Becoming president is something Mike Pence has fantasised about since high school, says a co-author of his biography. Picture: AP
Becoming president is something Mike Pence has fantasised about since high school, says a co-author of his biography. Picture: AP

Pence fantasises about presidency: author

American Vice President Mike Pence may be the ultimate understudy to Donald Trump's norm-bending leadership, presenting a bland and agreeable face to many Americans who might otherwise be put off by the antics and rhetoric of the president.

But taking Pence's "small town preacher" manner and public fealty to Trump as marking a lack of ambition would be a mistake, given that becoming president is "something he has fantasised about since high school", according to the co-author of his biography.

A late addition to Trump's presidential campaign, the far-right Christian former governor of Indiana was instrumental in swinging some 80 per cent of evangelicals to vote Republican in 2016.

One of Trump's most loyal lieutenants, Pence arrives in Australia today ahead of regional talks at the APEC conference in Papua New Guinea, after a whirlwind tour through Asia where he telegraphed the US president's increasing frustration with China.

Fourteen vice presidents have risen to top office, eight times because a sitting president died. Five of them won elections after serving as vice presidents, while Gerald Ford took over from Richard Nixon when he resigned during the Watergate scandal.

Since the moment Donald Trump up-ended history and polls to beat Hillary Clinton, his vice president "has been ready" to assume the top job.

"Trump's chaotic presidency has focused more attention on Pence as an alternative than we would see with most vice presidents historically," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael D'Antonio told News Corp Australia.

"Nobody thought that (former vice presidents) Joe Biden or Al Gore was selected to suddenly assume the presidency, should there be a impeachment or some other crisis that would drive the president out of office.

Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump with their wives at the Liberty Inaugural Ball on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Picture: Getty
Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump with their wives at the Liberty Inaugural Ball on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Picture: Getty

"But in the case of Trump, there were a great many people who voted for the Trump-Pence ticket because they liked Pence, not necessarily because they like Donald Trump, and they assumed that either Pence would leaven a Trump White House, or he would be there to jump in, should a resignation, should a health problem arise, or maybe the president would see that he couldn't be re-elected in 2020 and simply walk away.

"I see Pence as very much a president-in-waiting in a way that other vice presidents have not been."

Pence has shown unfailing loyalty to Trump, and following this month's midterm elections, the pair publicly reaffirmed their support for each other and desire to continue as running mates through the next general election.

Stridently pro-life, Pence was "probably the single most prominent Christian right activist in American politics", when he was tapped by the Trump campaign in July 2016.

"He very much favours all the policies would come under the umbrella of conservative

Christian political activism," says D'Antonio.

"So he is adamantly anti-abortion, he wants to favour churches in tax policy and education policy. If he could do more to funnel tax dollars to religious institutions, he would, and he is probably best known for seeking to change the law so that religiously-inspired business people could refuse to do business with those who disagree with them or who represent to them something non Christian."

Given his politics, the prospect of a Pence presidency is as terrifying to many liberals as a second Trump term.

"If Trump vacates the office, we could face almost 10 years of President Mike Pence. Is that something you really want?," asked Rolling Stone recently.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote: "There are problems with impeaching Donald Trump. A big one is the holy terror waiting in the wings.

"That would be Mike Pence, who mirrors the boss more than you realise. He's also self-infatuated. Also a bigot. Also a liar. Also cruel.

A Pence presidency is as terrifying to many liberals as a second Trump term. Picture: AP
A Pence presidency is as terrifying to many liberals as a second Trump term. Picture: AP

"To that brimming potpourri he adds two ingredients that Trump doesn't genuinely possess: the conviction that he's on a mission from God and a determination to mould the entire nation in the shape of his own faith, a regressive, repressive version of Christianity. Trade Trump for Pence and you go from kleptocracy to theocracy."

But Pence is beloved by Conservatives, for his fundraising talents, extensive networks, loyalty to the president and for steering as steady a path as possible for the turbulent Trump administration.

When Trump introduced his new running mate at the 2016 Republican convention, he said: "He is a man of character and accomplishment. He is the right man for the job."

Former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney said last year: "Pence has got good experience and solid judgment and great background."

Despite their extreme differences in style, there are some striking similarities between the paths Trump and Pence took to the White House.

Mike Pence arrives in Australia today ahead of regional talks at the APEC conference in Papua New Guinea. Picture: AP
Mike Pence arrives in Australia today ahead of regional talks at the APEC conference in Papua New Guinea. Picture: AP

"A lot of people don't know this, but he spent more than a decade on radio in Indiana and television honing his communication skills. So in a way, he was kind of following the same line that Donald Trump followed when he became the host of The Apprentice," D'Antonio says.

"Mike built a media presence and a reputation for doing well in speeches, performing well on television. And I think Trump liked that whole package.

"So he got a guy who was a superstar to the Christian right, but also effective as a campaigner and made the prospect of a Trump presidency less disturbing to moderate people, because Pence's persona is kind of mild.

"I think of him as the small town preacher or a pastor of a local church or that kind of figure who's reassuring to lots of people in his style and manner."

The relationship between Trump and Pence has always been mutually beneficial.

"Trump rescued Pence from political oblivion," D'Antonio says.

Mike Pence, with his wife Karen, is adamantly anti-abortion and favours churches in tax and education policy. Picture: Getty
Mike Pence, with his wife Karen, is adamantly anti-abortion and favours churches in tax and education policy. Picture: Getty

"He was likely to lose his re-election campaign because he was so unpopular after one term as governor, that it appeared that the state, which is very, very deep, red republican, was willing to try a democrat in the governor's office because Mike had been so ineffectual."

Critics grapple with how someone so morally upright can reconcile supporting the infamously imprudent president, but D'Antonio says it is Pence's faith that makes it possible.

"It's a political Christianity that imagines all kinds of change in the world that would be driven by old-fashioned, severe Christian imperatives," he explains.

"And what's really fascinating about it is that in the current context, ordinary morality is not really required. So if you conceal your motivations, if you lie, or do you select to deceive, it's okay.

"If it's in service to this long term goal, and that's how Trump wins the approval of a lot of Pence followers, they don't mind that he lies, cheats and disrupts the country, all of that's OK. Because they think that there's some greater goal in the future of a Christian paradise and what happens right now doesn't matter as long as it's moving the country in that direction."