Shoring up the Trump administration’s hard-shell conservative base, 19 days into the tiresome “partial government shutdown” over funding for a border wall that only the willingly delusional could have believed Mexico would pay for, Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 9 further lowered the standards of behavior in his liege’s royal court by kissing the ring of radio caterwauler Rush Limbaugh.
Welcomed by the host through a phone connection, the vice president of the United States fawned, “It’s always an honor. I just left the oval office. I told the president I was headed to be on your program. We couldn’t be more grateful for your voice on the airwaves of America every day. Everything we’ve accomplished over the last two years — rebuilding our military, reviving our economy, setting a record for conservatives appointed to our courts … America’s growing at home; we’re standing tall on the world stage. You played a key role in that, and Rush, we don’t thank you enough. But thank you for what you’ve meant to this movement and to the progress we’ve made in this country.”
Limbaugh, in response, gave, but not quite as good as he got. He praised the administration for taking a hard line by shutting down what are deemed (by those who don’t suffer from their absences) the expendable functions of government, but he couldn’t match — and didn’t try to — Pence’s obsequiousness.
Instead, he coached the VP and his boss on what to do next. The president and his allies were to meet with Democratic congressional leaders later in the day, and Limbaugh instructed Pence to remind them that they (Limbaugh mentioned then-Senator Barack Obama, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Hillary Clinton by name) had voted “for a wall” in 2006.
It was a good point, one that has also been made by other Republicans and administration officials. In a normal country with a normally functioning government, it could be the basis for beginning a conversation. That said, the facts do not support its being used as a bludgeon to pound the Democrats into supporting Trump’s insistence on a full-length border wall.
FactCheck.org calls it an apples-to-oranges comparison. The vehicle was the Secure Fence Act of 2006. According to that nonpartisan organization, this legislation, which passed and was signed by then-President George W. Bush, “called for construction of 700 miles of fencing and enhanced surveillance technology, such as unmanned drones, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar coverage and cameras.” It’s hard to nail down Trump’s vision of a wall along the entire 1,933-mile U.S.-Mexico border — his descriptions, characteristically, seem rooted in the moment’s whimsy — but the organization unearthed a March 17, 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection RFP (request for proposals) for construction of a “wall — whether solid concrete or an alternative design — (that) must be between 18 feet and 30 feet tall and 2 feet wide (and) also must go 6 feet below the ground to prevent people from tunneling under the wall.”
FactCheck.org also provides a poignant quote from Edward Alden, described as a specialist on immigration policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Pointing out the differences in philosophy between the Democrats (who “by and large supported the use of ‘tactical’ fencing in high-traffic areas, something that the Border Patrol had long favored”) and Trump, Alden reported that the Secure Fence Act “was written in a way to get support from both sides.”
Both sides? Well, that was then.
In any case, Pence wasn’t finished genuflecting. At times it was, in absentia, toward his commander in chief: “Rush, I gotta tell you what an honor it is for me to serve alongside a president who literally gets up every day and says, ‘What can we do today to keep the promises we made to the American people?’” But he always returned to his host, whom he and his master seem desperate to keep on their side. Said Pence, “I’ve listened to your show for decades. I’m, like, your second-biggest fan in the White House.”
It was reminiscent of the orgy of fawning that GOP leaders performed toward Trump himself just over a year ago, after Congress had passed, on party lines, the historic tax cuts of December 2017. A sampling:
“Something this big, something this generational, something this profound, could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership. Mr. President, thank you for getting us over the finish line.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.
“I can tell you (the audience), I serve with him every day. President Donald Trump is a man of his word. He’s a man of action.” Pence again.
“And so I want to say thank you to Mr. President. Thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to have you as our president and to make America great again.” U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tennessee.
“We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
This is conduct unbecoming a democracy. It recalls the bowing and scraping that cowed bureaucrats and servants abjectly perform before a “maximum leader” (Fidel Castro’s title in Cuba) and authoritarians like Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. Whether it’s directed to a radio host or a U.S. president, whether it’s rooted in greed or fear, it is bereft of dignity, and summons the question, can these people ever stand straight again?
Will Lindner is a former editorial page editor for The Times Argus. He lives in Barre Town.