In their new book, The Shadow President: The Truth about Mike Pence, journalists Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner do a very thorough job characterizing the vice president’s carefully crafted blandness—someone who’s thoughtful, concise, and pious, a family man with good hair and silent strength (right out of Trump’s “central casting”). At the same time he’s painted as a religious zealot, laser focused on becoming president to usher in a regressive, biblically ordained government while still satisfying big business and the wealthy elite that helped get him where he is. (And in some cases the wealthy elite and conservative Christians are one in the same.) In the following email exchange, I had the opportunity to ask D’Antonio about this shadow presidency and how we can get more people to see past the bland to recognize what Pence’s zealotry could mean.
Jennifer Bardi: First, I’ve got to ask: Is Mike Pence the author of the anonymous New York Times op-ed?
Michael D’Antonio: We’re certain that the vice president did not sit at a keyboard to write the column, but it’s quite likely that members of his staff participated. While it’s clear that Pence is appalled by many aspects of Trump’s personality and character, he’s so keen to protect his own status—and eager to maintain the Trump base—that he would leave no trace of his true sentiment.
JB: The book discusses the success libertarians and the Christian Right have had in portraying themselves as victims in an alternate reality, which has allowed them to mask their ambition to push predatory capitalism and Christian supremacy. Humanists and other nonreligious Americans are deeply concerned about this. What do you think a president Pence would do beyond what Trump’s already done on these fronts?
MD’A: Pence has long pursued the reversal of Roe v. Wade, privatization of education, and the elevation of so-called creationism as an alternative to the science behind our understanding of evolution. However, these goals represent just the start of what Pence would do. Much of the current administration’s agenda on the environment, energy, and the exploitation of public lands is driven by the vice president. As someone who believes God intends for Americans to exploit nature as fully as possible he would double-down on these policies.
JB: You point out several times in the book how Pence proudly identifies himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican in that order.” Why doesn’t that prioritization bother more people?
MD’A: A great many Americans are comfortable with the idea that this is a “Christian nation,” and even more would be slow to ask what this claim means. Extremists in this camp would add the word “white” to make the tribal group even smaller and more animated by a sense of shrinking power. For all their complaints about identity politics, those who belong to this subculture are powerfully attached to this identity.
Similarly, the label “conservative” is used to indicate that something of tradition is being preserved. “Christian conservatives” thereby represent the origins of Americanism and exist today as a remnant that is entitled to set the standard. The Republican element represents the political vehicle through which conservative Christian values will be applied.
JB: Can you talk a bit about Pence’s self-characterization as “the frozen man”?
MD’A: He calls himself the frozen man to make an even greater claim to the origins of the American ideal. He first used it to indicate that he was a Reaganite who never changed and then found himself in Congress in the year 2000 determined to revive the Reagan way.
Like all of us, Pence reveals more than he may realize as he speaks. In my mind, the frozen man also speaks to his rigidity, his appearance, his way of speaking, and his demeanor. Throughout his life Pence has cultivated a blandly pleasant exterior that finds its ultimate expression in the way he gazes at Trump when they’re together. The frozen exterior deflects concern that he may not be sufficiently loyal and hides whatever he truly feels. Finally, I fear, Pence’s heart is frozen too. We document too many instances when he either acted against fellow citizens with heedless regard for their rights or failed to act to ease or avert suffering. As governor, for example, he tried to legalize discrimination against gay citizens and failed to act promptly to halt an HIV outbreak. In both cases his religion drove decision-making that should have been informed by concern for fellow citizens.
JB: George W. Bush declared September 11 Patriot Day, and each year of his presidency Obama declared it both Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance. Last year, President Trump declared September 8-10 as National Days of Prayer and Remembrance (and 9/11 Patriot Day). Is changing “service” to “prayer” an example of the so-called shadow president at work? What are some other ways Pence has cast his shadow on the national and international stage?
MD’A: Pence deserves all the credit for Trump administration moves toward the Christian Right. He is the one with the desire to emphasize religion in the public square and to make appeals for supernatural intervention a key element of government action. Pence has been a key figure driving US policy toward Israel—he attended and spoke at the ceremony opening the new embassy in Jerusalem—and his influence is seen in the establishment of prayer groups throughout the administration. In his politics, group prayer is a way for people to publicly declare and strengthen their affiliation and to express the idea that “God is on our side.” The current administration is full of Pence loyalists whom he planted knowing they would pursue the conservative religious agenda. Education Secretary Betsy Devos, who boosts religious schools at every opportunity, is typical. She is doing all she can to shift resources from public education to religious schools.
JB: Some of the anecdotes shared in the book made me laugh—like how he hid a ring in a loaf of bread when he proposed to his wife, Karen (who wore a cross around her neck engraved with the word “yes” in anticipation), and how they later shellacked what remained of the loaf to keep as a family memento. Others made me groan, like the verse from Jeremiah 29:11 Pence has hanging above the mantle at the vice presidential residence at the US Naval Observatory:
For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
(Actually, that made me shiver a bit.) In researching the book and talking to people about Mike Pence, what would you say is the most disturbing thing you learned about him?
MD’A: Pence’s sense that God is behind him in everything he does gives him a confidence that is frightening. This certainty allows him to make choices and act in ways that run counter to moral norms. Because he imagines that God is his guide, he is hard-pressed to change direction. This is how he maintains his loyalty to Trump. The president’s appalling response to Charlottesville and his ghastly decision to separate asylum-seeking parents and children do not move Pence because he assumes that the Almighty is in command and has decided he should play the role he now occupies.
JB: In the book’s acknowledgments, you and your co-author Peter Eisner credit former Newsday editor Les Payne for teaming you up thirty years ago and quote his journalistic cri de coeur: “Tell the truth…and duck.” You know a thing or two about Pence and a great deal about the president (your 2015 book, The Truth about Trump, was based on hours of interviews you conducted with Trump and some family members). Do you fear repercussions from this book?
MD’A: Christian Right leaders have already begun their tweets and critiques, which highlight the false claim that we attack Pence for his commitment to Christianity. This is not a reality-based complaint but rather a pose. Of course, it riles people up and increases the volume of angry email, but this is all par for the course today. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced so much of this because of my work on Trump that it’s become background noise.
JB: What will you be writing about next?
MD’A: I’ve got one book on politics in the works, which I’m not free to discuss, and another that amounts to a search for values that Americans may share and might become the basis for restoring comity and compromise. I hope that those who exploit fear can be answered with an appeal to a shared sense of community, justice, and dignity.
Michael D’Antonio is a CNN contributor and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist whose credits include more than a dozen books, including The Truth about Trump and Mortal Sins, Sex, Crime and the Era of Catholic Scandal.