Republicans have nothing to fear from removing Trump
In the midst of President Trump's latest scandal, perhaps his most serious and explosive yet, a familiar question keeps popping up: why won't elected Republicans simply discard him and move on to Vice President Mike Pence? Win-win, right? But no, everyone says. Trump has conquered the party and erected a monument to himself on its ruins. Trump is loathed but also feared, like Norovirus. He has 90 percent approval with Republican voters, who would revolt and destroy the political and probably even the private lives of anyone who dared cross the president with a vote for impeachment in the House or removal in the Senate. That's why Trump will never actually be removed from office except at the hands of voters. The end.
It is true that getting enough Senate Republicans on board to deep-six Trump remains highly unlikely. But this might be at least partly because fears about the emperor's post-impeachment revenge are wildly overblown. In fact, Pence would swiftly be appointed the GOP's savior, as the closed-circle right-wing media universe would turn the page on Trump quicker than you can say "hush money." Politics moves too quickly for an ex-President Trump embroiled in legal jeopardy to avenge his betrayal in any meaningful way. Elected Republicans, in other words, live in fear of a vengeful orange demon hiding under the bed, and all they really need is for Mommy and Daddy to turn on the lights and show them that nothing is there.
The case to depose Trump and hand his office to Pence has always been quite strong on the merits. Most importantly, the president is a shameless and profoundly stupid criminal whose multitudinous wrongdoings are so cloddish and incompetent that the Drunk History version of his presidency will probably make more sense than the real one. Cleansing the party of his malign influence would not only be the right thing to do morally, but would also allow new leadership to set clear policy and messaging priorities and then to stick to them for more than a single news cycle. It might even help arrest, if not reverse, the GOP's hemorrhagic losses with young voters.
But what about all of Trump's policy "wins"? Congressional Republicans should rest assured that President Pence could be convinced to continue Trump's Dien Bien Phu-like siege of the federal government, his dedication to starving poor people, his monomaniacal drive to appoint 30-something radicals to the federal judiciary, and his catering to primary voters cheering on border cruelty and nativist hysteria. Trump and Pence agree on most policy issues, and where they may disagree — on trade policy, for example — Pence is much closer to the average congressional Republican anyway. A President Pence might not seek to dig a literal moat along the southern border and fill it with alligators to eat migrants, but he would not be returning the GOP to temporary work visa proposals anytime soon either.
The thing holding congressional Republicans back from positioning President Trump carefully under an oncoming bus and then walking away with a smirk isn't fear that Mike Pence is insufficiently conservative. It is paranoia about the mind-flayer-like hold that Trump himself has over Republican voters and the power that he seems to have to trash the careers of Republican officeholders who even muse about betraying him. After all, a few pithy tweets were enough to turn Arizona Republicans against former Sen. Jeff Flake and to then force him — a once-promising Republican talent — into involuntary retirement.
According to Flake himself, 35 Republican Senators would vote privately to remove the president if they could escape the aftermath. Yet despite agreeing with a majority of Americans that President Trump is manifestly unfit for the office that the holds, most if not all of them are still likely to acquit the president, for fear of the consequences.
But let's follow the rabbit down the hole for a second. Let's say that Trump was cashiered by the Senate with all 47 Democrats and those 35 Republicans — a final tally of 82-18, with only the president's blindest loyalists, like Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) voting to acquit. That will look, to the American people, less like a coup and more like well-earned catharsis for a country which has grown weary of the president's ceaseless antics.
The idea that this disgraced former president, the first in 232 years to ever actually be removed by the constitution's impeachment procedures, would somehow come back from the dead to destroy the careers of all 35 of these men and women is farcical. To begin with, even if Pence goes full Gerald Ford and pardons Trump for all the high crimes and misdemeanors, the president will still be facing a wide variety of legal troubles the day he is dragged out of office. In fact, if Pence wanted to fully insulate himself from Trump, he would simply refuse to pardon him for anything. And while Trump's manic energy and his Twitter account will follow him into retirement, he would be extremely hard-pressed to orchestrate primary challenges against everyone who votes against him.
Remember when supervillain Steve Bannon was going to primary every establishment Republican he could find? How did that work out? Recruiting dozens of viable candidates to take out popular incumbents like Tim Scott and John Thune would be a challenge even if the effort had been launched months ago. If the Senate holds a trial early next year, ex-President Trump and his allies would have mere weeks to meet filing deadlines in many states and to raise money for their little vengeance campaign. The same goes for fears that Trump would start his own TV network and use it to assail elected Republicans day and night — perhaps it's a long-term concern, but there is no way such an operation would be up and running by the general election, let alone the primaries.
The much more likely scenario is this: Pence would take office and immediately convince most of the right-wing media universe to come along with him. Fox News would pivot effortlessly from Trump cheerleading to Trump eulogizing and Trump handwringing, and anoint Pence as the savior du jour. If he's clever, Pence could even feign inner turmoil, and claim to be fighting for Trump's legacy. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity might angrily vent for a few nights, but ultimately the MAGA train would roll on. After a few weeks we'd be right back to hours of breathless coverage about some random campus outrage and wall-to-wall socialism panicking. Outlets like The Federalist and Breitbart would have to accept, and quickly, that it's Pence or it's 2020 oblivion.
Remember, there's an election to be won, and it looks increasingly likely that the Democratic nominee will be firebrand progressive Elizabeth Warren. Does anyone really think that GOP media mavens, staring down the maw of a wealth tax and a debt jubilee and a fundamental reordering of American capitalism, will waste time and energy fighting an internal party civil war on behalf of Donald Trump, a man whose name will now be forever synonymous with humiliation and perfidy? No. They'll do to him what he has done to every single person who has had the misfortune of crossing paths with him. They will throw him in the trash, and then take the trash immediately to the dumpster and then set the dumpster on fire. He will be Mitt Romneyed and John McCained and will join the party's pantheon of past losers. Trump will be the final victim of Trumpworld's dog-eat-dog-and-then-stiff-the-restaurant ethos.
There's another reason that Senate Republicans shouldn't fear Trump. What we already know about the Trump presidency is bad. The endless self-enrichment schemes to use Trump properties for government business, the brazen and countless acts of obstruction, the subversion of American foreign policy to suit the president's electoral needs, the shameful invitation of conspiracy theorists and white supremacists into circles of influence, the casual abuses of power. But not long after Trump is gone, we're going to get it all — the buried phone calls, the tax returns, the rushed memoirs from all the Cabinet officials, all of them desperate to save their reputations by putting as much distance between themselves and the ex-president as possible. It is going to be unbelievably ugly, and Republicans in any danger of losing their seats to Democrats next year should want no part of it.
As much as we might like to describe Trumpism as a cult, most Republican voters would get over his ouster. Taking their cues from Fox News and party elites, they would rally around Pence and they would likely make next year's election quite close — closer than it looks like it will be with Trump dragging the whole party down into the sewer with him.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.