People in this country have long since lost the ability to be shocked by President Donald Trump, but even by that standard, a recent quote attributed to Trump by The New Yorker packs a punch. Our expectations of Trump have been ground down to such a nub, however, that it seems like people are missing the point.
In an article devoted to the absolutely correct premise that Vice President Mike Pence is worse than Trump in almost every respect, Jane Mayer reported that while Trump parades himself before groups such as the Values Voter Summit in public, he privately mocks Pence over his religious views.
Of particular interest is one joke, relayed by two sources (emphasis added):
A staff member from Trump’s campaign recalls him mocking Pence’s religiosity. He said that, when people met with Trump after stopping by Pence’s office, Trump would ask them, “Did Mike make you pray?” Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.” When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy — he wants to hang them all!”
The point that people are drawing from this is that Trump is a hypocrite who merely panders to a religious right for whom he harbors secret contempt. But that's a secret so open, Trump practically announced it himself in a speech to those people almost two years ago:
“Two Corinthians, that's the whole ballgame.”
Yet somehow, Trump's joke has even somehow managed to trick liberal MSNBC host Chris Hayes into feeling sorry for Pence:
HAYES: You know, this quote about Pence's prayer and the one about he wants to hang all the gay people, which is an offensive joke because it's offensive joke to joke about hanging people.
BEN HOWE: Yeah.
HAYES: And that's a gross joke. But it's also, it struck me, as offensive to Pence. It's a view of people's religiosity as essentially a punch line and ridiculous, that people that have the belief system that Mike Pence says he has are essentially like barbarian neanderthal rubes.
Hayes is correct that the joke is offensive, but only by virtue of the context. If it had come from, say, Dan Savage, it would have been a canny observation about the consequences of Pence's bigotry, which includes deadly violence against LGBT people. Those views are the reason there is a Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Evangelicals harbor no illusions about Donald Trump, but they would help elect Pontius Pilate himself if it got them closer to overturning Roe v. Wade and rolling back gay rights. What's truly offensive about Trump's joke is that conversely, he knows all about Pence's poisonous bigotry, yet he installed him a heartbeat from the presidency just to get those people's votes.