It is possible that Donald Trump has engaged in criminal activity while president. It is possible that he is abusing his powers in ways that are not provably criminal, but that nevertheless are unacceptable in a president. But all of that remains to be proven, and if Trump is removed from office, as some pundits are urging, we might find ourselves with a shock worse than Watergate—and dependent on an obtuse, sclerotic, and self-righteous political establishment to get us out of the resulting mess.
I neither like nor voted for Trump. I would be disturbed to learn that Trump had been put in charge of my town’s police department, much less the federal executive branch. I am willing to believe that Trump has done all manner of bad things. But what none of us should do is take these bad things on faith, or believe them on the strength of second- or third-hand reports. If Trump has committed obstruction of justice, then we should require public, sworn testimony to that effect. If Trump is incapable of doing the job, then once again, we should expect public, sworn testimony rather than gossip.
What we have now is a kind of middle-school hysteria, where reporters who don’t like Trump are fed news by sources with an ax to grind. The dubious provenance of these stories doesn’t make them wrong, but we should be wary when a reporter says that he heard someone read a memo written by someone else about something Trump once said. Everyone should just calm down until we have more facts and less innuendo.
We should also think about the day after Trump’s removal—not because Trump necessarily will be removed, but because thinking about that day helps us think about how we got here.
When Richard Nixon was removed from office, he was replaced by another, vaguely center-right political lifer in Gerald Ford. That isn’t what would happen in the case of a Trump removal. Trump was elected partly in response to the ideological and social constraints imposed by the establishments of both parties.
While running for office, Trump either scrambled political categories (on issues such as health care), or took on the bipartisan consensus (on issues such as trade). Vice President Mike Pence has many virtues that Trump lacks, but he is basically an orthodox Republican of the pre-Trump school. There is a lot to like about that, but it isn’t what the public voted for. In this sense, moving from Trump to Pence would represent a bigger change than moving from Nixon to Ford.
A removal of Trump would, absent some great show of wisdom from our elites, contribute to the embittering of our politics. Think of it this way: The Democrats are determined to sell the public Coke, the Republicans want to sell Pepsi, and Trump is Dr. Pepper. Perhaps it’s true that this particular can of Dr. Pepper has gone bad—but removing Trump will inevitably look like an attempt to foreclose anything but Democratic Coke and Republican Pepsi as the available options.
And that is, if anything, one of the more optimistic interpretations. Pence is a Reaganite Republican. If, as of November of last year, you had told the average Republican donor or officeholder that the election of Trump would lead to three years of a Pence presidency, they would probably have taken it as a gift. But the Democrats will be less pleased with such an outcome—and they will have a taste for Republican blood. They may well decide that, having driven out one illegitimate, evil president, they should try to drive out another.
You already see them warming up. Mike Pence is, if anything, more dangerous and extreme than Trump. Pence wants to turn America into a theocracy. And if Pence goes, then we will hear about how Paul Ryan, the new second-in-line, is a homicidal and genocidal maniac who wants to kill millions or tens of millions by repealing Obamacare. The Republicans may think that removing Trump would return the conversation to the eternal choice between Democratic Coke and Republican Pepsi—but they would find that the public relations and bureaucratic tactics used against Trump might also be used to give Democratic Coke an effective monopoly.
In one of his Twitter arguments for removing Trump by the 25th Amendment, Ross Douthat argued that one of the reasons we have political elites is for jobs like getting rid of Trump, and even if elites have misgoverned recently, they should learn from their mistakes and get on with removing Trump.
Douthat has been one of the most farsighted critics of the governing elites. If they had listened to him, we might never have had Trump. But I am not optimistic about what the elites have learned. Republican elites accepted Trump in the hopes that they could bend him to their will and get back to business as usual. A bipartisan removal of Trump will probably lead each party’s elites to hope that they can go back to their comfort zones and ignore those who voted for Trump (or Bernie Sanders). That will likely end badly for our country. Our situation is poisonous, with Trump or without him.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.