“Mike Pence is in the house!” My longtime friend Jeff declared last weekend when I stepped into his new microbrewery. This was met with a chorus of groans and chuckles from the bar. “How are things going?” he asked. “Oh, you know,” I played along halfheartedly, knowing that most everyone else still thinks this is funny. “I’m just messing everything up as quickly as possible.”
I am not, of course, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and now our vice president-elect, God help us all. If anything, I am, in many ways, the opposite of the governor: a progressive atheist software developer who, having been raised a Jehovah’s Witness, has a healthy aversion to Orwellian thought-control cults of any political or religious origin.
It’s been a tough year to be Mike Pence. Not that I have ever had a strong affinity for my name as a unique identifier, having been raised, like the VP-elect’s son, as a Mike Pence Jr., and never having had a strong reaction to the always-raised “Mike or Michael?” question. But sometimes you don’t value a thing until you have lost it, and when people suddenly associate your name with someone you personally find to be a monster.
I have been @mikepence on Twitter since 2007, proudly ensconced in a network of movers and shakers in the digital revolution. Little eruptions of misdirected outrage have polluted my notifications over the years as Rep. Pence and then Gov. Pence embraced political stances that marginalized gay people in search of wedding cakes and legitimacy, or women in search of the right to control their own reproductive health.
I have taken this misdirected anger in stride, hurling my own 140-character missives in the politician’s direction as I saw fit. But with the governor’s selection as Donald Trump’s enabler-in-chief, any hope of being known strictly for who I am, rather than for who I am not, went out the proverbial window.
Certainly, I have been party to our collective progressive depression since the election, but I have vacillated from angrily protesting what the governor stands for to giddily impersonating him, insinuating a romantic relationship with Orange Hitler and mocking his true believers.
Nor have I been spared some awkward interactions in real life. While volunteering to work with local students during a recent hackathon, I was determined to avoid offering political opinions, or even discussion, in the course of the three-day event. “You really hate that guy, don’t you,” a student offered out of the blue. At my confused glance, he said, “Yeah, I read your Twitter.”
My bank teller recently laughed out loud at my name, confiding that as a school principal in Indiana, she had personally seen Pence’s largesse as he delivered winter coats to needy children. He is actually a nice guy in person, she assured me, which left me wondering what kind of person warms the needy in the morning and throws their rights out in the cold in the afternoon, in the name of Jesus.
On the plus side, I no longer have to explain that Pence, a corruption of the name of the German peasant Bentz clan that immigrated en masse centuries ago, is spelled like “fence,” but with a “p.” On the minus side, strangers feel comfortable sharing their political leanings with me, if not their sympathy for my plight as a namesake.
Most worrying, though, is that most people in everyday life don’t even have that flicker of recognition that you would expect when they see my name. For all of the rancor of the election, for the inescapable news coverage, a surprising number of people don’t even know who Mike Pence, the soulless politician, even is. They don’t chuckle when I explain that I am, as I have become accustomed to saying, the “good Mike Pence.” This surely includes some people who voted for the guy’s running mate for president.
While I do mourn the lost opportunities to exchange witticisms with my programmer friends on Twitter, my notifications now being overwhelmed with political sentiments and assertions that Trump and Pence’s ascent to power is the will of God himself, I can only look at my misfortune as opportunity, since having come to be known as the Other Mike Pence due to some viral posts, I suddenly have a large audience of followers.
There will come a day to explain all of this to my now year-and-a-half-old grandson: that when despotism and white Christian supremacy again threatened our very society’s core, there was an opportunity to raise my voice above the din, if only by the unfortunate coincidence of shared naming. How could I say anything to him except that I proudly put my fist in the air and proclaimed that I am not that Mike Pence, but I am the other Mike Pence, the one who values freedom and civil rights for all?
The truth is that even if we are not dragged into the fray by accident, none of us has the luxury of tuning out the political drama. Our mutual identity as protectors of our children’s and grandchildren’s future demands it.