Rarely has the Trump-era overhaul of the Republican Party been put in such stark relief as it was Friday in Iowa.
There was former vice president Mike Pence, the post-George W. Bush embodiment of religious conservatism in the GOP if ever there was one, welcomed to a forum that by all rights should have been very friendly: the evangelical Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines.
Except organizers chose as host not another beacon of the religious right, but rather Tucker Carlson. In Carlson, we have the man even Fox News recently decided was too much of a problem, who last month spurred a large settlement with a former staffer who had alleged a hostile work environment and sexual harassment, the man who has now put Fox in trouble in another defamation lawsuit, and who freely admitted at the forum that he’s not a “particularly faithful or virtuous person.”
It didn’t go well for Pence. Through a series of exchanges over the war in Ukraine, Carlson put Pence on the defensive while offering simplistic foreign policy choices and a misleading narrative about the alleged misdeeds of Ukraine.
What was more remarkable was just how much the audience was on Carlson’s side. U.S. support for Ukraine divides the GOP about evenly, but if you watched the interview you’d think this was a settled matter in the party. There was no quarter for pro-Ukraine sentiments.
Carlson pressed Pence on the idea that the United States shouldn’t spend money to help Ukraine given it has too many domestic concerns. The audience loudly applauded Carlson but not Pence’s arguments that Ukraine should also be a priority. That included when Pence pushed back by telling Carlson, “I’ve heard that routine from you before.”
Carlson launched into claiming that Ukraine was “persecuting Christians,” citing arrests of priests. But it’s hardly so straightforward; as the National Review notes, Ukraine has sought to limit the reach of the Russia-tied Ukrainian Orthodox Church because of its support of Russia’s invasion. The exchange was torturous, with Pence trying to explain his own conversations with Christian leaders in Ukraine disputing Carlson’s premise, but Carlson repeatedly pressing his counternarrative. (Pence ultimately gave in somewhat in the name of moving on, saying of the persecution of Christians: “I won’t stand by it. I won’t stand for it.”)
The most telling example of where Pence stands in today’s GOP may have come when he offered what aides must have thought was a bona fide applause line.
“A year and a half ago, Russia had the second most powerful military in the world,” he said. “Today, they have the second most powerful military in Ukraine.”
The line was met with virtual silence, apparently to Pence’s surprise. All that was missing was a “Please clap.”
To be clear, Pence wasn’t talking about sending Ukraine a bunch more money; he was talking about how Russia, an antagonistic foreign power whom very few Americans — Republicans included — view favorably, was struggling in its war of conquest. And just … nothing.
The tone had been set by this point, of course. This evangelical forum was not the conservative Christian icon’s audience, it was Carlson’s — in line with the outspoken base of the party as much as a religious movement. There was no room for views on Ukraine that were actually where polls suggest much of the Republican Party remains.
It’s not at all difficult to see the Family Leadership forum ultimately contributing to — or at least being indicative of — the demise of the conservative movement’s most evangelical-friendly candidate. Even as it was taking place, word came that the former vice president had raised an anemic $1.2 million in the final weeks of June after launching his candidacy.
That’s the number of a man without a base in today’s GOP, in case Friday’s display didn’t make that clear enough.