A new book about Vice President Mike Pence warns of his outsize ambitions for the Oval Office and his sense of righteous mission if he gets there. The book, The Shadow President, by veteran political journalists Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner, promises to tell its readers, as its subtitle says, “the truth about Mike Pence.”
While the book gives little new insight about Pence for anyone who has been paying much attention to American politics recently, it has stirred up another round of one of the lamest arguments of the last two years: that America would be worse off with a President Pence in office than with President Donald Trump.
“Are you sure you want to get rid of Trump?” Frank Bruni provocatively asked in a July 28 New York Times column. “There are problems with impeaching Donald Trump,” Bruni contended. “A big one is the holy terror waiting in the wings.”
That’s a completely wrong assessment, but, sadly, not an uncommon one. Since Trump’s inauguration, journalists and political commentators have produced a steady stream of warnings about how much more awful things could be under a Pence administration. “The Danger of President Pence” was Jane Mayer’s take in The New Yorker nearly a year ago. A few months later, Vanity Fair cautioned with “Why President Pence Could Be More Terrifying Than Trump.” And Rolling Stone weighed in with “The Radical Crusade of Mike Pence.”
It’s not just liberal media outlets imagining the threat of a Pence presidency. Shortly after her unceremonious exit from the Trump White House, Omarosa Manigault-Newman told her castmates on the reality show “Celebrity Big Brother,” “As bad as y’all think Trump is … we would be begging for days of Trump back if Pence became president.”
Many Americans seem to agree. In an online (and admittedly unscientific) poll on The Tylt, 51.9 percent of respondents chose #PenceWouldBeWorse to 48.1 percent who selected #NoOneWorseThanTrump. Search Twitter for “Pence worse than Trump” and an unending cascade of excited tweets pours forth.
The American presidency has never been inhabited by the likes of Donald Trump.
Granted, it’s always good practice for Americans to think seriously about what it would mean should a vice president have to assume the presidency. Forty-seven men had the role of VP before Pence. Nine of them found themselves unexpectedly promoted to the highest office in the nation after a death or resignation.
Those are nearly 1 in 5 odds. Considering Trump’s mounting legal and political problems, the likelihood might be far greater that Pence becomes president without having to run for the office.
And no doubt, there’s good reason for liberals and others to be concerned about a Pence presidency. As the governor of Indiana, he advanced an aggressively right-wing course on social issues that, even in that conservative state, many considered extreme. Both his critics and his friends depict him as obsessively focused on overturning abortion rights and banning same-sex marriage, pursuing those with a legendary passion that some say borders on fanaticism. “Zealot” is a word you come across a lot when you start to read accounts of his political career.
On matters of climate change, deregulation and taxes, Pence would be a vigorous hard-liner, pushing the extreme libertarian politics of Charles and David Koch, who seem to have a hold on the vice president.
But pretending this would amount to a greater danger than Trump poses to American democracy and global stability is foolish alarmism disguised as rational diagnosis. Unfortunately, it’s perfectly in line with the sort of nihilistic cynicism that has taken over American politics and not dissimilar to the pessimistic fatalism that Trump stokes and enjoys.
An outlook that can’t distinguish the political challenge of a possible Pence presidency from the very real existential threat to the republic that Trump poses is useless for guarding against the disaster taking place in Washington right now.
The American presidency has never been inhabited by the likes of Donald Trump. He constantly and increasingly imperils our system of democracy. His flouting of the Constitution sets hazardous precedents that weaken the rule of law. His volatile and irrational temperament, combined with his disregard for international alliances and friendliness with autocrats and dictators, jeopardizes the safety of all of us.
Pence’s politics, while thoroughly conservative, fall in line with the basic Republican orthodoxy of the last 40 years. That’s an agenda worth resisting, for sure, but it’s one that Democrats will be well equipped — even emboldened — to block, especially if they claim a majority in the House this fall, as appears likely.
Regardless, it might be a political program that Pence wouldn’t be able to put into effect. Amid all the handwringing and doomsday warnings over Pence, a curious fact stands out. Most of those profiles also make clear what a notoriously bad politician he has been. Writing in Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick described Pence as “a politician with slow reflexes — a blemish for a congressional backbencher, but a horrifying flaw for a potential president.” D’Antonio and Eisner’s book details Pence’s time in Indiana as a “failing governor” with no real political achievements to his name.
Americans should be heartened to know that even in deeply red Indiana, he faced dim prospects for re-election as governor after he bungled a bunch of issues, including his terrible handling of legislation that allowed businesses in the state to discriminate against gay customers. The national stage would surely be even less hospitable to a Pence agenda.
But far more important, an obsession with him diverts attention from the plain and urgent crisis before us.
Talking about how Pence would be worse than Trump’s very grave dangers plays right into Trump’s strategy of sowing chaos and confusion to hide his assault on the nation. Pence’s politics could be stopped or reversed through the normal processes of American politics. Trump is bent on destroying those normal processes.
Don’t fall for it, America. The president we have now is the one to worry about.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”