Donald Trump’s more tepid supporters like to think of his running mate, Mike Pence, as the adult on this year’s Republican ticket, one who offers the previously ideologically wishy-washy Republican nominee rock-ribbed conservative credentials to boot. “What we have here is a really good leader, a good conservative, a knowledgeable conservative, a real Reagan-like happy warrior joining this ticket,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan glowed after Pence was picked in July. The Indiana governor may be a true conservative, but Pence is hardly the picture of a mainstream Reagan-esque “happy warrior” that his supporters would like to claim. Indeed, throughout his long and strange career, Pence has displayed a willingness to uncritically adopt the kookiest, angriest, most deranged positions of the far-right wing of his party. A brief overview of his political history demonstrates this pattern of unhinged extremism—and suggests that his debate performance on Tuesday night will veer between dull obfuscation and awkward evasion of an extremist policy background that he is too craven to openly defend.
Start with Pence’s passionate anti-LGBTQ beliefs, which led him to thrust his state into a national debate over gay rights in 2015. That March, Pence signed a “religious freedom” law designed to let businesses discriminate against LGBTQ customers, then repeatedly lied about its purpose on national television. Eventually, he caved and signed a legislative “fix” to prevent the law from facilitating discrimination, a tacit concession of its original intention.
Although Pence attempted to paint himself as a kinder, gentler Republican during the religious freedom flap, his lengthy history of anti-LGBTQ advocacy proves he’s one of American politics’ most militant culture warriors. As a congressman, Pence supported a constitutional amendment that would’ve banned same-sex marriage across the country, calling gay unions a “deterioration of marriage and family” and a sign of “societal collapse.” In 2010, he voted against the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” claiming that allowing gays to serve openly in the military was tantamount to “social experimentation.” And he has vigorously opposed a federal law that would prohibit anti-gay employment discrimination, calling the measure a “war on freedom and religion in the workplace.”
Dig a little deeper, and the bigotry gets wackier. In 2000, during his first successful run for Congress, Pence declared that federal funds meant to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS were actually “being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.” (Presumably, Pence was referencing groups that treated HIV/AIDS patients without condemning homosexuality.) Instead of funding HIV/AIDS treatments, Pence wrote, the federal government should redirect its resources to gay conversion “therapy” programs. (The mere fact that Pence supported horrific, abusive conversion therapy—and has not yet disclaimed that support—should really be its own scandal.) And in the 1990s, Pence served as president of a conservative think tank that published a bizarre screed against gays in the military—a polemic that included extensive descriptions of graphic gay sex acts. (Certain details, including one involving light bulbs, defy logic and suggest a great amount of poetic license.)
Pence’s anti-LGBTQ activism, however, is really only the tip of his uniquely berserk iceberg. Did you hear about the time that, as governor, he tried to create a Soviet-style state-run news agency? Or when he resisted a needle exchange program, thereby exacerbating his state’s escalating HIV crisis? What about the time he helped to dismantle Indiana’s extraordinarily effective energy efficiency program, for no apparent reason other than to appease his donors in the coal industry?
Should we talk about Pence slashing taxes for the extremely wealthy and battling a minimum wage increase while preventing local governments from implementing paid sick or family leave? Or his dozens of votes in Congress against bills designed to protect endangered species, clean air, and safe drinking water? Naturally, Pence denies the existence of climate change; he also rejects evolution and supports the teaching of creationism in public schools. The fact that these positions haven’t gotten more attention—that Pence is still seen as the more rational and benevolent man on the ticket—is an illustration of how anyone can seem competent when compared with Donald Trump.
To get a better sense of Pence’s governing style, though, perhaps it’s more fruitful to focus on some of his plainly illegal actions as Indiana governor. In 2015, Pence issued an order barring state agencies from providing social services to Syrian refugees in the state. Months later, a federal judge blocked his order, ruling that it constituted “impermissible discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” (An appeals court affirmed the injunction on Monday.) More recently, Pence signed a bill prohibiting women from obtaining an abortion because of a fetus’s race, sex, or disorder, including lethal abnormalities. The bill would have required doctors to demand that women explain why they chose to terminate their pregnancies and held doctors liable for wrongful death charges if they performed abortions for forbidden reasons. Once again, a federal judge prevented the law from taking effect, ruling that it violated women’s “liberty right to make independent decisions” in contravention of the 14th Amendment.
What does all of this political chicanery foretell about Tuesday’s debate? Probably very little, actually. While Pence is a fierce adversary of liberty and equality behind closed doors, he is vapid and tedious in public, which may speak to his broader appeal among mainstream Republicans: It is easier to sneak through militantly reactionary measures when your public persona is that of a milquetoast puppet. Rather than boasting about his conservative history during his debate showdown with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, it’s more likely that Pence will simply cleave to talking points. Be prepared to see him reiterate his support for racist and constitutionally shady Trump proposals like a nationwide stop-and-frisk program while boasting of his running mate’s dubious business acumen, and not address his lengthy far-right rap sheet. The best he can probably hope for out of the debate is one more forgettable and inoffensive appearance in which he trots out some decent attack lines against his opponents.
But there is a slim chance that Pence will be asked a few sharp, unexpected questions. And when that has happened in the past, his failure to deliver a coherent response has been downright revelatory. Challenged to say whether he thinks anti-gay discrimination should be illegal or whether former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke is deplorable, Pence has panicked, stuttered, and melted into a silence that speaks volumes. When Pence collapses on the air, two things become immediately apparent: This man is a fanatical ultraconservative—but he also doesn’t have the courage to openly defend his beliefs. In those moments, voters can peer between the lines to see the coward that hides beneath the culture warrior. That is the real Mike Pence. And it is the man whom Pence’s handlers will likely strive to conceal from view under the bright lights of prime-time TV on Tuesday night.