Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.
During Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, Mr. Pence repeatedly accused Mr. Kaine and Hillary Clinton of running an "insult-driven campaign." Mr. Kaine responded by cheerfully – for there is no other way for Tim Kaine to do anything but cheerfully – rattling off insults Donald Trump aimed at Mexicans, Muslims, women and others. Mr. Pence calmly shook his head – for there is no other way for Mike Pence to do anything but calmly – and denied that Mr. Trump had insulted anyone.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump, unable to last 90 minutes without being the centre of attention, decided to live-tweet the debate. He retweeted his fans saying "Kaine looks like an evil crook out of the Batman movies" and "Kaine looks like a fool."
Alas, there will not be a second vice-presidential debate, so we will not get to see Mr. Pence deny to Mr. Kaine that these retweets ever happened.
The vice-presidential debate was Midwestern Nice meets Midwestern Lies. An anticipated snoozefest between two mild-mannered Midwesterners – Mr. Pence, a life-long Indiana resident now serving as Governor; and Mr. Kaine, who lived in Minnesota, Kansas, and Missouri before becoming Senator of Virginia – the debate was actually vicious, if you could read between the lines. To do this, you must comprehend Midwestern Nice.
Midwestern Nice is a vernacular of wholesome politeness masking bitter contempt. It is employed primarily by white Christians of the U.S. heartland. To speak Midwestern Nice, you must know certain key words, and Mr. Pence and Mr. Kaine lobbed them like they were in a Norman Rockwell battle royale. Mr. Pence rhapsodized about small towns and cornfields; Mr. Kaine hit back with Little League and Sunday school. Mr. Pence praised the power of prayer; Mr. Kaine name-checked a Methodist youth group.
Eventually, a "faith-off" commenced, as the moderator asked each candidate to speak about their religious values. Mr. Kaine and Mr. Pence each spoke reverently of their Christianity, and made sure to praise the piety of their opponent. In Midwestern Nice, this was actually them telling each other where to go.
Both Mr. Kaine and Mr. Pence were selected, in part, because of their fluency in Midwestern Nice. Mr. Kaine's jolly demeanour offsets Ms. Clinton's bureaucratic aloofness; Mr. Pence's resemblance to a normal, functioning human being offsets Donald Trump. But Mr. Trump's nasty campaign dominated the debate nonetheless. Ostensibly, the candidates discussed matters of policy, but one question repeatedly emerged – did Mr. Trump really say that?
The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, Mr. Trump insulted ethnic groups, religious groups, and women; yes, he praised dictators, including Vladimir Putin; yes, he talked casually of initiating nuclear war. Mr. Trump's words are all documented on video, and will likely be featured in a Clinton campaign ad along with Mr. Pence's denials.
Americans are not used to a calm liar. We are used to lies being screamed, chanted, or told as a "joke" – lies wrapped in the bravado and bluster of Mr. Trump. We are not accustomed to lies uttered calmly by a purported man of faith, who appeared to reconcile his role in the vicious Trump campaign by pretending it never happened. Mr. Pence spoke favourably of a Mr. Trump that does not resemble Mr. Trump – a fantasy candidate who never said what Mr. Trump said, or did what Mr. Trump did.
In the end, when pressed on Mr. Trump's proclaimed desire to punish women who have had abortions, Mr. Pence finally cracked, admitting that Mr.Trump had said this but chalking it up to him being "unpolished." Mr. Pence is a pro-life extremist who once tried to get a law passed forcing women who miscarried to have funerals for fetuses. (The law was blocked by a federal judge.)
Mr. Pence likely had no objection to the content of Mr. Trump's statement, but he knows how to cloak brutal policies in Midwestern Nice – a skill his running mate lacks. In that brief moment, Mr. Pence seemed resigned to Mr. Trump's crudeness and cruelty.
It is hard to say who "won" the debate. Mr. Kaine stammered and interrupted, but remained essentially honest. Mr. Pence lied calmly and well.
"God bless you, career public servants," Mr. Pence said at one point about Ms. Clinton and Mr. Kaine, in a classic moment of Midwestern Nice's seething contempt. Meant as an insult, it nonetheless reminded viewers that Ms. Clinton and Mr. Kaine do serve the public. It also reminded them who Mr. Pence serves first and foremost: Donald Trump.