The Trump Sidekicks Rehab Tour

Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence flank Donald Trump
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
January 31, 2022

It’s been nearly three months since Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia, and I swear by everything holy that his surprise election win has had an aphrodisiac effect on all the old normie Republicans who had previously bent the knee to Donald Trump. Prior to the Youngkin election, Trump-style politics was such an overwhelming presence in the G.O.P. that the political futures of Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, and Mike Pompeo, among others, seemed to exist only in some parallel universe where Trump was barely a factor. But after a year of full-fledged Trump deplatforming, a handful of second-tier opportunists are quietly burnishing their resumes in anticipation of the moment that the former president steps aside… or potentially falters.

Last week, I described how Trump’s disappearance from social media had allowed DeSantis to cultivate his own Trumpy political identity without the ever-present threat of a cyberbullying campaign. But this void has also been enobling for two other figures who, I’d initially supposed, had been written out of the Republican firmament altogether for their various sins: Pompeo, for being a Koch lackey and war hawk, at odds with the populist base; and Pence, for infuriating Trump and the MAGA diehards by certifying Joe Biden’s election. 

Pompeo’s political ambitions are perhaps the most transparent: he’s not just appearing more regularly on cable news as a commentator and making donations from his personal PAC, he’s also forked over $30,000 in media training and lost nearly 100 pounds. Pence, meanwhile, appears to be pursuing a separate strategy of 1) throwing his actions on January 6th down a memory hole, 2), not actively challenging Trump and still maintaining public deference, all while 3) quietly establishing himself as his own, non-Trump man. As I wrote back in September, that will be a hard needle to thread. In recent weeks, however, Pence appears to have grown more confident in asserting his independence. Speaking with Jesse Watters on Fox News last week, Pence acknowledged that his most recent conversation with Trump was “last summer” and that they had “parted amicably” in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot. This is, of course, a typically Penceian version of a public break with Trump—hardly a dramatic renunciation, but certainly a soft distancing. It suggests that he’s imagining another act for himself.

Could Trump still leap back into the fray and into 2024? It’s likely. He’s still the biggest thing going in the G.O.P., and he’s proven before that he can stack the Republican primary process in his favor. A presidential run would allow him to reframe the various investigations into his personal conduct and business practices as political retribution. Most ominously, Trump has begun dangling the possibility of pardons for convicted January 6th rioters—an overture, perhaps, to more election chaos to come. Biden is about as unpopular as Trump was at the same point in their presidencies (a low bar, to be sure), but with Trump off Twitter and largely out of the public eye, even some Trump-skeptical Republicans have found themselves imagining whether things would be better with him back in charge. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.

As of today, I still have no idea what Trump is thinking. A not-insignificant portion of Republican voters have split with the ex-president over the benefit of vaccines, creating a potent new wedge issue within the G.O.P. And there’s always the chance that Trump could survey America’s current problem set—inflation, crime, culture wars at home and military provocations abroad—and wonder, perhaps, whether he wouldn’t have a better time running Truth Social and holding court at Mar-a-Lago for the rest of his days, rather than wrestle with the vicissitudes of the movement he created. He’ll play this hand until it’s time to fold.

Speaking of Deplatforming…

The other big story of the “alternate facts” universe this week has been the revolt at Spotify over Neil Young and Joni Mitchell threatening to leave the platform unless it wrist-slaps Joe Rogan for spewing Covid misinformation on his show. The imbroglio might initially bring back PTSD flashbacks of Trump’s own flaunting of Twitter rules, and one may perhaps wonder if history will repeat itself here. 

But there’s a massive difference between Rogan and Trump, and it’s the size of a reported $100 million-dollar contract. Trump might have drawn traffic to Twitter over the years and boosted its relevancy (though its market cap barely budged), but he was using the platform for free, just like everyone else. The only boundaries on his activities were defined by Twitter’s terms of service, and once he truly, inarguably violated them by egging on the rioters at the Capitol, the company had a relatively risk-free pretext to kick him off. (There’s some outcry on the right over whether Twitter violated his First Amendment rights, but Twitter had a defensible and obvious legal decision.) 

The differentiating factor with the Spotify/Rogan blowup is that their relationship was codified into a legally-binding contract that, just from the sheer size of the deal alone, put a quantifiable price on Rogan’s value as an exclusive asset to the company. (Think of it this way: Twitter’s relationship with Trump was like dealing with a clingy, loud and embarrassingly aggressive stalker, while the Spotify-Rogan relationship is like an unhappy spouse trying desperately to preserve the marriage for the kids.) Without knowing any of the details of their deal—I’ll leave it to my colleagues to figure that out—my instinct is that any sort of headache that Rogan could give Spotify will be legal and financial, and the “cancel culture war” aspect comes secondary to that, though I imagine it will gin up a wonderfully complicated PR drama on their end. 

But in a world where “cancellation” matters to the public more than a complicated contract negotiation behind the scenes, the socio-political implications could have larger ramifications. Unlike Trump, whose audience is firmly populist, Rogan’s massive audience is a mix of people interested in celebrity interviews; fans of mixed martial arts and comedians from the mid-2000s; raging conspiracy theorists (Alex Jones is a longtime friend); devotees of both technocrat-libertarian Andrew Yang and socialist icon Bernie Sanders; as well as legions of young and impressionable men simply wondering about the meaning of life. You know, Americans. The one thing they have in common: they all love listening to Rogan’s unfiltered view of the world, and are generally disinterested in what the mainstream media has to say about that. (I first learned about Rogan in 2018 from a twentysomething who loved MMA and couldn’t give a shit about partisan politics, but was a devoted listener precisely because Rogan never gave airtime to anything but whatever he was interested in.) 

In other words, Rogan’s views are untethered to anything in the political realm, and the fear that Spotify/Hollywood/the media/etc. might try to cancel him is something straight out of a Republican fever dream. I can’t imagine that Rogan would ever want to leap more directly into politics, but willingly or unwillingly, he’s already become a “culture war” totem for the right. 

And Speaking of Celebrity Culture…

One of my favorite things about covering the right-wing multiverse is that, unlike in centrist or left-wing politics, there’s frequently some crazy, destabilizing element that barges into the G.O.P. and causes an unexpected shitshow. (It’s why I loved covering QAnon for Politico: I got to write about Satanic rituals to the Babylonian god Moloch in the context of White House politics.) So far this year, I’ve encountered fewer ancient demons, but 2022 promises something equally insane: unqualified celebrities going full MAGA and running for higher office.  

Politico reported this week that Republicans consultants are trying to recruit country star Kid Rock to run for Congress. Specifically, for Tennessee’s 5th district, which was recently redrawn by the state G.O.P., mixing both urban counties close to Nashville with rural, deep-red counties. The district already has a candidate endorsed by Trump—Pompeo ally Morgan Ortagus—but apparently Ortagus isn’t quite passing the America First smell test. Meanwhile, Kid Rock has a newish song, “We the People,” that aims to become the anthem to MAGA Nation. (Sample lyrics include: “Fuck Fauci,” “Fuck Facebook, fuck Twitter, too/and the mainstream media, fuck you too,” and a repeated refrain of “Let’s go, Brandon.”) If we’ve learned anything from the rise of Marjorie Taylor Greene, trolling the libs is the most important prerequisite for winning over the base.

I’m skeptical. But judging from a recent lunch I had in the Nashville suburbs with an old friend—a Biden voter fed up with the erratic swings in C.D.C. social distancing guidelines—the freshly-gerrymandered, Nashville-adjacent district might be ripe for Kid Rock’s explicitly anti-lockdown messaging: “Wear your mask, take your pills/now a whole generation’s mentally ill.” Stranger things have happened.