Talk of impeaching Donald Trump began only a couple of months after he declared his candidacy for president in 2015. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, in a “dispatch from the future” for The Atlantic, wrote that “there’s no need to belabor the details of how the next four years unfolded: the budget crisis, President Trump’s impeachment, Vice President Cruz’s inauguration, the second budget crisis.” But the subject didn’t truly gain steam until Trump won the Republican nomination and then the general election—with Mike Pence, rather than Cruz, as his running mate.
The impeachment fantasy—which was confined to Democrats, journalists, and anti-Trump conservatives like New York Times columnist David Brooks—spawned a new genre of concern trolling on the left: that Mike Pence would be a worse president. With Trump now an increasingly scandalized president, and impeachment being discussed openly by elected Democrats and even some Republicans, the aforementioned liberals have returned to warn that kicking Trump out of the White House would not be an improvement over our current situation—that, in fact, a President Pence would be a bigger disaster for the progressive project than Trump has been.
“If Trump were impeached and convicted, Vice President Mike Pence, a right-wing, evangelical ideologue, would be a much more reliable and competent rubber stamp for the conservative policy agenda,” wrote Jeff Alson at In These Times. Megan Carpentier, writing at Dame, argued that “Pence may not tweet like a Ritalin-addicted teenager with an impulse-control problem, a deep sense of entitlement, and something to prove, and he probably has the good sense not to yell at other world leaders and constantly publicly praise the most murderous ones ... but in terms of actual, actionable policy decisions, the idea that Mike Pence would somehow be preferable to the man who is enacting every policy Mike Pence would himself enact is, and always was, the product of a fevered imagination.”
But Cliston Brown, a columnist at the Observer (which is owned by the family of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser), offered the most apocalyptic take on a Pence presidency. “While Pence clearly has more self-control and self-awareness than Trump, that’s exactly what makes him more dangerous. He has all the same ideas and goals as Trump—and, as an added bonus, a religious-right agenda that’s even worse—and a much better chance of actually implementing them,” Brown wrote. Trump’s presidency will continue to be a smoldering ruin, allowing Democrats to retake the House in 2018 and the White House in 2020 and putting the party “in a position to control the country for a decade.” By contrast, Brown argued, President Pence would win broad approval, cementing Republican control of government until 2024— at which point the Republicans could have a 7-2 Supreme Court majority that would cast a reactionary shadow for the next half-century.
There’s no question that Pence, a creature of the religious right, would be a terrible president, although in ways different than Trump. As I argued in mid-November, when this meme first took hold on the left, “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 is more likely to blunder into a nuclear war, while Pence is more likely to push America down the road to a rigid theocracy. The worst-case scenario under Trump is the world of Mad Max, while under Pence it would be The Handmaid’s Tale.
But aside from their policy differences, there is another way to distinguish between Trump and Pence, which is the likely impact of their presidencies on the political landscape. It’s true that Trump’s trainwreck of a presidency has been a boon to the Democrats, as his mounting scandals and wholesale incompetence stall the GOP’s anti-Obamacare, tax-cutting, deregulatory agenda. Thanks to Trump, Democrats have a reasonable shot of winning at least one chamber of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections, and of rebuilding their party in state houses and legislatures across the country.
But it’s a mistake to think that Pence would be a more competent or popular president, one capable of enacting the right-wing agenda that has eluded Trump. It’s possible Pence would enjoy a honeymoon after taking office, with most Democrats and many Republicans grateful to see Trump gone, but it would be only a honeymoon. President Gerald Ford’s brief period of grace after taking over for Richard Nixon in 1974 ended when he pardoned his predecessor. Once Pence tried to implement his agenda, Democrats would remember Pence’s complicity in helping Trump become president. Indeed, Democrats would have readymade 2020 ads showing Pence praising his now-disgraced former boss.
Nor would there be widespread support for Pence among Republicans. Though he’s a more conventional Republican, he will inherit a party that is even more fractured than it is now. Trump has had a hard time governing not only because of his own ignorance and blundering, but because there’s nothing holding the Republican Party together other than hatred of the Democrats. There is no unity of purpose between the House Freedom Caucus, the House moderates, and GOP senators. As president, Pence will have much in common with mainstream Republicans but he will find, as Obama and Trump did before him, that a small number of far-right congressmen can sabotage legislation.
Trump’s impeachment would indeed create a new faction in the party: the disaffected Trumpists. Consider the Obama-to-Trump voters who made a difference in the 2016 election: white working class people who normally distrust Republicans like Mitt Romney, but took a chance on Trump because of his populist message. How would they feel about a Republican Party that impeaches Trump and gives them Pence instead? They’d think, quite rightly, that they’ve been betrayed. It’s likely they’d sit out the next election or return to the Democrats.
Meanwhile, those in the right-wing media who have championed Trump or Trumpism—figures like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Ann Coulter—would accuse the Republicans of stabbing Trump in the back. With their ample access to the right-wing base, they’d lambast the party and sow division, and an extended civil war would erupt in the GOP.
They’d have a powerful ally in the form of Trump himself. He has never held his fire against his own party, saying Senator John McCain wasn’t a war hero “because he was captured” and suggesting that Senator Ted Cruz’s dad was involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Now betrayed by the GOP, Trump would go nuclear, attempting to take the party down with him. Lest you think Trump’s political voice would weaken outside the White House, remember that he would still have his 30 million Twitter followers and his choice of TV networks eager for an interview. And unlike Nixon, Trump has a formidable personality cult, so his followers will believe his tales of betrayal by the Republican elite.
There are still many hurdles to impeaching Trump, not least that it would require the complicity of a significant minority of Republicans in Congress. But impeachment is no longer just a liberal fantasy, so it’s worth dispelling the liberal fear of a President Pence. His Republican Party would be shrinking and wounded, and would struggle just as mightily in carrying out its agenda. Anyone who doubts that should consider one simple question: If President Pence would be so much better for the GOP than Trump, why are nearly all Republicans in Congress refusing even to discuss impeachment?