The moment captures the popular notion of the two men as polar opposites — a vain rabble-rouser who presents as a slob in spite of his wealth, versus a pious, snowy-haired Ken doll, always outwardly humble and apparently content to occupy the sidelines.
The Mike Pence portrayed in Eisner and D’Antonio’s unfriendly biography, however, has more in common with Donald Trump than this conventional picture allows. His attitude of humility is really a cover for ruthless ambition. Like the reality show star in the Oval Office, he’s more concerned with appearance than authenticity, and he’s happy to dissemble and obfuscate when the truth is inconvenient. Though he makes a lot of noise about issues of religious and ethical principle, he’s more operator than ideologue.
Unlike Trump, though, Pence’s conservative pedigree is nearly perfect, beginning with his Indiana boyhood. He was born and raised in Columbus, a small, prosperous city south of Indianapolis, but his family roots on both sides are in Chicago. His paternal grandfather was a wealthy stockbroker whose German ancestors arrived in America in 1732; his mother’s father was an Irish immigrant who worked as a bus driver and raised his family in the rough South Side neighborhood known as Back of the Yards. Pence’s parents met in the city but ultimately settled in relatively sleepy Columbus because his father, Ed, partnered in a business there that operated a chain of gas stations and convenience stores.
Eisner and D’Antonio paint the Pence household as Midwestern wholesome, heavy on the tough love. They cite a New Yorker article in which Pence’s brother Greg said their parents “whipped their children with a belt if they lied, demanded that they stand when an adult entered the room, and expected them to remain silent at table.” An unnamed person described as “one of Mike’s peers” said Pence’s mother, Nancy, was “a nice lady who you also knew would take you outside and kick your ass if you did something she didn’t like.”
Somehow it’s not surprising that a person raised in this way would embrace a rigidly moralistic approach to living, as Pence so famously has done. The source of his ambition is less easily guessed, but he aimed high from the start. As a high school debate champ, he was already talking about someday running for president of the United States.
Pence was raised a Catholic, but he came of age during the rise of the Religious Right, which was dominated by Protestant evangelicals, and he seems to have undergone a dual conversion during his college days: first to a kind of hybrid evangelicalism and then to the cult of Ronald Reagan. Both of these awakenings were, of course, enormously useful to a young man with political ambitions in a conservative state like Indiana. So was his later embrace of the free market gospel of the Club for Growth. That organization funded his successful 2000 campaign for Congress and helped rescue what had been a floundering political career. (He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988 and 1990, and then retreated for a while into conservative talk radio, where he gained the regional name recognition that, along with the new source of cash, set him up to win.)
The 2000 win led to six terms in Congress and one as governor of Indiana before Pence joined Trump’s winning ticket. It’s an impressive political résumé, at least outwardly. In Eisner and D’Antonio’s telling, however, Pence was a highly ineffective legislator. None of the 63 bills he introduced in Congress became law. As governor, he did a good job promoting the agendas of ALEC and Americans for Prosperity, but he faltered when it came to dealing with an HIV outbreak and an environmental crisis. And then there was Indiana’s infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which effectively legalized discrimination committed in the name of faith. Pence supported passage of RFRA, then stumbled in navigating the predictable national backlash. He finally tried to hush the criticism by revising the law, leaving it in place but rendering it relatively worthless to the fundamentalist fringe it was supposed to placate.
All in all, pre-Trump Pence spoke well and postured expertly, but focused primarily on opportunity. He served his backers with diligence and enthusiasm, but not so his constituents.
Now, of course, his primary job is to cater to a constituency of one, and thus far he seems to be skating along well, serving as Trump’s buttoned-down, Jesus-friendly foil and ushering some of his own cronies, like Betsy DeVos, into the administration in the process. He has shown a remarkable talent for keeping himself out of the line of fire in the most serious scandals plaguing Trump, though, as the book details, he’s been in close proximity to many of them.
Eisner and D’Antonio do an aggressive, careful job of reporting Pence’s record. This relatively short book is crammed with details of Pence’s political history, though readers will have to look hard for anything that shows their subject in a flattering light. The focus here is on Pence’s failures and his character flaws, particularly the latter. It’s clear that they think Pence is without scruples when it comes to furthering both his ambitions and his ideological goals of unfettered capitalism and legally enforced conservative cultural values.
Of course, it’s an endlessly analyzed contradiction that Pence, along with millions of conservative evangelicals, has chosen to attach himself to the morally rudderless Trump. The hypocrisy seems staggering to outsiders, and Eisner and D’Antonio try to delve into the mentality that justifies it, but only with mixed success.
On the one hand, their portrait of Pence as a delusional and self-righteous schemer who asks himself whether his vice presidency is “God’s plan” and thinks he’s been “chosen to serve as president-in-waiting” seems perfectly plausible. But they go too far in confusing Pence’s hypocrisy and apparent moral blindness with the actual tenets of the faith he espouses.
For example, in trying to explain the beliefs of the non-denominational evangelical movement, they say this:
In this version of American Christianity, a supernatural relationship with Jesus is primary, and individuals choose their own moral codes. (Deep concern for common morals and ethics is, in this view, a negative practice called legalism. Legalism is bad because it promotes such behavior as humility or charity while ignoring the notion that a profession of belief, offered at any point, outweighs all the good or evil that a person ever does).
This explanation is so simplistic and wide of the mark that it borders on caricature. The doctrine of justification by faith is hardly some cultish idea unique to American evangelicals; it is at the core of Protestant theology. More importantly, to say that this doctrine frees believers to dream up their own moral codes or dispense with moral questions altogether out of a disdain for “legalism” seems like a willful misunderstanding of the concept.
If the passage stood in isolation from the rest of the book, it would be easy to overlook it, but in fact this reading of Pence’s religion is pretty central to the authors’ reading of him. They go so far as to suggest that his move away from his family’s traditional Catholic faith toward more evangelical beliefs was ethically expedient, as well as politically useful: “As a self-proclaimed evangelical Catholic, Pence sought to have it all, including a religion that did not require the moral action inherent to Catholicism, while retaining a connection to his roots.”
The idea that their faith demands no “moral action” would be nonsense to most evangelicals, and if there’s any evidence that Pence actually believes this, the authors don’t offer it.
Does it matter? The Shadow President is not a book about Christian theology, after all. Arguably, the only thing that matters about a politician’s beliefs is whether and how they affect his policy positions, and there’s not a shred of doubt about Pence’s desire to see the state promote and protect his social values. But the trouble is that the authors seem to want to indict Pence’s religion along with him. They go out of their way to drive that point home by using Bible verses as ironic epigraphs for each chapter. It all seems disturbingly similar to the kind of fallacious attack some conservative Christians make against Islam.
That said, the authors’ apparent bias against Pence’s faith takes nothing away from their rich — and troubling — depiction of his political history, his character, and his role thus far in the Trump administration. Readers who think of the man as simply a corn-fed religious fanatic or adoring Trump acolyte will be startled by the breadth of his ambition, and the depth of his apparent cynicism. There’s more than enough solid information in The Shadow President to give any thinking American pause at the idea of a Pence presidency.
Maria Browning’s work has appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, Hippocampus, and Still. She is the managing editor of Chapter 16.