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The battle for the worst job in America

Donald Trump’s pick for vice-president will be the candidate who can most thoroughly abase themselves before him.

By Jill Filipovic

Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for the presidency, and his vice-presidential sweepstakes are just as much of a circus as one would expect from a uniquely deranged leader. The contenders include: a conspiracy theorist who claimed wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers; another conspiracy theorist who has parroted claims about Satan-worshipping “paedo grifters” in the Democratic Party; a long-time bachelor who is widely believed to have got engaged simply to qualify for the job; and an admitted puppy killer. The competition seems less about who is the most qualified or who could help fill some of the (many) gaps in Trump’s expertise and leadership abilities. Instead, it seems to be about who can most fully abase themselves before a man who wishes to have the powers of a king and the devoted worshippers of a god.

It is no exaggeration to say that Trump has thoroughly debased the GOP, which even before his leadership had more than its fair share of racists, lunatics, dimwits, sadists and actual criminals. The most recent Republican president before Trump, after all, was a man who also lost the popular vote but was awarded the presidency by a nakedly partisan Supreme Court, only to launch a war using bogus claims of weapons of mass destruction that destabilised an entire region, with the bloody consequences still felt over two decades later. And his is widely seen as the old, more reasonable Republican Party.

Today’s GOP is a party whose leader is openly planning to use the military to round up and deport millions of people, and its vice-presidential hopefuls can’t even say they would accept the results of the election if Trump doesn’t win. Because, of course, if Trump doesn’t win, he is primed to do a repeat of 2020 and claim the whole thing was rigged. The South Carolina senator Tim Scott refused to answer journalist Kristen Welker when she recently asked him, “Will you commit to accepting the election results of 2024, bottom line?” The Ohio senator JD Vance has been more overt in saying that Congress should not have certified the election for Joe Biden. None of the prominent vice-presidential contenders will acknowledge that Trump lost fair and square in 2020, nor that the 2024 election will be a legitimate contest.

Saying as much would get any candidate struck from the VP shortlist. One must also publicly and repeatedly swear fealty to Dear Leader with such vigour that it might strike Kim Jong Un as a bit much. The list of unabashed toadies vying for the number-two role also includes New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik, Florida senator Marco Rubio, Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, and South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, politicians who run the gamut from fawningly compliant to kneepads-needed servile. While Stefanik, Rubio and Vance had criticised Trump in the past, none of the VP hopefuls will let so much as a breath of dissent cross their lips today, even as Trump’s stated plans for 2025 onward grow ever more extreme.

It’s sad and odd to see so many adults so willing to humiliate themselves in order to get what might be the worst job in America. Best-case scenario: you work for a mercurial boss who will expect you to publicly prostrate yourself before him, sign up to whatever he says, then blame you if things go wrong. He will surely require that you violate basic principles of American democracy, and very possibly demand that you commit serious federal crimes (he may also expect you to violate your religious principles and fundamental decency to hawk Trump-branded Bibles). So many Trump associates are in jail, in serious legal trouble or under criminal investigation, it’s tough to keep track. No one emerged from his 2017-21 administration looking good, although a few did land plum TV contracts. His last vice-president was nearly lynched by a bloodthirsty mob on 6 January 2021 while Trump took no real action to protect him; Trump then later mocked and marginalised him, ending his political career.

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And this is their best hope, based on what Trump did in his first term, which seems set to be comparatively tame next to a potential second. The worst-case scenario for Trump’s number two may be well beyond the imagination of candidates and pundits. Why in the world would anyone want to find out?

Some degree of deep masochism seems to be at play – why else beg for a role that guarantees degradation and abuse? But the potential to grab more power, fuelled by stunning narcissism and grandiosity, seems like the real draw. Each vice-presidential contender must actively delude themselves that they will be the special person, unique in Trump’s history, who gets close to the man and isn’t eventually betrayed, belittled, or blamed for his misdeeds, potentially in a court of law.

But to imagine that one might be so special is to fundamentally misunderstand the Big Boss. An unshakeable belief in his own specialness is core to Trump’s psychology, and that specialness is dependent on a network of supplicants and sycophants who will absorb all culpability and responsibility. Post-Trump political ambition, a desire for some sliver of credit, even independent thought – these are blasphemous concepts in Trumpland. The battle to be Trump’s vice-president is not even like becoming his reality TV apprentice. Trumpism is more akin to a cult-like religion – and it’s a strictly monotheistic one.

[See also: American men don’t know what “respecting women” means]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink