Mike Pence Is in a Trump Trap

“Pence unwittingly wrote himself out of conservative politics.”

Mike Pence
Anna Moneymaker / Getty

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By some accounts, Mike Pence has wanted to be president since his college-fraternity days. Now he finally seems ready to run—but he can’t find a constituency to support him. How did the former VP get here?

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Deal With the Devil

My colleague McKay Coppins, who profiled Mike Pence for The Atlantic in 2018 and has closely followed Pence’s political career ever since, recently sat in on some focus groups consisting of Republican voters who supported Trump in both 2016 and 2020. “My goal was to see if I could find at least one Pence supporter,” McKay wrote yesterday. Instead, he heard “some of the most withering commentary you’ve ever encountered about a politician.”

I called McKay to talk about Pence’s Trump trap, and how one big miscalculation damaged his political prospects.

Isabel Fattal: Mike Pence has a problem: Some voters think he’s too aligned with Donald Trump; others think he’s not aligned enough. How did he end up in this pickle?

McKay Coppins: Well, it’s a problem Pence created for himself. When he joined the ticket in 2016, he decided that his job would be to loyally defend Trump in every context. Pence’s role was to be an obsequious Trump flatterer, and he did it very well. And then he broke with Trump on January 6 by refusing to obstruct the certification of the electoral votes.

On one side, I kept hearing, in these focus groups of Republicans who are still strong Trump supporters, that Pence was disloyal. And on the other side, the less Trump-inclined Republicans felt like Pence was too stained by his time in the Trump administration. What was interesting, though, is that everybody across the MAGA spectrum saw Pence as weak. And I think that that’s what you get when you refuse to take a stand. In trying to walk this line, I think he’s alienated everybody and has come off looking kind of spineless in a way that is not appealing to any voters.

Isabel: You argue that Pence also miscalculated the role of decency in conservative politics.

McKay: Pence made the calculation at the very beginning that he would vouch for Trump with conservative Christian voters. He would assure them that Trump was a good man, and that they didn’t need to worry about the various mistresses and affairs and exploits in his personal life. Pence was a key figure in creating a permission structure for evangelical voters to support Donald Trump, all of his personal foibles notwithstanding.

In doing so, Pence unwittingly wrote himself out of conservative politics. He convinced what should have been his base—conservative religious voters—that personal character and morality don’t really matter in a presidential candidate. I heard that over and over in these focus groups. Voters would praise Mike Pence as an apparently decent, honest, wholesome guy who seems like a good Christian. And then, in the next breath, they would say, But I don’t really want to see him as president. And in many cases, they cited those qualities as evidence that he doesn’t have what it takes to be president.

Pence accidentally conditioned the conservative Christian base to see as their ideal champion a brash, loud, charismatic, and morally dubious figure. Now that’s what they expect in a president. And the fact that Mike Pence doesn’t embody that persona now works against him.

Isabel: Right. He did too good of a job selling Trump.

McKay: Exactly. I’ve been writing about Pence for a long time now. When I profiled him back in 2018, it was clear to me that he had made this deal with the devil, this bargain that he thought would position him to eventually become president. And instead, all of the compromises he made to his principles ended up being his undoing. I think there’s a tragic irony in that.

Isabel: Tom Nichols recently wrote about Pence’s speech at the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, where Pence publicly stated that Trump endangered his life on January 6. Why do you think he is speaking out about this now?

McKay: I imagine that his campaign-in-waiting is holding similar focus groups as the ones that I sat in on. And I imagine that his consultants have recognized the same problem that I’ve identified, which is that right now he has no constituency at all. So it’s possible that he will decide that the most hard-core Trump supporters are out of reach, and that therefore his best bet is to sharpen his criticism of Trump, sharpen his criticism of what happened on January 6, and reach for the portion of the party that’s not still under Trump’s spell. I don’t know if it’ll work, and there are probably other candidates better positioned at this point to win that segment of the party. But it is possible that he’ll decide that’s his best shot.


Today’s News

  1. The Manhattan grand jury that has been hearing evidence on Donald Trump’s alleged involvement in a hush-money payment to an adult-film actress reportedly did not meet today, delaying a possible indictment of Trump until tomorrow at the earliest. Meanwhile, a federal appeals court ordered a lawyer representing Trump to hand over records in an inquiry into Trump’s handling of classified materials.
  2. Two faculty members of East High School in Denver were wounded in a shooting at the school this morning; the male student suspected in the incident remains at large.
  3. Despite recent banking-sector instability, the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates by a quarter-point as part of an ongoing effort to curb inflation.


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Evening Read

Photograph of a bottle of ivermectin
Houston Cofield / NYT / Redux

How Ivermectin Became a Belief System

By Kaitlyn Tiffany

Since fall 2021, Daniel Lemoi has been a central figure in the online community dedicated to experimental use of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin. “You guys all know I’m not a doctor,” he often reminded them. “I’m a guy that grew up on a farm. I ran equipment all my life. I live on a dirt road and I drive an old truck—a 30-year-old truck. I’m just one of you.” Lemoi’s folksy Rhode Island accent, his avowed regular-guy-ness, and his refusal to take any money in exchange for his advice made him into an alt-wellness influencer and a personal hero for those who followed him. He joked about his tell-it-like-it-is style and liberal use of curse words: “If you don’t like my mouth, go pray to God, because he’s the one that chose me for this mission.”

Last March, during an episode of his biweekly podcast, Dirt Road Discussions, he thanked his audience for their commitment to his ivermectin lifestyle: “I love that you guys are all here trusting my voice.” His group currently has more than 130,000 members and lives on Telegram, a messaging app that has become popular as an alternative social-media network. When Lemoi died earlier this month, at age 50, his followers found out via the chat. As first reported by Vice, Lemoi had given no indication that his health may have been failing. In fact, one of his last posts in the group was from the morning of the day he died: “HAPPY FRIDAY ALL YOU POISONOUS HORSE PASTE EATING SURVIVORS !!!”

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

A bedroom with fuzzed out clocks and maps and squiggles zooming around
Jon Han

Read. Saving Time, a new book by Jenny Odell that challenges Americans’ relationship with time.

Watch. Arrival (available to stream on multiple platforms), the 2016 alien-contact film to which the Atlantic staff writer Jerusalem Demsas attributes her enduring devotion to the actor Amy Adams.

Play our daily crossword.


If you haven’t read McKay’s 2018 profile of Pence yet, I recommend sitting with it; he does a beautiful job untangling the political, moral, and religious motivations at play in Pence’s path to power.

“There is, of course, nothing inherently scary or disqualifying about an elected leader who seeks wisdom in scripture and solace in prayer,” McKay writes. “What critics should worry about is not that Pence believes in God, but that he seems so certain God believes in him. What happens when manifest destiny replaces humility, and the line between faith and hubris blurs?”

— Isabel

Kelli María Korducki contributed to this newsletter.