In The Shadow President, veteran U.S. journalists and authors Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner cogently argue that Vice-President Mike Pence is a dangerous Christianist who hungers for power. “He was already functioning as a kind of shadow president, taking on so many domestic, foreign, and partisan political assignments that he seemed more engaged in serious matters than the TV-addicted president himself,” they write. The duo cite Pence’s championing of the regime’s worst cabinet appointees, such as Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency, Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development, and Betsy DeVos for Education.
There may well be worse to come, The Shadow President suggests. “As noted by [George] Will, Pence represented the epitome of religion joined with politics in service to an extreme partisan faction…By 2017, he was one of the most effective politicians of the 21st century…a more complex and consequential figure than either his supporters or detractors knew.” From his home in Washington, D.C., Eisner spoke about Pence’s odds of becoming president, his effectiveness and conservative eminence George Will’s contention that Pence is “America’s most repulsive public figure.”
Q: Why did you and Michael D’Antonio write The Shadow President?
A: The underlying reality of the Trump presidency, which reassures many conservative Christians, is that Mike Pence waits lingering in the shadows, ready to take over should the need arise. Pence certainly is mocked and reviled for his servile, flattering treatment of Trump, and as a result is a subject of late-night talk show jokes. He should be taken more seriously. A breath, or an indictment, away from the presidency, he has never submitted to a serious interview where he has been required to offer detailed answers to questions about his life and his beliefs. We have tried to remedy this situation by providing a complete view of the man’s personal and political life as informed by hundreds of records, and interviews with those who have known him from his childhood to 2018.
Q: You write in the book, “Hope for the future resided in [Pence’s] faith that, as chosen people, conservative evangelicals would eventually be served by a leader whom God would enable to defeat their enemies and create a Christian nation.” Can you talk about that?
A: One aide told us that with Trump, “Mike knew what he was getting into. He prayed about whether to accept the vice-presidency.” But once the decision was made, Pence was all in, for good and for bad. He is not about to criticize the president. “That is his role, come what may.” Pence doesn’t like being questioned about who he is. Criticism ultimately, he says, comes from people who question his faith in Jesus; he and his fundamentalist supporters play up victimization, as if religion itself was under attack. In fact, our questions are about policy. We would ask Pence, who rejected our requests to interview him: As president of this pluralistic society, would your beliefs as a Christian dominate government policy? Do you believe in compromise, or do you see the United States as best governed by the tenets of your religion as you see it?
Q: You also write, “Absolutely everything that Mike Pence does is oriented toward him becoming president.”
A: Like many young men, Mike Pence dreamed of becoming president. He was one of the few who has methodically pursued it. He worked in talk radio, served in Congress, connected with big money donors, and became governor of Indiana to tick off a bullet point on his resume, for administrative background. But as governor, his performance disappointed even members of the state’s Republican Party. He was seen as being too extreme, even for them, and many questioned whether he might have been re-elected for a second term. He was saved from obscurity and failure by Donald Trump and his need to shore up the right-wing evangelical vote. Now, he owes his survival to Trump and that political base. People close to him tell us that he is aware of Trump’s struggles—and he will be ready should Trump depart the scene. Meanwhile, he has his own political action committee, and campaigns around the country under the aegis of a dark money organization, America First Policies. AFP was founded by Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, and Nick Ayers, Pence’s chief of staff. The campaign tour is expected to solidify Trump’s base, and introduce Pence to grassroots Republicans around the country. In the event of Trump’s resignation or impeachment, Pence could quickly convert the effort to benefit himself.
Q: William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” How is that relevant to Pence?
A: Mike Pence often refers to himself as “the frozen man,” that is, someone who is locked into yearned-for values of the last century. He and many of his followers talk about those days when, they imagine, people respected one another, religious faith was not challenged, and neighbours shared old-fashioned ideals. It’s a vision of a white-washed past, when social inequities were too often disregarded, when women’s rights had not advanced, when non-Christian values were often anathema, when African-Americans did not enjoy the rights guaranteed all Americans, and when homosexuality was seen as a crime.
Q: In 2002, Pence was incensed that Colin Powell encouraged younger people to use condoms. “It’s very sad,” he said. “Condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases…the secretary of state may be inadvertently misleading millions of young people and endangering lives…I just simply believe the only truly safe sex…as the president believes, is no sex.” Is this indicative of Pence’s 1950s social conservatism?
A: The record is incomplete on Pence’s social views. We know that he backed a state law as governor, later rejected in the courts, that would have required burial or cremation of aborted or miscarried fetuses. As a result, a campaign emerged, Periods for Pence, with women calling in leaving messages for him about details of their menstrual cycles. He also pushed through a so-called “religious freedom” act, which amounted to authorizing discrimination against gays and others on religious grounds. Faced with global criticism, he pulled the legislation back. Pence, meanwhile, places the repeal of Roe vs. Wade at the top of his social agenda. He has promoted the designation of Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice, confident that Kavanaugh would be the deciding vote on the abortion law, which Pence wants to see “relegated to the ash heap of history, where it belongs.” Never mind that polls show a majority of Americans oppose his view.
Q: Is Pence worse than Trump on policy grounds?
A: It is too early to say. Pence’s staff has been much more organized than the chaotic Trump staff in the White House and a number of Trump initiatives originated in the vice-president’s office. Pence and Trump policy has been identical in most areas, although Pence likes to say that he stakes out his political ground quietly, and with a smile. Pence’s policy decisions and choices have often prevailed in areas that Trump doesn’t care about.
Q: What’s your riff on George Will writing that Pence is “America’s most repulsive public figure?”
A: If Trump himself is not the winner of that competition, Pence still is in the running, with the Republican leaders of Congress also in the race. Pence and most Republicans operate with the notion that it’s better to stay on Trump’s good side (and maintain the support of his cultish base) than to push against his outrages. Do they believe that the end justifies the means? We have learned from history that the means alter the assumed goal—Trump is on the march toward authoritarianism. Will democracy survive Donald Trump? Will Pence be able to separate his complicity from Trump’s attack on common decency and the American system of justice and the constitution itself?
Q: What might surprise people about The Shadow President?
A: I think that people outside Indiana would not know much about Pence and would be surprised by the details of his spotty tenure as governor of Indiana. He was not accepted by Democrats, which was to be expected, but was far from universally loved or admired by Republicans. Those four years in office portray a disconnected, sometimes devious chief executive who was loath to compromise, and too extreme even for members of his own party.
Q: I think Pence is a slick debater, drawing on his radio background, who thumped Tim Kaine in the 2016 vice-presidential debate. What are two of Pence’s most effective strengths?
A: Pence uses his nice guy, placid-faced image to hide who he is, and he is successful at doing that. We don’t know who he is and that is by design. While George Will finds him repulsive, voters with fewer powers of critical analysis are attracted by the image. Perhaps his greatest strength is that he doesn’t behave like Donald Trump.
Q: “There are problems with impeaching Donald Trump. A big one is the “holy terror waiting in the wings,” Frank Bruni argues, “a bigot. Also a liar. Also cruel…Trade Trump for Pence and you go from kleptocracy to theocracy.” What do you think of Bruni’s take?
A: If the debate is whether or not to impeach Trump, I side with the Constitution. If it is shown that Trump has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, let us follow the prescribed law. We can worry about the next president when the time comes and when the 45th president of the United States is gone.
Q: What odds, roughly, do you give Pence of becoming president?
A: I doubt that Trump will make it to the end of his term. Statistically, about 25 per cent of vice-presidents of the United States have become president. We’ve never had a presidency like this, and speculation is endless. One thing for certain, we face surprises, shocking news and unimagined scenarios that could emerge at any moment. Predictions ultimately are impossible.
Q: What do you say to critics who call your book an unfair hatchet job?
A: In a divided nation, many critics will reject the book without reading it. So be it. The book is a result of interviews and analysis of the record of Mike Pence’s life and career. Our conclusions are informed and the result of our reporting. People who have known him for decades have contributed to our account. His own declarations all add to the picture. Dozens of interviews add up to a fair rendering, one that Mike Pence—who refused many requests for an interview—and his minions certainly will not like, but a book that tells more about Pence than most Americans knew before.
Q: How does you book connect with the rest of your work?
A: Michael and I first worked together 30 years ago on a series of stories about Liberation Theology, in which socially minded members of the Roman Catholic Church bravely challenged the powers of the church and sought an “option for the poor,” believing that was the essence of Christianity. Since then, our work has diverged, but we have one element in common: we are on the lookout for stories of decency and morality—and failure for the absence of such—in public life. We are discussing doing a new report that would catalogue changes in American life and governance toward the end of the current presidential term, no matter who is president when new elections come around in 2020.