaware that one mile away, as Trump was watching the scene on television, the president said, two witnesses reportedly told the Committee, “something to the effect of, maybe Mr. Pence should be hung.”

Per Haberman’s reporting, the Secret Service wanted to evacuate Pence from the Capitol, but the vice president refused to leave, because he judged that doing so would weaken our democracy and give Trump and his violent followers a victory. So he stayed in an underground loading dock until it was safe for him to return to the Joint Session and formalize Joe Biden’s victory.

This extraordinary series of events added up to a constitutional crisis. The crisis was set in motion by President Trump and then abetted by Republicans in the House and Senate who voted to reject electors. Had Pence done what the president of the United States and his party’s members in Congress demanded he do, it’s not clear what would have happened next.

Pence single-handedly averted the next catastrophe, and then tried to restore some sense of normal functioning to our democracy. On January 20, Pence returned to the Capitol. The trumpets played a fanfare; he and his wife, Karen, were announced, and they walked down the red carpet together, holding hands. The people assembled to witness the inauguration of Joe Biden clapped politely. When Kamala Harris made her entrance, Pence applauded her in turn.

In the intervening months, Pence has tried, however ineffectually, to push back against the most virulent aspects of the Trump administration.

He should have been much more aggressive in repudiating Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election. But attending the inauguration—something the outgoing president refused to do—was an implicit and public acknowledgment of Biden’s victory. Last February, Pence gave a speech in which he said that Trump was “wrong” about the election. He also countered the revisionist view of January 6 as being a peaceful protest by very fine people who are now political prisoners: Pence called it “a dark day” and framed the question as being about the survival of democracy. “The truth is there’s more at stake than our party or our political fortunes,” he said. “If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections—we’ll lose our country.”

In April, Pence gave a pedestrian political speech at the University of Virginia but detoured to pay his respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer, who was killed in August 2017 during the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

The story of Mike Pence is the negative space in the January 6 Committee investigation. As more details about the machinations of John Eastman, Mark Meadows, Ted Cruz, and others emerge, Pence’s own actions are ever present in the background. Without him, we might not have this committee. Without him, we might not even have this republic.

At some point, the January 6 Committee will complete its work and issue a report, which will probably be heavy on malefactors who attempted to overturn our democracy. Hopefully it will also have recommendations on how to avoid another January 6.

But the report should reserve some space to praise Mike Pence, the man who stood in the breach. And when the committee has finished its work, congressional Democrats should honor Pence.

Pence’s attempt to salvage the Republican Party won’t succeed. It will fail not because of any intrinsic problem with the party itself—political parties are merely vessels for the will of the people—but because the problem with the Republican Party is Republican voters. They’re the ones who wanted Trump. They’re the ones who approve of January 6. They’re the ones who insist that Trump actually won in 2020. They’re the ones who are clamoring to nominate him again in 2024.

Republican voters view all of the terrible outcomes from the first Trump administration—the political violence, the white nationalism, the fiscal irresponsibility, the COVID death tolls—not as bugs but as features. This is what they want.

But political parties are not monoliths. About one-third of Republican voters have a relatively clear-eyed view of what happened on January 6. About one-fifth of Republican voters know that Joe Biden won a sacred landslide victory over Trump in 2020. About one in 20 Republican voters prefers Pence to Trump for 2024.

Democrats ought to be trying to pry these voters away from the Republican Party in the event that Trump runs again. By making it clear that the Democratic Party appreciates Mike Pence as a hero of democracy—and that GOP lawmakers do not—they might just persuade a small but crucial percentage of these Pence Republicans to cross over in 2024.