Should we be preparing for President Mike Pence? The North Korean government dismissed him as a “political dummy”, and his own former Republican congressional colleagues mocked him as “Mike Dense”. But the square-jawed Christian conservative and one-time talk radio host is not only, in Adlai Stevenson’s immortal phrase, “a heartbeat from the presidency” but, perhaps, an impeachment vote away from it too.
Does Pence have his eye on the top job? A year ago, in May 2017, he became the first sitting vice-president to register his own political action committee to raise funds – and he did so on the same day Robert Mueller was given the job of investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. A coincidence? Not likely. “Mike Pence wanted to be president practically since he popped out of the womb,” Harry McCawley, a retired local newspaper editor in the vice-president’s hometown of Columbus, Indiana, told the New Yorker last October. “He’s very ambitious, even calculating, about the steps he’ll take toward that goal.”
So far, three steps in particular stand out. Number one, Pence, an unpopular and controversial Indiana governor, aligned himself with Donald Trump in 2016 through a shameless mix of fawning praise and slavish loyalty. During the election campaign, the evangelical from the Midwest helped persuade the sceptical New York property tycoon to pick him as his running mate by playing golf with Trump, and then telling the press that the Republican presidential candidate “beat me like a drum”. The born-again Christian who had spent years railing against adultery then stood by Trump when the Access Hollywood tape emerged, in which the presidential candidate could be heard bragging about sexual assault.
Since coming to office, Pence, despite being the only member of the administration that the president cannot fire, has cemented his status as the leading Trump toady. “The greatest privilege of my life,” Pence declared solemnly at Trump’s first full cabinet meeting in June 2017, “is to serve as vice-president to the president who’s keeping his word to the American people.” In another televised meeting of the cabinet, in December 2017, Pence lavished 14 separate compliments on the president in three minutes – or as the Washington Post calculated, one every 12.5 seconds. Is it any wonder, then, that Pence has been dubbed the “sycophant-in-chief”?
Number two, Pence aligned himself with the Republican Party’s biggest donors and has proved to be as deferential to them as he is to Trump. As Jane Mayer observed in the New Yorker, the vice-president is the “inside man of the conservative money machine”. Trump may pretend to be the populist hero of the white working class but Pence has never hidden his low-tax, pro-deregulation, anti-health care agenda – he once compared Obamacare to 9/11 – or his close relationship with the Republican mega-donors and right-wing ideologues David and Charles Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the United States.
Pence is on record saying he is “grateful” to the Kochs for funding his 2012 campaign for the Indiana governorship to the tune of $200,000, and has acted as a bridge between the Trump administration and the brothers. According to one study, 16 high-ranking officials in the White House have ties to the Kochs. “If Pence were to become president for any reason, the government would be run by the Koch brothers – period,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island who sits on the finance committee, told Mayer.
Number three, Pence has aligned himself with the most influential and dedicated constituency on the US right: white evangelicals. The vice-president, who has said he gave his life to Jesus at a Christian music festival in 1978, proudly calls himself “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”. To call him a hardliner on social issues would be an understatement: Pence signed eight anti-abortion bills in his four-year tenure as governor of Indiana and, as a member of Congress, once even tried to redefine rape in a bill to limit access to terminations. He has also signalled his support for “gay conversion” therapy; he exacerbated the worst HIV crisis in Indiana’s history by dragging his feet on the authorisation of needle exchange programmes; he has cited Disney’s Mulan as evidence that women should be banned from the military; and in March 2015 he signed a “religious freedom” law that legalised discrimination against LGBTQ communities.
Don’t be fooled by the friendly Midwestern drawl: Pence is a religious extremist. According to former Trump White House aide Omarosa Manigault, he “thinks Jesus tells him to say things”. And over the past year, as vice-president, he has hosted a weekly Bible study group in the White House for members of the Trump cabinet, led by an evangelical pastor who has insisted wives should “submit” to their husbands.
President Pence, therefore, would pose a clear and present danger not just to the US welfare state but also to the nation’s secular model of governance. There’s a reason why Margaret Atwood said Pence was like one of the “puritanical” models for The Handmaid’s Tale: he’s an ideologue. To quote McKay Coppins of the Atlantic magazine in January, “What critics should worry about is not that Pence believes in God, but that he seems so certain God believes in him.”
So who would you prefer to be seated in the Oval Office with their finger on the nuclear button? A president who is unqualified and unhinged? Or one who thinks he is doing the Lord’s – and the Kochs’ – work?
This article appears in the 30 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead