Passive Evil: Tim Kaine and The Vice-Presidential Debate of 2016

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In my experience, it is usually my enemies, not my friends or even my mentors, who deserve credit for my political education. Political success, as it is defined in the United States, is a contradiction in terms, and so, we can learn only from the examples of scoundrels and failures—and in America, at least, the former outnumber the latter with ease. This is especially true of corruption, which has been punished only under exceptional circumstances, but which is rewarded almost as a matter of course. We the Americans perceive this all too simply, even if we don’t completely understand it, and it is our patience for this unsavory process, rather than our knowledge thereof, that the ruling class is trying with escalating recklessness in the Trumpish Age. Our best defense is to revisit the past and recognize the patterns of beguilement and graft, lest we fall victim to the cyclical scandal today, or even tomorrow.

Recall how unprepared, unwitting, and uninterested we were when Hillary Clinton introduced Tim Kaine as her vice-presidential nominee. Few of us care to remember where we were when the ill-fated oligarch made this rather unflattering announcement, but I know I was working, or wasting away, in a pub on an arid night in July when I saw Kaine’s name appear on three television screens simultaneously. I didn’t expect Clinton to select Bernie Sanders or some other obviously sensible choice, but Kaine puzzled me as an impractically insensible decision. I wasn’t sure I’d even heard of him before, but there he was, prepared to govern the United States if Clinton were to succumb to an unforgiving case of pneumonia. If it wasn’t unreal, then it was certainly unconvincing, and I wonder if I knew, along with an untold number of others, that Clinton doomed herself on July 22nd.

Long afterwards, on a very different day in a completely separate summer, I learned of Clinton’s sound reasoning. The day after the inauguration of President Obama, Kaine commenced his new role as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a position that, conveniently, did not interfere with his governorship of the Virginian Commonwealth. Perhaps even more conveniently, he shouldered no blame for the Democratic Party’s brutal failures in the midterms of 2010, or so Wikipedia informs us, citing a Mother Jones piece printed six years later. However, we can say in all sincerity that his suspect stewardship did not influence his decision to resign as chairman in the spring of 2011. On the contrary, Clinton beseeched him to step down and allow Debbie Wasserman Schultz, her political ally and erstwhile presidential campaign manager, to assume control. Schultz proved to be a most productive zealot, orchestrating a successful intraparty conspiracy to sabotage Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and to tilt the field in Clinton’s favor. She yielded her post, not quite in disgrace, when Wikileaks exposed her handiwork, but Kaine was rewarded for his own participation with the ultimately frivolous vice-presidential nomination.

Having been so thoroughly disillusioned, we cannot reflect on the presidential election of 2016, in particular the final months thereof, without noticing the ominous adumbrations. We cannot study it, save in the shadow of the iceberg that was looming implacably in the distance. The election is haunted, even for those of us who welcomed the result; yet, it did not occur to me until this week, when I watched the vice-presidential debate of 2016, that perhaps the most potent portent was not Clinton, but Kaine. We would exhaust ourselves attempting to enumerate Clinton’s malignancies, but at least we might take a titillating interest in her Pyrrhic ambition. After all, it was such a self-destructive compulsion for power that laid the thematic foundation for Macbeth, The Godfather: Part II, and myriad other classical works of fiction. Contrast her with Kaine, who did nothing but feebly facilitate somebody else’s design. It is in his weakness, volitive as well as intellectual, that we sense the fallibility of the establishment and the system on which it relies. If they were sturdier, than they would have had a stronger vanguard than Kaine.

There have been three historical illustrations of Kaine’s impotence. In order of descending vividity, they are:

  1. The rapidity and alacrity with which Clinton forgot him on November 9th, 2016. It may be fair to inquire whether she has any functional memory of him, in particular because she has declined to blame him for her failure in the general election of the day before.
  2. The general election of the day before.
  3. The aforementioned vice-presidential debate, a televised event in which Kaine contended with Indianan Governor Mike Pence.

Personally, I very strongly doubt that the chroniclers of American history will ever credit Trump, or his advisers in the Republican Party, for sagaciously appointing Pence as his running mate. They will never understand the Grand Old Party, never penetrate its maladaptive psychology, regardless of its wealth of astonishing insights. In the twenty-first century, the Republican Party has had the unenviably provocative task of appealing to psychopaths and psychotics simultaneously. We will remember the presidential ticket of 2008 as the clearest, but not the most successful, example, as John McCain pitched to the former while Sarah Palin pandered to the latter. Trump broke the rules in 2016 by catering to the certifiable, but he chose a credible complement in Pence, who cemented the campaign in classical, socially acceptable bloodlust. In the foreground, Trump fought a comical war against the establishment, while in the background, Pence fraternized with the reinforcements of the elite.

This arrangement had the remarkable effect of forcing Kaine into an aggressive stance, of casting him in the light of an impassioned radical, which was also the manner in which the Democrats had attempted to depict Trump. Without taking any extraordinary action—indeed, because he did not take extraordinary action—Pence neutralized the Democrats’ preferred tactic. They still had plenty of time to adapt, but they did not have the patience to comprehend the shift in cultural perception. Accordingly, Kaine made the doomed decision to maintain the Democrats’ sloppy militance in his duel with Pence. The result was a lopsided victory for the latter, or a brutal loss for the former; and with only one vice-presidential debate on the schedule, there wouldn’t be a rematch, nor a second chance.

If we have anything to say in Kaine’s defense, it is that his desperate indignation might have been a bit ahead of its time. In the twilight of 2020, it is a commonplace and a triviality to equate Trump and the Nazis, but four years ago, it was alarming to hear the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee accuse the Republican presidential nominee of paying tribute to “days where an African-American could not be a citizen of the United States”. His message, one which Clinton would echo one week later, was that Trump was offering, not an inferior political platform, but an unacceptable, possibly even criminal, ideology. To my knowledge, only one contemporary critic, an anonymous writer at Slate Star Codex, recommended caution in the issuance of such caustic commentary, warning that it would dull our senses in the presence of an outspoken autocrat who rises sometime in the future. We may be reminded of Tulsi Gabbard’s admonition, voiced during the impeachment trial of 2019, that such a Congressional effort, if unsuccessful, could not be resurrected, should Trump commit a more egregious crime at some later date. Alas, that circus of the legal and the political appeared to prove that the popular analysis of Trump is no more nuanced now than it was in 2016, with the overwhelming majority of published interpretations falling into hagiography or demonology.

This is not the time to attempt an examination of this phenomenon. Instead, we must consider the efficacy wherewith Pence convinced viewers that the Trump campaign was utterly unremarkable and, consequently, trustworthy. He paid homage to the vacuous, militaristic rhetoric of the George W. Bush era, criticizing the “weak and feckless foreign policy” of the Democrats and prescribing the insipid tonic of “American strength”. All the while, he was speaking less to Kaine than to the affluent sociopaths who form the bedrock of the base of the Republican Party, reassuring them that Trump shared their strange obsession with the political debates of people living thousands of miles away, as well as their reflexive solution of missile strikes and bombs. Pence successfully reduced Trump to a quotidian politician, ablating the same blades that he brandished before the psychotics at his infamous rallies.

We will end this review, one which may warrant its own review in four years’ time, with the only truly memorable statement Kaine made in his time as Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee. Toward the end of the debate, the moderator asked him to describe a time when he struggled to reconcile his political ideology with his religious faith. He referred to his time as the Governor of Virginia, a state that still practices capital punishment, a rather graceful euphemism for the state-sanctioned and state-sponsored murder of citizens. He described, in limited detail, his own personal opposition to these killings, but confessed, without any visible shame, that he permitted them to take place on his watch and with his authority. Evil never felt so passive.

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