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Auf Wiedersehen to Mike Pence, the Franz von Papen of the Trump Administration

Pence tried to have it both ways, to inherit the mantle of both old-line conservatism and Trump’s toxic brand of white-nationalist demagoguery.  The chances are he’ll gain neither.  This verdict of his Nuremburg is likely to be political oblivion.

Franz von Papen on Time cover 1932.,

How to compare Mike Pence’s undeserved loyalty to Donald Trump?  “Lap dog” comes to many minds, as the entry “Mike Pence lap dog” in a Google search delivers 1.6 million results.  “Mike Pence ass kisser” garners slightly more.  There are so many possibilities. 

The query “Mike Pence von Papen” might not seem to be an intuitive one, but it yields 40,900 references.  So quite a few people saw the similarities before I did.

Pence’s background as a religious conservative might have made him seem an odd choice as a running mate for Trump, well-known as a profane libertine.  But this is precisely why Trump’s advisors liked Pence as running mate in 2016 (much more than Trump did; he never cared for Pence and wanted to run with his daughter Ivanka instead).  Pence brought a massive constituency into the Trump camp that might otherwise have been repelled by the candidate at the top of the ticket.  When many evangelicals thought about jumping ship after the scandalous “Access Hollywood” tape became public, Pence was there to calm then down and keep them on board.

For four years Pence made himself as useful to Trump as he could.  He spun Trump’s more lunatic outbursts into seemingly sensible statements of policy.  He was the chair of Trump’s panel to expose voter fraud, which despite the efforts of pit-bull panel member Kris Kobach found none.  He tried to responsibly lead the administration’s COVID-19 task force despite being continually undercut by Trump’s dismissiveness of the pandemic, his peddling of quack cures and his hostility to masks and social distancing.  Pence stuck with his erratic boss out of a calculation that Trumpism would be the enduring doctrine of the Republican party as he positioned himself to inherit Trump’s base for a 2024 run for president.

But what does this have to do with Franz von Papen?  Papen was a conservative politician during the days of Germany’s Weimar Republic whose career including a stint as chancellor.  When German President Paul von Hindenburg felt compelled to name Adolf Hitler as chancellor, he made Papen vice chancellor, expecting him to curb Hitler’s more extreme tendencies and keep the government from going off the rails.  (I admit that comparisons between the Trump administration and the Third Reich are overdone, but this one is particularly apt).

Papen, however, did just the opposite, as documented by William Shirer in Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  Despite being purged from the government by Hitler and spending a stint in house arrest, he decided his political survival depended on cozying up to the Fuhrer, doing everything he could to ingratiate himself with him.

Hitler, considering Papen a useful idiot, named him ambassador to Austria.  Hitler instructed Papen to do all he could to undermine Austria’s democratic government, causing it to rot from the inside and smooth the way for the Anschluss to come.  Hitler then hatched a plot to have Papen assassinated, blame Austrian nationalists for the crime and use it as a pretext for an invasion.  In the end Hitler never carried out the assassination, as he found a living Papen operating in Austria more valuable to him than a dead one.

Now back to Pence.  In the run-up to Trump’s January 6 speech on the Ellipse to his gang of supporters, he had exhorted Pence to use his role as president of the Senate to overturn, unilaterally if necessary, Trump’s defeat in the election when the Electoral College ballots were counted that same day.  When Pence made it clear that he would do no such thing but rather stick to his constitutional duty as an impartial facilitator, Trump went on the attack.

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” Trump tweeted just as his supporters were breaking down the Capitol’s doors.  

Many members of the mob that marched directly from Trump’s incendiary speech to invade the Capitol had blood on their minds.  Pence, for refusing Trump’s command to upend the Constitution, was a special target of the crowd’s ire – the chant “hang Mike Pence” was heard echoing through the Capitol’s halls as the crowd rampaged.

I’m not asserting that Trump intended that Pence be assassinated in the Capitol that day.  But many of the gangsters unleashed by Trump were primed to assault Pence or any other member of Congress that they deemed to be insufficiently loyal to their leader – and that would include every Democrat and those few Republicans who had belatedly decided to uphold the Constitution rather than bow to the lame-duck president’s denials of reality.  Some members of the mob were willing to kill anybody they could get their hands on, such as one unfortunate member of the Capitol Police.

“After all the things I’ve done for [Trump],” Pence was quoted as angrily saying while the mob vandalized the halls of Congress.  Like Papen, his reward for loyalty to the leader was a swift kick in the side.  However, unlike Papen, his being physically attacked would have been no benefit to Trump.  The president couldn’t have blamed the assault on left provocateurs (although some members of Congress tried to finger antifa); an injury to Pence only would have compounded the political troubles Trump faced after the insurrection.  Clearly, Trump’s inciting the mob was not a carefully considered piece of political strategy.

Pence’s sort-of break with Trump – after a chilly few days he met with the president for a reportedly civil conversation – stood in contrast to Papen’s thrall with Hitler, as he remained loyal to the very end.  After the war he stood trial at Nuremburg where he was acquitted, although he was later convicted by a German denazification court and served a short sentence. 

Pence’s 11th-hour break with Trump probably shields him from any criminal liability stemming from the actions of the president.  Whether his political career survives the administration’s chaotic final days is another matter.  Although he hoped to inherit Trump’s base, his mild demeanor and fundamental respect for law and order – in contrast to Trump, who shouted “law and order” about as often as he violated the law and upset order – make him an odd champion of the tattooed and Confederate flag-waving rowdies who trashed the Capitol.  More corrosive Trumpites such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley would be more to their liking, although the support of the Trump base might not be enough to advance their careers now that revulsion to the insurrection, and Cruz and Hawley’s role in fanning the flames, is turning more mainstream Republicans against the Trump political brand.

Pence tried to have it both ways, to inherit both the mantle of both old-line conservatism and Trump’s toxic brand of white-nationalist demagoguery.  The chances are he’ll gain neither.  This verdict of his Nuremburg is likely to be political oblivion.

BILL MOSLEY is a Washington, DC writer and activist.