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A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to . . . Pence?

The only thing standing between Trump and November 2020 is the ambition of his vice president.
April 2, 2019
A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to . . . Pence?
(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Once Robert Mueller resolved not to charge Donald Trump or his campaign for conspiring with the Russian government, the window for Trump’s expulsion from office narrowed to a sliver. But one factor will keep it from shutting altogether—the possibility, however remote, that between now and the summer of 2020 Trump becomes a millstone who blights the GOP’s chances of winning in November.

As America reeled through the first two years of Trump, many of his opponents imagined that a damning report from Mueller would move restive GOP financiers and officeholders to transcend their fear of Trump’s sans-culottes. Some even conjured a critical mass of response Republicans unsettled—however belatedly—by what offends their own sensibilities.

But these hopes always contravened reality. The Republican political and donor classes, personified by Mitch McConnell, have proven themselves among the most cynical, adaptable, and self-serving people in politics. Once Trump co-opted the base voters already inflamed by the GOP’s anti-government rhetoric, the party elite resolved to use his presidency for their own ends.

For these Vichy Republicans, principles are pretense. As the last two years have shown, beneath their obligatory lip service they don’t give much of a damn about anything but power. Not deficits, or fiscal prudence. Not NATO, or the liberal global order. Nor, despite their plaints, will they seriously impede whatever Trump does about Syria or Afghanistan or, for that matter, Saudi Arabia’s Mad Prince.

Most elected Republicans don’t care—at least in public—about Trump’s constant lies, or attacks on the rule of law. They don’t care if Russia owns him, or that he conflates governance with his private business interests. They don’t much care that he’s a race-baiter and a demagogue who coarsens the national discourse and divides Americans from each other. Except for their own political discomfiture, they don’t care that he shut down our government and falsified reality to fund his mythological wall. While they certainly fear the Republican base, most party insiders don’t care how badly Trump deludes them.

Instead, they’ve been happy to swap sane governance for tax cuts, deregulation, and congenial judges. True, a cadre of Republican senators have lately shown a certain restiveness about constitutionally dubious declarations of national emergency, and U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen. But so long as Trump owns the GOP’s base while propitiating its major donors, they will countenance his own lethal self-absorption.

Unless and until it threatens them.

As to that, the canary in their personal coal mine is the economy—in particular, financial markets. The economic touchstones which most concern them buttress the firewall which prevents Trump’s poll numbers from touching the 30s. For sure 2018 sobered Republican donors and officeholders about their prospects as Trumpophants, and his ineptitude during the shutdown deepened their misgivings. But still they dread offending his base; hence, the acquiescence of 41 GOP senators to Trump’s mythological “national emergency.” Should the economic indicia remain positive—a major factor in pacifying voters the GOP badly needs—they’re counting on a 2020 in which Trump survives some feckless Democrat so bent on placating their own base that he (or she) forgets to win.

But a drastic economic reversal could vitiate this hope, turning the presidency they dismissed as a useful farce into a political poison pill. Should that day come, Republicans would need a deus ex machina—some pretext which invokes the national interest as camouflage for their self-interest.Until last weekend, Mueller or the Southern District of New York seemed the most likely vehicles to supply one.

No more.So what avenues remain for banishing Trump if he becomes an electoral albatross? And what elected Republicans would dare become Brutus to Trump’s tin pot Caesar?

That’s where Mike Pence comes in: America’s president-in-waiting.

True, Pence is an obsequious toady, scheming sycophant, duplicitous dullard, expedient evangelical, and plutocrats’ puppet who will say or do anything to get ahead. But it doesn’t matter to the GOP donor elite that Pence is a terrible person—so is Trump and so, in some cases, are they (see, e.g., Robert Mercer, Steve Wynn, and Elliott Broidy). What counts is that nearly all of them share with Pence a common characteristic: gimlet-eyed self-devotion.

Pence has sold his political soul so many times that it’s threadbare from excessive handling. The very first purchasers were the Koch brothers, whose agenda Pence embrace with the unmediated zeal of a man incapable of insulting his own integrity or intelligence. Never mind that the Kochs’ libertarian impulses on, say, same-sex marriage were anathema to the evangelicals who anchored Trump’s base. So when the time came, Pence prostrated himself to join Trump’s ticket by selling a blatant libertine to Christians—becoming a spiritual Baghdad Bob whose fervent testimonials to his Dear Leader’s religious depths and familial devotion exposed a surreal obliviousness to his own moral smallness. In the process, Pence serenely ignored that Trump reveled in attacking Republicans he accused of kowtowing to the Kochs.

Pence’s volte-faces continued unabated.As Trump’s running mate, Pence angled to replace him on the ticket in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape. As vice-president, he has been ever alert to the prospect that he might succeed his benefactor before 2020—while polishing his unrivaled gifts as a serial sycophant.

Doubtless, the GOP’s ruling classes perceive Pence’s transcendent mediocrity. But he’s what they’ve got. What especially commends him to his would-be patrons is that he’s not insane and, therefore, is adequately socialized in a way that Trump is not. A President Pence would do whatever they wanted, all the time, cloaked in his oleaginous persona of a pious church elder.

How would a coup de Pence happen? The first precondition would be a deteriorating economy which caused plummeting poll numbers, both for Trump and Republicans on the generic ballot. The next step would be maneuvering Trump to a point where he feared a humiliating electoral defeat which stripped him of immunity in future prosecutions.

Such circumstances might inspire Trump to declare that, in his majesty, he had made America great again in, say, three and half years—leaving Pence, if he can, to salvage 2020. If Pence won, Trump would be vindicated. If Pence lost, Trump would have the pleasure of mocking him, over and over, day in and day out, for the rest of his time on earth.

Judging by Trump’s psychology and past behavior, this prospect might be more attractive than one thinks. But without a safe exit, Trump is likely to seek reelection to preserve whatever legal immunity he can claim—potentially, a dreadful prospect for the GOP.

Given that,Republicans would have to promise Trump some form of future immunity—say, a pledge that Pence would pardon him should the Southern District lodge post-presidential indictments. Trump might yet face state charges, but that sure beats state and federal. And the odds seem pretty good that to expedite the epic sigh of national relief, most state prosecutors would let Trump be.

Is there any doubt that President Pence would pardon former President Trump in a heartbeat – along with as many relatives as Trump required? None. Any sentient observer can already write Pence’s execrable post-pardon speech, replete with bromides about healing, forgiveness, and faith in Pence’s God.

To be sure, all this may be a pipe dream. But somewhere Mike Pence is softly humming “Hail to the Chief.”

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.