In a letter to The New York Times in 2005, Donald Trump wrote that “some people cast shadows, and other people choose to live in those shadows.” Mike Pence went a little further and chose to be Trump’s shadow. He has ended up as a gray man of no substance, who has to insist ever more emphatically on his own godliness because he has no soul left to sell. In the video with which, on June 7, he launched his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he managed not to say Trump’s name—an attempt at conscious uncoupling that convinced nobody.
When the indictment of his former boss under the Espionage Act was unsealed on June 9, Pence pronounced himself “deeply troubled,” but could not bring himself to say what the trouble was. His signature policy stance is to claim that “Trump and others in this race are retreating from the cause of the unborn,” a claim that seems unlikely to draw supporters from either Trump or Ron DeSantis. That a candidate with Pence’s name recognition is polling in the single digits, barely ahead of the almost unknown Vivek Ramaswamy, shows how, like so many others who offer their necks to Trump’s fangs, he has been sucked dry.
All that is left is a washed-out imitation of his former master’s showmanship. Pence’s current pose is Uriah Heep pretending to be Bill Sikes. As a teaser for his big announcement, on June 3 he rode into Des Moines, Iowa, on a Harley Davidson, wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, a black shirt, and a leather vest with patches that read “Pence” and “Rolling Thunders.” The most sycophantic figure in modern American politics, Trump’s ever-so-humble plus-one, was not just born again but also—who knew?—born to be wild.
Perhaps it was this deep need to ape an alpha male that made Pence such easy meat for Trump. Long before he joined the Republican ticket in 2016, Pence showed a taste for secondhand macho. After Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in January 2009, Pence riled up his fellow Republican members of the House of Representatives by showing them the opening scene of the 1970 movie Patton, in which George C. Scott, looking weirdly like Mussolini, addresses his men in front of a giant Stars and Stripes:
We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything—except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto him by the nose, and we’re gonna kick him in the ass. We’re gonna kick the hell out of him all the time, and we’re gonna go through him like crap through a goose!
This self-identification with poultry excrement (albeit goose rather than chicken) may not have been quite what Pence intended, but in his case it seems apt. On January 6, 2021, Trump unleashed a mob that chanted “Hang Mike Pence” and erected a gallows outside the Capitol for that very purpose. Pence was accompanied inside the building by his wife, Karen, and his daughter Charlotte. They had to flee from his office to the basement. As Pence recalled, “I could hear the falling of footsteps and angry chanting.” Had the mob caught up with them, it may well have inflicted serious violence, not just on Pence but on his wife and daughter, too.
While they were hiding in the Capitol garage, Trump—according to witnesses, then in his residence at the White House, watching the riot on TV—posted a tweet that seemed intended to inflame even further the mob’s anger: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
Yet Pence just turned the other cheek. On the morning after the January 6 insurrection, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer jointly called Pence to urge him to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which allows for “the Vice President and a majority of…the principal officers of the executive departments” to issue a declaration to Congress that “the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Pence refused to speak to them. The reason is obvious: he had long understood that the Republican Party’s base belongs to Trump, and that he could not himself become president if he alienated his boss’s fans.
Even after Trump’s indictments, first on state and then on federal criminal charges, this is still the predicament that Pence embodies, as it were, on behalf of the entire Republican Party. He is trying to triangulate to a point somewhere between deference and defiance, to be at once supine and superior, to look presidential while pandering. The very narrow ground on which Pence is standing is his refusal on January 6, after four years of slavish loyalty to Trump, to abort the process of counting the votes cast in the Electoral College and, in effect, to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. The password for members of the media to gain access to the formal launch of his presidential primary campaign on June 7 was “KeptHisOath!” The man they couldn’t hang is also the man they couldn’t bully.
Things have come to a bad pass when not quite overthrowing American democracy is the definition of republican virtue. Even so, Pence’s claim to be the hero who stood in the gap of danger and held off the barbarian hordes is laughable. In the aftermath of the 2020 election he went along with Trump’s attempted coup for as long as he possibly could and demurred only when the coup had already failed.
At 2:30 AM on the morning of November 4, 2020, Trump stood on a flag-bedecked stage in the East Room of the White House, declared that “frankly, we did win this election,” and called for the counting of votes to stop. This was very obviously the scripted beginning of a coup. And Pence was a full participant. He stood behind Trump, literally as well as figuratively. When Trump finished speaking, he beckoned his sideman forward for his short solo. Pence summarizes his own speech in his memoir, So Help Me God (2022):
I obliged, thanking the more than 60 million Americans who had already voted for us. I promised that we would remain vigilant to protect the integrity of the vote and said I believed with all my heart that we were on the road to victory. And I did.
It’s worth noting that believing something “with all my heart” is, in Pence’s overwhelming insistence on his evangelical faith, tantamount to saying that God has placed this belief there. The convenience of this construction is that it absolves Pence himself of any responsibility for making a judgment based on the available evidence.
Even if we accept that Pence believed on election night that he and Trump had won, it’s clear from his own account that he knew by at least November 7 that this was not so. In his memoir he quotes a conversation with Jared Kushner on that day: “I told him over the phone that ‘Democrats cheat’ is virtually a proverb in Indiana, and although I was sure that some voter fraud had taken place, I wasn’t convinced it had cost us the election.” In other words, Pence now accepted that Biden had won the election legitimately and therefore must be accepted as the incoming president.
Yet not only did Pence not say that in public, he continued to feed the Trump narrative of widespread fraud and the expectations among the Republican base that courts would overturn the result. On November 9, two days after he told Kushner that alleged cheating had probably not cost Trump the election, Pence tweeted, “Told @VP Team Today, ‘it ain’t over til it’s over…and this AIN’T over!’” On January 4 Pence told a crowd in Milner, Georgia:
I know we all—we all got our doubts about the last election. And I want to assure you, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about voting irregularities. And I promise you, come this Wednesday, we’ll have our day in Congress.
Again, it matters that this promise was embedded in an evocation of religious righteousness. Pence’s own account of the speech makes this very point:
With the election controversy hanging in the air, I spoke about my faith. I told the audience about…the night I had come to Christ, reminding them, “Even when it doesn’t seem like it, God is always working.”
Pence was doing what he had always done for Trump—providing a godly cover for his boss’s depredations. For an audience steeped in evangelical preaching, the insistence that God is working despite the evidence was a clear signal that Biden’s victory would be annulled by the divine will. Faith in Jesus fused with faith in Trump, and together they would prevail over the mere facts of how Americans had voted.
Nor is it clear that Pence’s ultimate refusal to stop the counting of the Electoral College votes on January 6 was anywhere near as straightforward as he now pretends. Pence insists that he understood from December 5 that “there was no ambiguity in the Constitution or the law about the role of the vice president, and I never believed that the vice president’s role was anything more than ceremonial.” But he seems to have at the very least explored the possibility that he might be able to signal, in that purely ceremonial act, his belief that the results were tainted. He knew that Trump’s fans would blame him for doing his constitutional duty. He hoped to deflect some of that anger by indicating that he really was on their side—even if this self-serving message did immense harm to American democracy.
Thus, in late December 2020, Pence called the other recent vice-president from Indiana, Dan Quayle. A detailed account of the conversation (which presumably can only have come from either Pence or Quayle) is given in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s Peril (2021). It has Quayle consistently telling Pence that he has no wiggle room, but Pence apparently probed for just such space: “He wanted to know, veep to veep, whether there was even a glimmer of light, legally and constitutionally, to perhaps put a pause on the certification if there were ongoing court cases and legal challenges.” Pence, in his memoir, denies that this was the import of his questions, and Quayle subsequently told The Washington Post that “I did not notice any hesitation on his part. I interpreted his questions as looking for confirmation that what he was going to do was right and that he had no flexibility. That’s the way I read it.”
Yet there is also, in Peril, an account of Pence’s subsequent meeting, on January 3, 2021, with the Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough: “‘Can I perhaps express sympathy with some of the complaints?’ Pence asked. MacDonough was curt, professional. Stick to the script, she advised. You are a vote counter. Pence agreed.” Pence discusses this meeting in So Help Me God but does not dispute Woodward and Costa’s account. There’s no doubt that Pence accepted there was nothing he could do to stop Biden being confirmed as president on January 6, but it seems equally clear that he was hoping to find some way to appear to be trying.
In this concern with appearances, Pence is at least consistent. Those who mock him for the quirkier sides of his religious persona—his refusal to dine alone with any woman other than his wife or to drink alcohol at any event at which she is not present—pay him a backhanded compliment. They play into his self-projection as a man of rigid principles, true to himself even in ways that others regard as weird. His sheer dullness, especially in his infinitely dreary public speeches, reinforces this notion of sincerity—nobody that boring can really be thought of as performative. This is to misunderstand, and in some ways to underestimate, Pence. His religiosity may be entirely sincere, but it is also instrumental and highly politicized. Pence is, in his own way, just as much an actor as Trump is. He, too, is in show business.
It’s worth going back to Patton, which seems to be Pence’s favorite movie. In So Help Me God, Pence is reminded of it by his experience of watching with admiration as Trump expressed his enraged impatience in meetings with minions. What Pence loved was his own privileged access to the knowingness of these performances: “Once they were gone and only the president and I remained, he would often turn to me and ask, ‘How was that?’” This, in turn, reminded Pence of Scott as Patton bawling out his subordinates:
His orders delivered, an aide-de-camp tells Patton, “You know, General, sometimes the men can’t tell when you’re acting and when you’re not.” With a wry smile, Patton replies, “It’s not important for them to know. It’s only important for me to know.”
Far from being repelled by the playacting, Pence was delighted by it—so long as he was allowed in on the act.
His monotonous political persona makes it easy to forget that Pence spent five years as a radio talk show host and TV presenter in Indiana after his failed bids to win a House seat in 1988 and 1990. In his own mind, those years in show business connected him to Trump: “He had spent a decade on television hosting a reality show; I had spent years on radio and TV as well. The audience sizes were, of course, just a little different, but it was common ground.” Trump used his TV character as the medium through which to enter politics. Pence, on a much smaller and more local scale, used The Mike Pence Show to resurrect his political career after it had failed.
The political version of The Mike Pence Show is the performance of authenticity. His imaginary heartland has three provinces: small-town America, Irish heritage, and the born-again heart where Jesus has taken up residence. Each of them demands a suspension of disbelief. Pence’s origin myth was recounted on Trump’s presidential website while he was in office: “Sitting at the feet of his mother and his father, who started a successful convenience store business in their small Indiana town, he was raised to believe in the importance of hard work, faith, and family.” The suggestion of a semirustic upbringing in a mom-and-pop store is entirely phony. Pence was not, as he also claims in his memoir, a “small-town kid.”
He was born and raised in the small, well-to-do city of Columbus, Indiana, which was home to two Fortune 500 companies—Cummins, which manufactured high-tech engines, and Arvin Industries, which made auto parts and electrical appliances. It was also a showcase for modern architecture. Its main Christian church was designed by Eero Saarinen, its public library by I.M. Pei. Pence’s father was vice-president, and later co-owner, of Kiel Brothers Oil Company, which supplied two hundred gas stations across Indiana and Kentucky. When Kiel Brothers, by then run by Pence’s brother Greg, collapsed in 2004, it left the taxpayers of Indiana (and to a lesser extent Kentucky and Illinois) on the hook for over $20 million in cleanup costs for eighty-five contaminated sites, including, according to the investigative reporter Brian Slodysko, “underground tanks that leaked toxic chemicals into soil, streams and wells.” So much for bucolic, small-town America—and for self-reliance and fiscal conservatism.
Pence’s Irishness, which he emphasized heavily in his announcement speech, is in many respects remarkably similar to that of the man he hopes to defeat in 2024, Joe Biden. Both grew up in devout Irish Catholic families. Both trace their roots back to County Mayo. Both were heavily influenced in their youth by a maternal grandparent—in Pence’s case Richard Michael Cawley, who “often told me that of all the Pence boys, I was the only true Irishman.” Both grew up adoring the Kennedys, whose rise to power sealed the acceptance of Irish Catholic immigrants as true Americans. Pence writes of his “Irish gift of the gab,” his “Irish stubbornness,” and how “it takes a lot to get my Irish up.” All of this is genuine enough: Pence spent his first summer after college pulling pints in Morrissey’s bar in Doonbeg, County Clare, owned by some of his distant Irish cousins.
But it’s also a way of presenting himself as an American success story. As he told the Republican convention when accepting his nomination as Trump’s running mate in 2016, “I grew up on the front row of the American dream. My grandfather immigrated to this country.” Which is all very well, except that Pence served in one of the most viciously anti-immigrant administrations in US history. In 2017, when Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote a long piece for The New York Times about Pence’s Irish roots, Pence’s spokesman denied that there was a contradiction between the vice-president’s valorization of his grandfather’s ability to make a new life in Chicago as a penniless immigrant and Trump’s demonization of contemporary migrants. He insisted that “President Trump’s efforts to restrict immigrant travel would not have applied to Mr. Cawley because ‘Ireland is not compromised by terrorism.’”
This, too, is a lie: Cawley, according to Pence’s own memoir, “had left Ireland to escape the civil war” that was raging in 1923 and was characterized by what would now be called terrorist outrages. The policies that Pence helped to implement—barring, for example, refugees from civil war in Syria—would certainly have blocked their earlier Irish equivalents like his grandfather, unless a specific exception were made for those who were white and Christian.
Pence’s three-generational immigrant success story was made possible by the labor movement. As he recalls of Cawley, “Grampa drove a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority for thirty years and was a proud member of the transportation union.” Yet as governor of Indiana, Pence was proudly antiunion. In 2015 he ended a system used since before World War II to set a common wage for most publicly funded construction projects—a move opposed not only by the unions but also by many Republicans.
The third arena for Pence’s performance is by far the most important politically: his very particular brand of religiosity. Its potency lies in the way he embodies one of the critical developments in the rise of the right, the coming together of Catholic and Protestant reactionaries through their shared opposition to abortion. Pence occupies a pivotal position in this rapprochement: he grew up Irish Catholic but became an American evangelical. This personal passage has important historical resonances. Right-wing Protestants (not least in Indiana, a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan) hated Catholics almost as much as they hated Jews and Blacks.
Pence’s brother Greg recalled that the Protestant kids in Columbus would sometimes throw rocks at him and his brothers because of their religion. Mike’s decision, in 1978, to be born again and subsequently to leave the Catholic Church and practice as an evangelical Protestant was, in microcosm, the closing of a great divide. It was part of a larger process in which total opposition to abortion from the moment of conception, hitherto seen as a specifically Catholic theological obsession, became the energy powering the fusion of white Christian conservatives into a single political and electoral force.
Yet here, too, underneath Pence’s self-projection, there is a contradiction. Pence has long identified his opposition to abortion from the moment of conception as the great motive force of his political career. “When Karen and I reentered politics in the summer of 1999,” he writes, “we explained our decision to run for Congress to our three small children by saying that it was ‘for the babies.’” But his account of how and when he came to believe this is quite odd: “I became an advocate for life five years after the Supreme Court’s fateful 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, when I made a personal decision to put my faith in Jesus Christ.”
In other words, Pence claims that he came to see abortion as the defining issue of politics while he was moving away from the Catholic Church—the very body that had (to the general indifference, back then, of most evangelicals) tried to make it exactly that. This does not quite add up. It seems rather more likely that one of the main reasons for Pence’s move away from the Catholic Church, which bans divorce and remarriage, was that Karen had been married and divorced before she met him. Pence airbrushes this significant detail from his memoir. The only hint of it is that he refers to her, at the time he first met her, as Karen Whitaker. Whitaker was her first husband’s name. He does not mention that she was born Karen Batten. The omission allows Pence to skate over the tension in his life between religious belonging and the pursuit of love—a tension felt, of course, by many LGBTQ+ Christians.
Pence’s constant projection of religious fervor also has the distinct advantage of making it unnecessary for him to accept accountability for his own political choices. God has a knack for being very easy on him. Because Pence was doing it “for the babies” and thus for their Creator, Jesus saw no problem with his using $13,000 of his 1990 congressional campaign funds to pay for personal expenses like his mortgage and Karen’s car. Later Pence excused his refusal to oppose Trump’s most egregious behavior thus: “Barring an issue of principle or morality, the vice president is there to support the president, not to present a divided front to the cabinet or Congress.” Wasn’t it good of God to ensure that no issue of principle or morality (like separating little children from their parents at the Mexican border) arose over those four years that might have forced Pence to oppose Trump?
The utility of prayer—which always seems to produce the answers that send Pence along the path of least resistance—is nowhere clearer than in the way he describes his decision to stick with Trump in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Access Hollywood tape. “Rumors abounded,” he writes,
that Karen was so upset that she urged me to abandon the ticket. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were both offended by the tape, but it was Karen who was the more forgiving and sympathetic…. It was my wife’s deep faith and belief in forgiveness that guided our response.
Here, Pence is insulated from the decision to continue as the political partner of a self-declared serial molester of women by a double layer of protection: Karen tells him how to respond, and God tells Karen. It would be interesting to know whether Jesus, in his conversations with Pence, has ever suggested a course of action that might harm his quest for power. But, then, Jesus has not had to do that because, in the end, Donald Trump has done it for him.
—June 21, 2023