For the past couple weeks there has been a lot of renewed talk about the possibility of removing Trump from office. Representatives Al Green of Texas and Brad Sherman of California had previously introduced articles of impeachment in the House, but these did not make many waves. Now, however, Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer has launched a $10 million ad campaign to pressure lawmakers into taking a pro-impeachment stance. Many Republicans are reportedly convinced that if the Democrats gain a majority in the House during Trump’s presidency, impeachment will inevitably follow.
The practical reasons for wanting to impeach Trump—and, ultimately, remove him from office—are obvious enough. He has enflamed tensions with North Korea. He has gutted environmental regulations. He has emboldened white supremacists. He is apparently hellbent on dismantling every useful policy achievement of Obama’s presidency. His behavior often seems unbalanced and erratic. A group of psychologists has recently published a book stating that they believe Trump may have a personality disorder that renders him unfit to be president. Anonymous D.C. “insiders” have been frantically whispering to reporters that the president is becoming increasingly moody and unpredictable. As the Cabinet is shuffled and reshuffled, and once-trusted advisers are banished from court one after the other, a climate of fear and paranoia has set in at the White House. Everyone from low-level aides to the Chief of Staff, supposedly, are staying in their miserable jobs solely because they are worried the executive would collapse without them. Steve Bannon, apparently, thought Trump had only a 30% chance of remaining in office for his full four-year term.
Surely, somewhere in Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference, or somewhere in the complex international entanglements of Trump’s business empire, a colorably impeachment-worthy offense can be identified. The possibility has also been recently discussed of Trump’s Cabinet invoking a never-before-used provision of the 25th Amendment, allowing them to temporarily remove the president on the grounds that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”: this would make the Vice President the Acting President, and Congress could vote to prevent the President from resuming his office. In either situation, all we’d need to do to rid ourselves of Trump is convince Republicans that they have something to gain by cooperating with Trump’s impeachment, because he is a liability to their reelection prospects and an existential danger to the future of the Republican Party. Democrats have been spreading rumors that Republican lawmakers are, in private, receptive to these kinds of arguments.
This is a complicated issue, and obviously I can’t pronounce with any kind of confidence on what would happen if Trump actually were to be impeached. There are plausible scenarios under which it would be unambiguously imperative to get Trump out of office: if he were planning to launch a nuclear strike or an invasion against another country, for example. But under current circumstances, it’s far from obvious that impeachment would be the unalloyed good that some Democrats seem to be imagining. If anything, I think there’s a significant possibility that we would be worse off after impeaching Trump. We should proceed with extreme caution, and not lose our heads in the event that there ends up being a sudden groundswell of support for the measure among Republican lawmakers. Rather than simply fantasizing about a World Without Trump, we have to soberly weigh the cons of a Trump presidency against the cons of a Trump removal. There are no good options here: there are only bad options, and worse options.
The first and most important consequence of a Trump removal is a Pence presidency. Some commentators are sanguine about this outcome, regarding Pence as a run-of-the-mill Republican politician who will likely be a steady hand at the wheel. In a Chicago Tribune article entitled “The liberal case for President Mike Pence,” Francis Wilkinson writes that “the Indiana Republican is as dull and serviceable a politician as Trump is bizarre and broken,” adding that “I’m consistently perplexed when others don’t share my enthusiasm for the humdrum Hoosier.” Democrats who are eager for Trump’s impeachment, presumably, must feel similarly.
But we’d be stupid to underestimate the amount of damage a “humdrum” conservative can do. All the qualities that make Pence, in one sense, less dangerous than Trump—the fact that he is cool, collected, and apparently on more or less good terms with his Republican colleagues—make him, in other senses, much more dangerous than Trump. A recent New Yorker profile of Pence, which describes him as “the corporate right’s inside man,” portrays Pence as a savvy and ambitious politician. He was the Koch Brothers’ anointed candidate before Trump’s ascendancy to the nomination, and a prime specimen of the sort of heartless conservative fundamentalism that was, prior to the Trump era, viewed as the greatest enemy to left values. What we currently know of his personal views and his policy positions is disturbing. Pence has made no particular secret of despising the LGBT community: Trump recently made a joke to the effect that Pence wants to “hang” all gay people, which had a chilling frisson of truth to it. He apparently does not believe in climate change, and, during his decade in Congress, had a consistent track record of voting against environmental protection, anti-pollution measures, and clean energy. He has been centrally involved in efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. As governor of Indiana, Pence moved to ban the resettlement of Syrian refugees, long before Trump had proposed his Muslim Ban.
Given these facts, do we think Pence is likely to continue the same policies that have made Trump’s presidency reprehensible? It seems almost certain. Will Pence, by virtue of his more amicable relationship with his own party, his ability to manage his executive appointees, and the goodwill he will buy from Democrats in Congress by presenting a civil and decorous contrast to Trump, be more likely to actually implement these dangerous policies successfully? This also seems highly plausible. Trump has already advanced a lot of terrible policies, even from the midst of a beleaguered and fractious administration. How much more damage could a competent Pence be capable of accomplishing, in comparison to an overwhelmed Trump? It’s a troubling thought.
My other concern about the potential fallout of a Trump impeachment is more abstract and nebulous, but still, I think, something serious and worth considering. It’s hard to say, but we may be at something of a national crossroads when it comes to public trust in democratic processes. Trump’s election to the presidency wasn’t inexplicable, inasmuch as it’s not especially difficult to enumerate a list of factors that likely contributed to the success of his campaign, but it was still weird in a way that’s hard to define concretely. One feels it may be a symptom of something strange moving through our political environment that we don’t quite know how to categorize yet, and which we likely won’t be able to see clearly for at least a few more years. It certainly seems to betoken a level of distrust and disgust in government that has been growing for the past few years, and has now reached a critical pitch. Partisan polarization has arrived at a point where political opponents actively accuse each other of promulgating “fake news” and staging false-flag type operations. The conspiratorial view of politics—which is almost always exaggerated, but nevertheless never quite incorrect—has become increasingly mainstream.
Given this context, if Trump, the democratically-elected head of state, is impeached and removed from office, Trump supporters are very unlikely to believe that this removal was legitimately executed: they will believe that Trump was deposed via a conspiracy of political elites. (And to some extent, they will be right—if Trump is impeached, the specific legal grounds that are adduced likely won’t reflect the genuine ideological or self-interested motives of the Democratic and Republican lawmakers who support the impeachment). The removal from power of a head of state who has no intention of going quietly is always a fraught matter, and it’s something the U.S. hasn’t had to think about very seriously, since we have a lengthy recent history of stable transfers of power, and a certain faith in the robustness of our civic institutions. But other societies in history have seen their confidence in their institutions shattered unexpectedly, and political violence is by no means outside the realm of possibility. I don’t want to be alarmist, but it seems worth pointing out that if Trump is removed from office, two-thirds of the country is going to be something between “indifferent” and “ostentatiously jubilant,” and a pretty heavily-armed third of the country is going to be outraged. All of this is to say, President Pence is by far the most serious immediate consequence of a Trump removal, but I think the effect a Trump removal would have on our larger political landscape, in both the short and long term, is very difficult to declare with any certainty, and should not be taken lightly.
Perhaps the crucial consideration, when thinking about the wisdom of a Trump impeachment, is to be very clear with ourselves about what our motives are, and what we realistically hope to accomplish. We should be thinking to ourselves, would this impeachment hopefully prevent specific, awful outcomes that are looming on the horizon, because we believe Pence is considerably less likely to do certain things than Trump? If the answer is “yes,” then impeachment may well be the best course of action. But we must make sure we aren’t supporting impeachment out of a futile desire to Return Things To Normal, to simply abort this aberrant phase in U.S. politics and restore pre-Trump conditions. “How could we possibly have elected Trump?” we think to ourselves, because the idea is so distressingly ludicrous to people who had previously never thought of Trump as anything but a reality-show star with a silly haircut. We feel that the world we are now in is so self-evidently bizarre that we must be entitled to a do-over.
This desire—however understandable, psychologically speaking—to simply turn back the clock on our country’s confusing Trump chapter is, I think, misguided. It is not actually possible for us to go back in time. Trump was elected president, and the political and social conditions that led to that election are still with us. There is no shortcut for the Democratic Party to be awarded power by forfeit, simply because the Republican Party made a risky bet on an erratic narcissist. Rather, the Democratic Party must fight for its life, and convince the public that it has a better vision for our national future. In doing so, I think we would do better to highlight the ways that Trump’s inherently selfish personality, which he lacks the wherewithal to conceal, fully embodies the profound indifference to human suffering that characterizes almost every “ordinary” Republican policy. So long as the Trump ship of state is still afloat, and nobody is being bombed—except the people we are already bombing, whom Pence would clearly continue to bomb—this tactic seems a better way forward than impeachment. This is especially true if impeachment will require us to make allies of Republicans who would do the same as Trump and worse, but with more polish and decorum, if they were in office themselves.