Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who debates Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine in the vice-presidential face-off on Tuesday night, is seemingly decent — political in a thoroughly normal way. Such qualities make Pence the odd man out in Donald Trump’s campaign. It’s no wonder Trump had second thoughts about him: He doesn’t fit.
What sets Trump’s campaign apart, beyond the slapdash nature of the enterprise, the baldness of the falsehoods and the ejection seat reserved for the latest campaign manager, is that he surrounds himself with men whose bad behavior complements his own.
That’s, of course, subjective criticism. But if you ascribe to certain nearly universal values, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion.
If the Trump campaign was not caroming daily, often hourly, between allegations of corruption and illegality and its own exertions on the frontiers of dark fantasy and sleaziness, then the presence of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the head of the Trump transition team would be a running scandal.
Christie, who is poised to have great influence over appointments in a Trump administration, has long played the role of the petty, vindictive bully. Yet nothing in that characterization prepares one for the pettiness and vindictiveness of the George Washington Bridge traffic jam engineered by Christie’s hand-picked staff.
Bridgegate is nothing like politics as usual, even at its ugliest. Tens of thousands of Christie constituents were abused solely for the creepy amusement of the governor’s staff and, federal prosecutors claim, of Christie himself.
The best - albeit most implausible - interpretation of Christie’s role is that he merely has horrific judgment and selected very bad people as top aides. This isn’t the view of the scandal that Trump once took, however.
“He knew about it,” Trump said of Christie in 2015. “He totally knew about it.” Perhaps Trump didn’t believe his accusation against the governor. Perhaps it was just one of the wild accusations the Republican nominee is apt to make.
It’s more likely, however, that Trump would have brought Christie into his campaign because of his belief that the governor was involved in the scandal, not in spite of it. Christie is the type of guy that Trump likes to have around - so much so that he essentially placed the governor in charge of personnel for a prospective Trump administration.
Christie is not a special case. Trump values advice from Roger Ailes, who grafted a political propaganda machine to a news network, evidently harassing women who worked there every step of the way.
Similarly, he relies on Rudolph Giuliani to provide counsel and to carry his flag. Like Trump, Giuliani is nothing if not versatile; he says whatever the moment requires. Are we spreading rumors about Clinton’s health today? “Go online and put down ’Hillary Clinton Illness’ and take a look at the videos for yourself,” he gamely told a television audience. And referring to news of Trump’s tax avoidance, Giuliani said: “Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman. . . ?”
The list goes on: Steve Bannon, the rage-fueled publisher of an alt-right yellow-journalism website who is Trump’s campaign chief; Newt Gingrich, who has always been willing to say anything, do anything, be anything for a cut of the action. The angry sycophant Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s first campaign manager.
Their collective history with women is uncanny. Ailes, the alleged serial harasser. Giuliani, who publicly humiliated his second wife. Gingrich, whose political hypocrisy is surpassed only by his marital hypocrisy. Bannon, who was once accused of domestic violence. Lewandowski, who grabbed one of Bannon’s female reporters so roughly, in public, that she filed charges against him.
Of course, at the center of this web is Trump himself, a man of unrestrained appetites and gratuitous cruelty. The men surrounding him merely reflect the varied facets of his own character. To quiet his unsoothable insecurities, Trump goes to pathetic extremes to surround himself with pretty women. It’s remarkable how ugly Trump’s men are.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week.