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The Trump Impeachment Fantasy Isn’t Realistic

Mike Pence might be preferable as president, but there are more obvious paths to fighting authoritarianism.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

As we approach Inauguration Day, Donald Trump’s opponents are looking for whatever silver linings they can. One of the most popular scenarios is that the incoming president, given his manifest indifference to rules and his ignorance of governance, will be impeached by his own party during his first term.

In his Friday column in The New York Times, David Brooks optimistically predicted that “the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year. The future is closer than you think.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” documentary filmmaker Michael Moore said the same day on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “This is why we’re not going to have to suffer through four years of Donald J. Trump, because he has no ideology except the ideology of Donald J. Trump. And when you have a narcissist like that, who’s so narcissistic where it’s all about him, he will, maybe unintentionally, break laws.”

The impeachment speculation began well before Trump’s victory (at least as far back as April, when Politico put the question to legal and political experts). In a paper published in September, University of Utah law professor Christopher Lewis Peterson argued that Trump could be impeached immediately due to the three pending lawsuits over Trump University. “The campaign of a major presidential candidate with pending trials for fraud and racketeering is structurally corrosive to our system of government because it pits two of the Republic’s most treasured values against each other,” he wrote. “On the one hand Americans have always believed in the electoral process. And yet, on the other hand Americans have also always held to the view that no one is above the law. A Trump presidency may force Congress to choose between the two.”

Also in September, Allan Lichtman, a former Democratic candidate for Senate and American University professor whose predictive model called Trump’s win, told the Independent that Republicans in Congress “don’t want Trump as president, because they can’t control him. He’s unpredictable. They’d love to have Pence—an absolutely down the line, conservative, controllable Republican. And I’m quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook.”

We’re not likely to see an impeachment anytime soon, for the same reasons that the Republicans were unable to stop Trump from winning the nomination: Trump has consolidated the GOP base as his own personality cult, thereby cowing Republican officeholders. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s refusal to criticize Trump’s hiring of white nationalist Stephen Bannon as chief strategist is just the latest example of a long pattern of cowardice and subservience. So Trump likely won’t be impeached unless the Democrats win both houses of Congress in the 2018 midterms—a near impossibility.

Setting aside this reality, though, all of this impeachment speculation raises an important question: Would Vice President-elect Mike Pence be preferable to Trump anyway?

Back in May, not long after John Kasich dropped out of the Republican primary, Donald Trump Jr. reportedly reached out to one of the Ohio governor’s senior advisers. As Robert Draper detailed in The New York Times Magazine in July:

[A]ccording to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?

When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.

Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?

“Making America great again” was the casual reply.

Post-election, this story has inspired a softer version of the impeachment fantasy among Trump opponents on the right: that our next president will be a figurehead—a messenger-in-chief, of sorts—while the veep is the power behind the throne. This fantasy surely is as consoling to conservatives as the idea of impeachment is to liberals, but the implied result is effectively the same: Mike Pence runs the show.

It’s obvious why NeverTrumpers and other conservatives who dislike Trump’s vulgarity and bigotry would daydream thus: Pence would allow them to pursue their agenda with clean hands and predictable results.

But whom should progressives prefer: Trump the demagogue, or Pence the ideologue?

A hardline social conservative, Pence is so staunchly anti-choice that he signed a law requiring all aborted or miscarried fetuses to be “cremated or interred” (as a way to recognize their personhood). As Cosmopolitan notes, he signed “a controversial anti-abortion law that would have banned abortions of fetuses sought over gender, race, ancestry, or diagnosis of a genetic disorder. The law also criminalized fetal tissue collection or transferring, a practice that is vital to life-saving fetal tissue donation and research (including for understanding the Zika virus), and required women to view the fetal ultrasound hours before receiving an abortion.” That law was overturned by the courts.

Pence is an extreme conservative on LGBT issues, too. He has referred to gay couples as a sign of “societal collapse,” and he opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination. He rose to national prominence by signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015, which in its original form would have made it easier for companies who didn’t want to serve same-sex married couples to do so (under intense public pressure, Pence amended the discriminatory aspects of the law).

A Pence presidency would be one particular nightmare, the rule of Trump another one entirely. To use the language of Dungeons and Dragons: Pence is Lawful Evil and Trump is Chaotic Evil.

Trump’s defining characteristic is his violation of norms: He’s risen to power by flouting longstanding, often implicit, rules of political behavior. In his campaign, he denigrated his opponents (such as promising to jail Hillary Clinton), refused elementary forms of transparency (notably by not releasing his tax returns), and lied on an epic scale (too many to list here). He has continued to redefine the rules by having his children run his businesses through a blind trust that isn’t really a blind trust, while he also seeks top security clearances for them.

As Chaotic Evil, Trump works by breaking the rules. A Trumpian worst-case scenario would be the world of Mad Max movies, a Hobbesian America where only force rules. As Lawful Evil, Pence would further his agenda by passing laws that follow a coherent social conservative agenda. A Pencian worst-case scenario would be a world like Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel A Handmaid’s Tale, about a heteronormative theocracy.

Pence would certainly have a smoother relationship with the Republican Congress than Trump will, and that would likely result in more conservative legislative victories. But it’s easier to imagine repealing the effects of Lawful Evil than Chaotic Evil. Laws can be overturned by the courts, as one of Pence’s anti-abortion measures was, or by future Congresses.

But there is no blueprint for restoring order to whatever chaos Trump brings. Once norms are broken, they are much harder to fix. Previous periods of norm-breaking have caused irreparable damage to many lives and shifted institutions in fundamental ways—McCarthyism being the best example, with its purges of government agencies, labor unions, and the academy. Long after Joseph McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954, the impact of his demagoguery rippled through American culture.

If the battle against Trumpism is about norm preservation, then impeachment is a distant and imperfect tool, especially if it leaves Pence as president. Nor can America count on the spineless Republicans in Congress. The best hope to beat back Trumpism, then, are rule-based institutions like the courts, military, and federal bureaucracy. Judges, soldiers, and career feds are the new NeverTrumpers—not out of ideological motivation, but a duty to uphold the law, including the Constitution and the Geneva Convention. If Trump ends up breaking the law anyway, then we can start taking impeachment seriously.