Reflecting on Jeff Isaac on Mike Pence and Donald Trump. 

Yesterday in the Indy Star, Public Seminar contributing editor, Jeffrey C. Isaac, my friend and colleague, published a very important op. ed. piece. By highlighting the significant differences between Trump and his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the piece was written to convince Indiana Republicans not to vote for Donald Trump. It also has much broader significance. Although Isaac doesn’t put it exactly in this way, he illuminates how the present election is different from all Presidential contests in American history.

Isaac, a thirty year Indiana resident, concedes that he disagrees fundamentally with Pence on most of the issues of the day, but he also notes that he recognizes Pence as an honorable man. Their disagreements, and for that matter the differences between Pence and Clinton, are the stuff of normal democratic politics. But something else is now going on, revealed by the differences between the Republican Vice Presidential and Presidential candidates.

As Isaac puts it: “Donald Trump is making a mockery of Mike Pence and a mockery of Hoosier values.” And further:

“The distance between Mike Pence and Donald Trump is huge. It is the distance between a politician who is a leader of one of our country’s, and our state’s, two major political parties, and a rude and boorish real estate magnate who has no political experience, no respect for his own party and no respect for the constitutional system he is seeking to govern.”

The most critical point is Isaac’s last one. For the first time in my memory and judgment, the election is about democracy itself. A vote for Clinton is a vote for democracy. A vote for Trump is a vote against democracy (crucially small “d”). His extreme antagonism toward the media reveals a fundamental opposition to a free press. His advocacy of torture makes Dick Cheney appear as “a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union,” as George H.W. Bush attacked Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Trump’s baseless assertion that the election is rigged undermines the legitimacy of democracy. The threat is so great that many public figures find themselves forced to take unprecedented positions, including: Republicans who have declared they will vote for Clinton, other Republicans who have announced that they can’t endorse Trump, and still others who have been unsteadily wavering between opposition to Trump and unenthusiastic support, revealing a flaw in their character (on this see Isaac’s earlier post here). Retired military and intelligence leaders, who are in principle politically neutral, have thus weighed in, knowingly breaking with precedent, as has President Obama, intervening in unusual ways. A cynic might think that Obama has gone after Trump so aggressively simply because he is fighting for his legacy and his Party, but the sharpness of his attacks reveals a profound concern about the fate of the Republic.

Trump is a new, very different kind of Republican, perhaps not even a recognizable Republican of any sort, as he resembles more a European far right politician, blending isolationist ultra nationalism, racism, xenophobia and antagonism to free trade and immigrants. He is also a rude boor, and very well may be a sociopath, as the co-author of his The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, has maintained in a New Yorker interview. Trump lies at an extraordinary way and rate, as Nicholas Kristof examined yesterday in The New York Times. All of this is especially dangerous because he is willing to undermine fundamental democratic norms.

Thus Isaac’s article addressed to his fellow Hoosiers. I appreciate the argument he makes, but would like to add a word here on his form.

Isaac made his argument to his readers with respect for the differences he imagines he has with many of them. He actually set out to convince them, knowing that many usually are his political opponents. He uses their commitments to bring them to his position, nicely accomplished by referring to the decency of a man, Governor Pence. His argument against Trump works because of this reference.

I noted the other day that when Isaac informed his Facebook friends that his article was forthcoming, one objected to Jeff’s stance. His friend maintained that Pence is not a good and compassionate man clearly revealed in his present association with Trump. In Jeff’s judgment Pence is caught between his own decency and political commitments, on the one hand, and his belief that his commitments can best be realized in and through the Republican Party, i.e. his party loyalty. As Jeff puts it: “I truly feel badly for Gov. Pence, for in the interest of his party he has hitched his wagon to the Trump campaign.” Obviously deciding which interpretation is more cogent, Jeff’s or his friend’s, depends on one’s own judgment, but note that Jeff’s is politically astute and potentially consequential, both in the support of his partisan position and in democracy itself.


“I’ve never liked what Mike Pence has stood for as a politician. I have voted against him, and I consider him a political adversary who threatens certain things that I value. But a political adversary is not an enemy or a demon. Mike Pence is a respected leader of the Indiana Republican Party. And I have always believed that Mike Pence is also a decent man.”

Jeff is doing two politically significant things here: he is pursuing his partisan interest, and he is also supporting democracy. By the way he is politically engaged, he is addressing the uniqueness of the present political moment. Trump’s way of doing politics, which radicalizes the way politics have been pursued by many Republicans in the age of the Tea Party and Fox News, turning opponents into enemies and attacking by any means necessary, fundamentally undermines democracy. The form of Jeff’s opposition to Trump offers the democratic alternative.

And I think there is a lesson in this for my friends on the left, who demonize Hillary Clinton as an ill-defined neo-liberal. More on this in my next post, provisionally entitled “I’m with her.”


5 thoughts on “Why is this election different from all other American Presidential Elections?

  1. I read both pieces and I liked the piece written for the local paper by Jeff because of its engagement with core values that I think we do share with many members of the other side. And I like the above for what I think you are suggesting. We have to engage with the other team and with each other (HRC and Bernie people) in reasonable debate and with the assumption that the other team is fundamentally decent. And that Trump is a threat to this very notion of engagement because he will obliterate democratic processes an institutions. He is not fundamentally decent. And as Obama said, we need two parties.

    Pence? I don’t like him (visceral) and I don’t like his politics (thoughtful) but he is not Donal Trump. I agree with Jeff’s opponent more than Jeff. Not only because of who Donald Trump is but party unity at what cost? Don’t these guys have a sense of how far on the wrong side of history they have landed? Bull Conor? But the engagement is more important than my opinion.

    Not sure where you are going with the responsibility of the democratic intellectual but I suspect it is in the direction of stay engaged with all sides of the story. And stop vilifying HRC. Interestingly, the people who will talk to me are Trump supporters. Not as thin-skinned as their candidate and if you get past the noise they have a politics. Many Republicans where I live have crossed the aisle for HRC, some crossed for Obama and some for Sanders (because he was to them FDR). Anyone who crosses the aisle deserves some respect because they are doing it for that they think is the greater good. My party left me behind is usually their answer– they aren’t bigots or evangelicals.

    The far left has stopped speaking to me for the most part. And — this comes back to what you are getting at— the answer in my head is “moral outrage is not enough.” When I hear hard core Sanders supporters say they will sit the election out I fast forward in my head to John Kerry on his “yacht” — not voting or protest voting is not really engaging somehow. It is really an enormous privilege.

    After reading Jeff’s piece I tried to write something for my local paper. It is hard but I am going to try again and borrow (and reference) this angle of engagement as the most important thing. How can we ask our government to engage across the aisle and within the parties if we don’t?

    1. I think some of your confusion with the text, Lisa, is because I inadvertently published it with some fragments of paths I was thinking of taking but didn’t. I took them down. But as far as intellectuals and politics, I appreciate Isaac’s op.ed. exactly because he engages his adversaries with respect, making a partisan point by civilizing their differences. The civility part of my Civility and Subversion idea about the role of the intellectual. That this isn’t done on the sectarian left is an enduring and enervating problem of and for the sectarian left. I think it involves a confusion of truth with politics. Thus here, it doesn’t really matter all that much whether Pence is really decent and whether Isaac really thinks he is. For a democratic politics, it is central that Isaac appears that he thinks so.

        1. I am not well versed enough in the literature to respond more deeply. I see it as a tactic, a necessary tactic, for a democracy and for a mature politics. What came to mind is Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew as kind of gentle provocateur and we never know if he is being sincere or not.

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