The final chapter of Donald Trump’s corrosion of America is the specter of President Pence.
This week, as Trump cravenly kowtowed to Vladimir Putin, Americans wondered if the U.S. president is a Russian asset ― and impeachment our only defense. Not his would-be successor.
″What the American people saw, ” Pence bloviated,” is that Donald Trump will always put the prosperity and security of America first.”
Such sycophancy appalls. But beneath Pence’s mien of obsequious toady lurks three more personae, each worse than the last: evangelical extremist; self– serving schemer; plutocrats’ puppet. The presidency would empower them all.
Start with the sanctimonious church elder who calls his wife “Mother” and refuses to be alone with another woman. Pence rose in politics by embracing an ostentatious religiosity that strangles human empathy ― and galvanizes Republican evangelicals.
Take reproductive rights. In Congress, he led the fight to defund Planned Parenthood. While governor of Indiana, he signed a bill barring abortion in the case of genetic abnormalities, while targeting doctors who performed them.
Or LGBT rights. As a congressman, he opposed federal funding to treat HIV/AIDS unless the government also funded programs to discourage same-sex relationships. A nasty side effect of his policies in Indiana ― closing Planned Parenthood clinics and stalling needle exchanges ― was a countywide AIDS epidemic. Notoriously, he spearheaded a “religious freedom” law to protect businesses that refuse service to LGBTQ Americans.
His crabbed worldview redefines “provincial.” He questions climate change and the theory of evolution. He parrots the National Rifle Association’s vicious nonsense. Roughly 20 years ago, he denied that smoking kills people.
This intellectual cul-de-sac is more than benighted. Pence has systematically cultivated the GOP’s evangelical ideologues ― and its venal donors. Within his multiple personalities lurks one unifying characteristic ― naked self-interest.
Enter Pence’s first political savior - not Jesus, but the Koch brothers. While in Congress, he pushed a moribund Koch pet project called the “No Climate Tax” pledge aimed at killing programs for limiting carbon pollution. Declaring global warming ”a myth,” he became central to defeating cap-and-trade legislation ― and to the Koch’s semiannual fundraisers for right-wing donors.
When Pence sought Indiana’s governorship as a springboard to the presidency, the Kochs funded him. Koch dollars supported his campaign to cut the state income tax. Before his governorship foundered, a GOP professional told The New Yorker, “the whole Koch operation” was “the shadow headquarters of Pence for president.”
All this bespeaks a grubby but standard-issue willingness to sell his soul. What distinguishes Pence is his unceasing efforts to embody rectitude while engaging in the worst hypocrisy.
In his first campaigns for Congress, he used campaign funds to pay his mortgage, groceries, and golf fees, slandered his opponents with knowingly false charges, and then deployed an ostentatious apology that included denials of future political ambitions. Having publically laundered his soul, he used talk radio to re-animate his electoral career.
For a good while it worked. After 12 years in Congress, he turned to the governorship. In his imaginings, the Oval Office beckoned.
Then not. To solidify his evangelical base, he embraced the anti-gay religious freedom bill which, to his obvious surprise, alienated the state’s business community ― an embarrassment exponentially worsened by Pence’s tongue-tied rationalizations. Precipitously, he descended from presidential contender to a dimwitted parody of piety facing likely defeat for re-election.
Confronting political extinction, Pence prostrated himself to become Trump’s running mate, the bridge between evangelicals and a blatant libertine. Cravenly, he declared Trump a model paterfamilias and a man of deep Christian faith, confirming a surreal obliviousness to his own moral smallness. No praise was too fulsome, no talking point too grotesque, to deter Pence from seeking salvation as Trump’s spiritual Baghdad Bob.
Take this oily testimonial to Trump’s character ― imparted, with breathtaking creepiness, at the Living Word Bible Church in Mesa, Arizona in September 2016:
I’m old enough to remember back in the last Clinton administration where America really had a debate over whether character matters to the presidency. We don’t need to have that debate again. Character matters to the presidency and Donald Trump will bring the highest level of integrity to the highest office in the land. You can count on it.
Shortly afterward, the skies opened ― Trump’s braggadocio on the “Access Hollywood” tape about “pussy” grabbing raised calls for his replacement as the GOP presidential nominee. Pence’s reflexes dulled by sycophancy, he at first proclaimed that “Donald Trump is still standing, stronger than ever!” Abruptly perceiving the merger of moral clarity and self-interest, Pence announced that he could not “condone” Trump’s comments ― and began angling to depose him.
Disappearing from public view, Pence informed the Republican National Committee of his readiness to replace Trump. When Trump survived, Pence wallowed in renewed self-abasement. “Proud to stand with you,” he tweeted, grabbing Trump’s coattails once again.
But Pence’s duplicitous volte-faces continued in the vice presidential debate. Positioning himself for 2020, Pence turned in a calculated performance heavy on right-wing talking points but exceedingly light on praise of Trump. Nettled, Trump expressed private discontent at the transparent calculus of a climber who clearly expected Trump to lose.
Once again, Trump surprised.
Abruptly, Pence discovered himself as vice president–elect to a man with few real ideas and fewer contacts in Washington.
Taking over the transition, Pence seeded the administration with right-wing ideologues tied to the Koch brothers, including former EPA director Scott Pruitt, White House counsel Don McGahn, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, CIA Director Mike Pompeo (who now serves as secretary of state) and HHS Secretary Tom Price (who was forced to resign in disgrace). These picks, crowed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), resulted in “the most conservative cabinet in decades.”
Altogether, estimates the Checks & Balances Project, 16 high-ranking appointees in Trump’s administration were connected to the Kochs. With Pence as their catspaw, party plutocrats turned the pseudo-populist Trump into their tangerine Trojan horse, bearing the Kochs’ favorite gift to themselves ― tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.
But in the world of Donald Trump, everyone must appear subservient ― and no lackey is more assiduous than Pence. Miming a spineless staffer, Pence parrots Trump’s moronic talking points and transparent lies, nodding like a bobblehead as the president spouts self-contradicting bilge. By all reports, he never complained when Trump concealed his knowledge of Mike Flynn’s lies to the FBI about Russia, allowing Pence to repeat them on talk shows. Worse, he advanced the pretext that Trump fired James Comey on Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation, knowing that Trump had devised the plan himself.
When Trump dispatched him to walk out of an NFL game in Indianapolis ― a pantomime of righteous rage against black athletes kneeling for the national anthem ― Pence played his demeaning role with the brio of a high school actor.
To serve his ultimate goal, no act of self-abnegation is beneath him. Little wonder that Steve Bannon told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, “I’m concerned he’d be a president that the Kochs would own.”
It was utterly in character when Pence kicked off the most excruciating display of synchronized sycophancy in memory ― the hosannas from cabinet members upon their first meeting with America’s Dear Leader. “The greatest privilege of my life,” Pence intoned in his church organ voice, “is to serve as vice president to the president who is keeping his word to the American people.”
At a subsequent cabinet meeting, Pence broke his own previous record for serial servility, praising Trump 16 times in under three minutes.
But Pence the palace contriver ever searches for vacuums. As questions about Trump’s political survival burgeoned again ahead of this year’s midterm elections, Pence launched a political action committee while cultivating restive legislators. Concurrently, The Washington Post reports, “Pence has transformed his office into a new entry point for lobbyists seeking to influence the Trump administration across federal agencies...”
Twice as many special interests hired lobbyists to contact Pence’s office in 2017 than in any year during the vice presidencies of Joe Biden or Dick Cheney. Notably, Pence hired the slick GOP operative Nick Ayers to help distance him from association with the chaos in Trump’s White House ― and the man he grovels before in public.
Hypnotized by mindless ambition, he doubles down on pandering and self-debasement while unnerving Trump loyalists with his barely-concealed ambition to replace him ― perhaps in 2020 or before. Thus, speaking in Arizona, he kowtowed to the right-wing primitive Joe Arpaio ― converting a sheriff convicted for lawless racial profiling into a “tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law” whose presence “honored” him. Given Pence’s true moral stature, perhaps it did.
That’s what makes him so dangerous ― the otherworldly belief that his seamiest actions and most self-serving calculations are part of God’s plan for Mike Pence. For beneath his public poses, there is no one home but a small man completely unworthy of his great ambitions. Trump’s ultimate poison pill is the prospect of President Pence ― a moral and intellectual pygmy who would further sully America in his own God–given way.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council On Foreign Relations.