Stop freaking out about Pence

I really wish people would stop with the “if Trump steps down or is impeached, Pence takes over, and that’ll be really bad because he’s not just super right-wing in a consistent and serious way, but he’s also super effective and politically potent and powerful” line.
First of all, we have zero—as in no—evidence that Pence is a super effective political player. Long before Dick Cheney was in the Bush White House, he had demonstrated his political savvy and skills, on multiple occasions and in multiple institutions and venues. Not so, Pence.
Second, it makes no sense to think Pence is super effective and powerful, on the one hand, yet has simply suffered the unfortunate happenstance of being stymied by Trump. If Pence were such a great politico, he would be making his mastery felt, in spite of Trump. Nothing suggests that he has. As far as we know, the guy is just a standard right winger with a granite face. He may be really good at what he does, but before we freak out about him, let’s have a better sense of his political potency and efficacy.
Third, and most important, while I don’t, in the end, think Trump will be impeached or resign—but who knows, things are moving so fast, anything is possible, so I won’t say it’s out of the question—the focus on Pence as his successor somehow stepping in and picking up the conservative agenda where things left off before Trump took it off the rails, is wrongheaded. That’s just not how politics works. For two reasons.
First, it presumes a weirdly static model of things. Trump steps down, Pence steps up, and things go on as they would have had Trump never appeared on the scene. There’s no sense in that story of what effect Trump being pushed out would actually have on the GOP (their demoralization and internal sense of confusion and chaos) or the Dems or the left (their newfound sense of power). If Trump is pushed out, one side will feel terrified (yes, conservatives can be scared, too), the other will feel emboldened and powerful. Why do you think the GOP is sticking by Trump so much as it is? Because he’s delivered anything for them so far? He hasn’t. It’s because, having made their bed, they have no choice but to lie in it and hope against hope that they’ll somehow, at some point, get a good night’s sleep. Anyway, that’s what I mean by a static view of politics: everyone thinks that an event can happen without it transforming the political space in which it happens. That’s just not the way things work.
Second, it also takes a weirdly personalistic view of politics, which has always dogged analysts in this country, including people on the left. As if the story is all about Trump or all about Pence—Pence is smarter than Trump, so he’s scarier and will be more effective!—and not about the larger force field that gets activated or deactivated around them. Again, that’s not how politics works, anywhere.


  1. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant February 15, 2017 at 9:57 am | #

    “Anyway, that’s what I mean by a static view of politics: everyone thinks that an event can happen without it transforming the political space in which it happens. That’s just not the way things work.”

    Exactly right!

    It is as if some who are freaking out about Pence are forgetting what is happening right now with some progressives recovering some of their mojo, from lawsuits to marches to study groups looking to get women into politics in response to McConnell’s silencing Warren in the Senate. The world is indeed far bigger than Trump and/or Pence and the political space around them absolutely constitutes a “yooge” chunk of it.

    Thank you for the needed reminder that the rest of the human race still matters.

  2. abellwordpress February 15, 2017 at 10:02 am | #

    The unanticipated seems more likely than other alternatives. We freak about things that amount to nothing (Y2K) and totally miss devastating transitions (Stock Market Crashes).

    I’m more concerned about the future of the democracy than about Pence. It seems hopelessly broken, though I take the above paragraph as a reminder that I really don’t have a clue. Perhaps the more interesting question is how we might get from our current dysfunction to something, well, more functioning.

  3. Hektor Rottweiler February 15, 2017 at 10:07 am | #

    But is it okay to freak out about Ryan?

    I appreciate this piece. I gave up on making predictions, but the “Trump is impeached/the GOP starts getting things done” narrative has been haunting me a bit. At the same time, it seems more likely that the Trump admin will start to figure more efficient procedures out as they move along, and the fight is only going to get more difficult. I suppose we should be more worried about the morale of movements after Trump scores a few big victories.

  4. jonnybutter February 15, 2017 at 10:14 am | #

    Agree with most of this. Important to remember that Pence is not just granite faced – he’s really not that bright, as these turds go (he’s definitely no Cheney!). I’ve kept my eye on him over the years because what’s remarkable about him is that he is so dull. Was at one time one of the stupidest ppl in congress, but there are so many boobs there now that this distinction means a lot less.

    But the other turds in the GOP are much more cunning. I hope that if Trump does go, one way or another, it will be only when the whole phenom can cause maximum damage to the GOP. I would feel cheated if they did something rational, like get rid of him quickly and have what could be passed off as a relatively ‘seamless transition’. They have to fully own the Trump Experience.

    However, I do worry about all this not because I am defeatist or overawed by the GOP. It’s that I don’t trust the Democratic party to use the GOP breakdown very well. Oh well, I guess if the GOP really does become a rump, that will be good no matter what. Dems will still suck, but at least there will be some space for renewal.

  5. SteveLaudig February 15, 2017 at 10:15 am | #

    There are many varieties of “dumbness” or perhaps “ineptness” might be a better term. Pence and Trump are both inept but differently inept. Pence has never held a productive job. Nor has Trump for that matter. Trump’s “enterprises” produce no thing that people can eat, wear [silly hats aside], drive, live in or use to produce other things. Trump’s “products” are ephemeral experiences, low tech, not requiring much organizational cleverness tracking from idea of product to production and sale and use of product. Pence has only ever held political office and his record of effectiveness [against skilled and determined opposition] is untested. Governing Indiana presented no challenge due to the ineptness of the Hoosier Democrats who were simply unable [as theirs is a culture of losing and losers, well-intentioned, good in a moral and ethical sense, good in the heart, but weak in the spirit to win] to test. Eisenhower had skills, Pence and Trump don’t. Pence and Trump are both dangerous as vandals are dangerous. And something that isn’t well understood is how large the unintended and unforeseen and unintended consequences can be. NN Taleb’s “fat tails”. Dangerous yes but the unknown interlinkages existing now, 2017, that didn’t exist in 1952, in how the world economy works means we don’t have a way to measure their [or anyone elses] true peril. The Chinese are right to seal off their economy from incoming causes. Borders in this sense are very important firebreaks that prevent truly stupid moves from spreading. Contagion’s yellow flag is no longer restricted to microbes. but I stray. Bottom line. Who tosses Trump? The R’s. That will be a civil war between the adults [assuming there are any Eisenhower adults left] and the non-adults. Who will these two groups agree to savage? The same as they are savaging now: women, children, the working class, the poor. So nothing in that sense changes. Peril and danger indeed but same peril, same danger, simply exchanging the “Yellow haired” peril for the “White haired peril” and both are inept but differently inept. cheers. [written and skimmed but not proofed]

  6. Princess Bee February 15, 2017 at 10:43 am | #

    I think you are spot on. The objections to Pence are largely policy based – he’s a hardcore theocrat who would love to see the Establishment Clause mangled to hell and back if it meant mandating Christian prayer and putting women in jail for even thinking about having sex. Trump’s misdeeds go far beyond policy, to gutting the institutions themselves and stripping them for parts. He challenges not only facts and even the most modest semblance of integrity, but the very rule of law that allows any democratic system to function. Pence is abhorrent to anyone but the most ardent evangelical, but he is far more conventional, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    • Gavolt February 15, 2017 at 11:34 am | #


      “Pence is abhorrent to anyone but the most ardent evangelical, but he is far more conventional, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

      This is exactly what I’m worried about.

  7. Gavolt February 15, 2017 at 11:09 am | #

    For myself, I think my worry is less attached to Pence personally, and more about my fear that most Dems and centrists will gladly push right to meet him in their enthusiasm for this supposed return to normalcy. The Sessions hearings, and the way it became clear that collegiality was more important to many Dems than politics, really pushed me into a pessimistic place. Hopefully I’m mistaken.

    • phatkhat February 15, 2017 at 11:39 am | #

      Yes, this. ^^^ Pence could have the capacity to move the Overton Window even further right, to the detriment of all of us. And make no mistake – he is a Reconstructionist/Dominionist Christian who dearly wants to move further towards a theocracy, and the roughly 30% of the population that agrees with that has political power beyond their numbers because of their passion for it.

      Democrats MUST wake up. But I will not hold my breath.

      • lazycat1984 February 15, 2017 at 1:43 pm | #

        I think the Overton Window has by now been moved so far to the right that it’s falling off the house. We now have the NAACP campaigning against net neutrality to please their corporate donors. No wonder no one has any use for the institutional liberal organizations anymore.

  8. b. February 15, 2017 at 11:41 am | #

    The crucial difference between Trump and Pence is that Pence is a creature of the GOP, and Trump is not. If anything, the post-Trump GOP will be a creature of Trump. What you are missing is that the GOP still controls House and Senate, and is still only a few governors away from a 2/3 majority in the states, and is the strongest in state legislatures it has been in a long time. What you are missing is that the Democratic Party has not resolved any of its own problems, namely that it does not want to promote the agenda that would get it elected.
    Pence can do business with the GOP and its sponsors. That might be enough for 2018. We can count ourselves lucky if the Democrats manage another Obama 2020. Sadly, that’s what we have been reduced to hope for.

  9. Roquentin February 15, 2017 at 11:47 am | #

    Good point. Personally, I feel as though we’ve crossed a rubicon and there is no longer a “return to normalcy” possible. Impeachment with Pence succeeding him, some kind of a “soft coup,” or even Trump simply muddling through are all events which destabilize things further. As near as I can tell (and I really hate trying to predict the future) all roads lead to further erosion and destabilization of the political establishment.

    I’m also realizing that the political establishment in the US has nothing left to defend itself with except for Russophobia, which served them very well during the Cold War, but that jug of milk has passed its expiration date and has started to curdle. If we’re talking about being taken to war, I think we have way more to fear out of the Democrats. These clowns are so caught up in unseating Trump that they either don’t understand or don’t care that their overheated rhetoric and hostility towards Russia can have other consequences.

    Just you watch, if we go to war it’ll be CNN, the NY Times, and the Washington Post that take us there.

  10. Heliopause February 15, 2017 at 12:30 pm | #

    “he’s also super effective and politically potent”

    No, the actual argument is that he would be more effective than a complete political naif like Trump and is objectively worse on some issues.

    “it presumes a weirdly static model of things. Trump steps down, Pence steps up, and things go on as they would have had Trump never appeared on the scene.”

    No, it presumes that there is no cogent reason to replace a POTUS when there is no reason to think the replacement would be better and some reasons to think he’d be worse. No need to invoke wild strawman arguments about “super” Pence.

  11. Joeff February 15, 2017 at 2:29 pm | #

    Pence has no significant popular following. He has all the charm of a small town undertaker. He’s a Christianist theocrat. Trumps fans will go apeshit if he’s seen to be pushed out (which is how it will play to them). GOP turmoil will continue as Freedom Caucus continues to dominate.
    If Pence becomes president, it’s because Trump was in bed with Putin, election was stolen, and thus the entire regime is illegitimate. Huge opportunity for Dems in 2018, with an energized base that’s clearly had it with status-quo politics. Biggest short-term cost will be a SCOTUS seat, but who knows where Kennedy will land?

  12. concernedcitizen February 15, 2017 at 6:40 pm | #

    There is a significant possibility of Pence threatening to resign in the next 2 months unless Trump is removed for “mental problems”.

    • Chris Lovell February 15, 2017 at 9:12 pm | #

      If Pence threatened to resign, who would stop him? He doesn’t seem to have any pull in the Trump admin at all.

    • SqueakyRat February 26, 2017 at 3:02 pm | #

      I don’t see why. He has the same motives to support Emperor Tangerine as the Repubs in Congress do — he’ll sign whackadoodle legislation, if they can get some together.

  13. David Gelb February 15, 2017 at 9:09 pm | #

    I don’t know if one needs to believe that Pence is “super effective and politically potent” – just that Trump is unusually ineffective so that a replacement by Pence would more likely than not bring in a (to some unknown degree) more effective right wing agent. As for the activation or deactivation of overall political forces, I think the concern is that an ouster of Trump would create complacency and lead to demobilization on the center-left.

  14. Thomas Rossetti February 15, 2017 at 10:52 pm | #

    From the Wall Street Journal report tonight I would venture that we are headed for a crisis of command. The shit is hitting the fan! I can’t see how Trump survives this. I am not that worried about Dunce. He is such a dim bulb.

  15. Chris Morlock February 16, 2017 at 3:28 am | #

    I guess progressives have forgotten that Pence is pro TPP, which is more than enough to totally pull back from the crazy Russian hysteria fueling the impeachment gamble. Again, emotional forces on the left are not thinking things through.

  16. mark February 16, 2017 at 4:17 am | #

    “Richard Branson is the mirror image of a Russian oligarch. This is not to say that where they are bad, he is good. If even half the things in Tom Bower’s new biography are true, Branson is far from being good. He is playing the same game as his Russian counterparts, but it’s the looking-glass version. Where they do their best to avoid the glare of publicity, he thrives on it. The oligarchs who got rich by seizing the spoils of the post-Soviet economy sometimes have to pretend to be poorer than they really are, so as not to rouse public fury at the scale of their heist. Branson pretends to be much richer than he really is. He loves to flash the cash, often in the form of charitable pledges and absurd boasts about future profits. He once promised $3 billion over ten years to the Clinton Global Initiative in an off-the-cuff remark at a fundraiser. Clinton dragged him up on stage to give him a hug, many of his staff wept at his generosity and the papers reported the figure as if it bore some relation to reality, yet it was more than the earning power of all Branson’s businesses combined. Needless to say, nothing like that amount has been donated.”

    (David Runciman, LRB, 20 March 2014)

    Just thought I’d fly a kite.

  17. Thomas Boyle February 16, 2017 at 4:59 pm | #

    I don’t think a President Pence would have to be either effective or powerful. He merely needs to be more competent and less stridently antagonistic toward the press. If Trump goes, the resistance goes. The folks packing the demonstrations will think they’ve won and go home, and the media will back off if they start receiving the respect they believe they’re due.

    It won’t matter if Pence attempts to accomplish anything on his own. He will support the agenda of the Republican Congress and, without people in the streets and on their phones and at town halls to give them a spine, the Democrats will fold, as they always do.

    No, Trump, jutting his jaw like Mussolini, is the face we need in power to keep people fired up.

  18. jonnybutter February 17, 2017 at 7:47 pm | #

    If Trump goes, the resistance goes.

    This is only true if the opposition has no real ideological commitments, no principles. This lack is the very reason some of us – ahem – are urging liberals and regular Democrats to get serious about reforming their wretched party, which must start with admitting some very obvious things that are wrong.

    It is defeatist, and too typical of mainstream dems/liberals, to always let the GOP set the agenda. What matters always is what the *GOP* does. ‘If Trump goes, the resistance goes’. No. Trump is just softening them up. People are sick of the GOP, too. But if the Dems don’t lead – and they probably won’t – it doesn’t have to mean the ‘resistance goes’.

  19. DaveOAlaska February 19, 2017 at 1:31 am | #

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