Donald Trump’s presidency has produced a proliferation of Eeyores. It’s not their (our) fault. However dismal one’s view of current American politics, Trump is sure to expose it, with a tweet or the lack of one, as a naive and rosy fantasy. Each day, we adjust our sights down. Each day, the president forces our gaze lower.
Some conservatives might take comfort in the prospect – wish, really – of a President Mike Pence assuming office before the current occupant’s term is up. The Indiana Republican is as dull and serviceable a politician as Trump is bizarre and broken. Pence can recite the social conservative catechism by heart and, until he signed on to the Trump carnival, held conventional conservative views on trade and taxes and decency.
I wouldn’t say I’m a big Pence fan. But everything’s relative. He doesn’t approach each hour as a mortal threat to precarious manhood, and it’s hard to imagine Pence groping women, or bragging to others that he did. When Nazis went on a homicidal rampage, Pence’s response, aside from the requisite media bashing that all Trump White House employees must engage in, seemed both professional and perturbed, suggesting he did not, on the whole, approve of murderous thugs.
Compared with the daily degradation that is President Trump, a Pence White House looks better than good; it looks grand. I’m consistently perplexed when others don’t share my enthusiasm for the humdrum Hoosier. Liberal friends recoil when I point out the upsides, including the observation that Pence shows no outward signs of sociopathy – as if our recent experience hasn’t taught us what a superb qualification that is for the presidency.
One of the chief liberal concerns about Pence was voiced in June by Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, who told the International Business Times that Pence, “in terms of a lot of domestic policy certainly would be worse than Trump.” He went on to point out that Pence was instrumental in promoting some of Trump’s worst Cabinet appointees. If Pence was indeed responsible for dreadful Cabinet picks such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scott Pruitt, then President Pence surely couldn’t do any worse than Vice President Pence already did.
Likewise, Pence’s domestic policy priorities have largely been adopted by Trump, whose political survival may depend on continued support from Christian conservatives. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was confirmed by the Senate in April, is the kind of smart, rigid conservative Pence would’ve nominated himself. On social issues such as abortion or transgender rights, it’s hard to see where Pence would’ve differed from Trump, who reinstituted restrictions on international abortion funding and tweeted a ban on transgender troops without even consulting the Pentagon.
Pence annoys liberals because he seems like a stock movie character – a pinched little sex-phobic Chamber of Commerce preacher harboring a shocking secret that he can’t bear to face. I don’t know anything about Pence’s soul or his secret longings. But with Trump’s sprawling indiscipline and gross appetites perpetually on display, a little self-repression doesn’t sound so bad.
On foreign policy, there’s little chance Pence would be as dangerous and bumbling as Trump, who is a few decades late to the realization that China is not much interested in advancing U.S. interests on the Korean peninsula, and last week clumsily handed a weapon to Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. (After Trump foolishly mused about using force in Venezuela, Maduro used the threat of Yanqui imperialism to thrash his democratic opponents.)
A Pence presidency would also have a clarifying effect for voters choosing our next president, separating Trumpism from conservatism, and making it impossible for Republicans to distance themselves from the former even when it looks like the deranged, identical twin of the latter.
If Trump goes down in a ball of fiery corruption, or if we learn that his abiding admiration for Vladimir Putin stems from an even more unsavory source than Trump’s jackboot reveries, Pence will have difficulty escaping the rubble. He did, after all, aid and abet the catastrophe.
Meanwhile, a transition from Trump to Pence would be like switching to the occasional aspirin after having been force-fed a diet of LSD. This trip has been too strange and it’s already gone on too long. A drab, conservative mediocrity moving into the Oval Office may not be our best chance to make America great again. But it’s the nearest one at hand.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week, a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone and a communications consultant and a political media strategist.