The Pence-Kaine vice presidential debate and the willing suspension of disbelief




Good morning Austin:

I believe it was Mrs. Tinkhauser in my 9th-grade mass media class who taught me about something called the willing suspension of disbelief.

Here is a description of that phenomenon from

In the world of fiction you are often required to believe a premise which you would never accept in the real world. Especially in genres such as fantasy and science fiction, things happen in the story which you would not believe if they were presented in a newspaper as fact. Even in more real-world genres such as action movies, the action routinely goes beyond the boundaries of what you think could really happen.

In order to enjoy such stories, the audience engages in a phenomenon known as “suspension of disbelief”. This is a semi-conscious decision in which you put aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the story.

Suspension of disbelief only works to a point. It is important that the story maintains its own form of believability and doesn’t push the limits too far. There are many factors for the budding story-writer or film-maker to consider, including the following….

The initial premise can be quite outrageous as long as the story maintains consistency within that premise. There are many things about the Star Trek universe which are basically impossible in the real world, but because Star Trek makes an effort to work consistently within its own universe, the stories become believable. For example, as long as you’re willing to accept that the Galaxy is mostly populated by humanoids then there is nothing within the series that will break the believability.

The quality of special effects must be believable. It is harder to suspend disbelief in movies where the special effects appear fake.

The genre will determine the lengths to which you can push believability. Audiences will be willing to believe an action hero can perform super-human feats, but the same feats performed suddenly in a romantic drama would result in confusion and disbelief.

Some stories purposely push the suspension of disbelief to the limit. The Indiana Jones movies were a good example, where the audience was expected to find the improbable antics amusing.

One important area of belief is in human actions and emotion. People must act, react and interact in ways which are believable. In cases where such interactions do require suspension of disbelief, the normal rules of consistency apply. Audiences are very unforgiving if they think a character is behaving in an unbelievable fashion.

A couple of thoughts here.

In one of the least surprising turn of events in history, the people who worked on Star Trek–a show which envisions a future Earth without sexism, racism, religion, and even money–find the thought of a Trump presidency abhorrent. More surprisingly, they all want to be clear that a vote for a third party is a vote for Trump.

 A post on the Facebook group Trek Against Trump (“not endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with CBS Studios Inc., Paramount Pictures Corp or the “’Star Trek’ franchise.”) explains that “Never has there been a presidential candidate who stands in such complete opposition to the ideals of the Star Trek universe as Donald Trump. His election would take this country backward, perhaps disastrously.”

Last night’s vice presidential debate also depended on the willing suspension of disbelief.

By almost all accounts, Pence outperformed Kaine. He was calm, cool, collected, looked vice presidential – or maybe even presidential – in a kind of generic, TV movie kind of way. And he had a Spockian Vulcan calm that served him very well against Kaine’s frenetic, nearly panicked Scotty warnings about where the Enterprise would be headed with Trump at the helm.



Pence’s performance offered Republicans and conservatives some modeling on how you can be a Trump supporter – indeed you can be his running mate – through a kind of Zen denial, through an assertive  suspension of disbelief, and straight-out denial that Trump is who he is or said the things he has said, and to do it in such a steady and unruffled manner that Tim Kaine ends up looking and sounding like Chicken Little.



For example, Pence’s very tough words about Russia and Putin sounded more like what a Trump critic would hurl at Trump than what Trump’s running mate would be saying.

Pence, with impressive aplomb and no hint of irony, defended Trump as more the victim then perpetrator of insults in the campaign.


KAINE: Six times tonight, I have said to Governor Pence I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next. And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate.

PENCE: Well, let’s — no, no, don’t put words in my mouth.

QUIJANO: All right.

PENCE: He’s going…


KAINE: And yet he is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend. And I just think that should be underlined.

PENCE: No, I’m — look…


QUIJANO: All right, gentlemen, let’s talk about Russia. This is a topic that has come up.

PENCE: I’m very, very happy to defend Donald Trump.


PENCE: To be honest, if Donald Trump said all those things you said he said, in the way you said he said those things, he wouldn’t have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables.


Some stories purposely push the suspension of disbelief to the limit.



Then there was this, which provoke the loudest reaction (laughter) at the Whip In, where I watched the debate.



KAINE: When Donald Trump says women should be punished or Mexicans are rapists and criminals…

PENCE: I’m telling you…

KAINE: … or John McCain is not a hero, he is showing you who he is.

PENCE: Senator, you’ve whipped out that Mexican thing again. He — look…

KAINE: Can you defend it?

PENCE: There are criminal aliens in this country, Tim, who have come into this country illegally who are perpetrating violence and taking American lives.

KAINE: You want to — you want to use a big broad brush against Mexicans on that?

PENCE: He also said and many of them are good people. You keep leaving that out of your quote. And if you want me to go there, I’ll go there.


Sure. Go there.

This is what Trump said when he announced his candidacy for president, a shocking line that vaulted him to the front of the pack.

 When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

There is a difference between “many of them are good people,” and “some, I assume, are good people.”

Not to mention the infelicitousness of Pence’s phrasing, at once dismissive and obscene, which sounded like a line the repressed, uptight white politician would deliver in a John Waters movie before the bit production number, (I Knew it was Love the Moment) You Whipped Out That Mexican Thing.




Here is a compendium of reactions to the line from Fusion.



So Pence did well, definitely for himself, and maybe for Trump.

But, audiences are very unforgiving if they think a character is behaving in an unbelievable fashion.

In the end, the safest bet is that this debate will have little if any lasting effect.








Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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