In 2018, Americans who are heavily involved in liberal/progressive politics are being bombarded with online petitions calling for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. And in Philadelphia, there is even a meetup group called Impeach Trump. Many liberal and progressive activists are reasoning that if President Richard Nixon, following the Watergate scandal, had to resign in disgrace in 1974 rather than face impeachment, removing Trump from the presidency should be doable as well. But the “impeach Trump” movement is flawed and misguided for a number of reasons.
First, Trump is unlikely to be impeached as long as Republicans control both houses of Congress. Second, the political environment of 2018 is radically different from the political environment of 1974. Third, activists would be much better off putting their time and energy into voting as many Republicans out of office as possible in the November midterms. And most important of all, a Mike Pence presidency would be even worse than a Trump presidency. Replacing President Trump with a President Pence would be a much worse scenario than Gerald Ford taking over in 1974.
It was 44 years ago, on August 8, 1974, that Nixon announced he was stepping down as president—and the following day, Ford (who had replaced Spiro Agnew as vice president) was sworn in as president of the United States. The Republican Party was much more nuanced and complex in those days. Detested and feared by many liberals and progressives in the 1960s and 1970s, Nixon was considered an arch-conservative in his day; yet many of his positions—supporting universal health care, expanding Medicare and Social Security, upholding elements of the New Deal, signing an executive order that established the Environmental Protection Agency—would be deal breakers in the GOP of 2018.
As shocking as it is, the U.S. has moved so far to the right politically since 1974 that Nixon and Ford would be considered Blue Dog Democrats by today’s standards. Self-described “socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders is painted as a wild-eyed radical at Fox News, but truth be told, he’s essentially a diehard New Deal liberal—and when Nixon was president, he butted heads with New Deal liberals while sometimes finding common ground with them. Sen. Ted Kennedy proposed universal health care via a single payer system; Nixon proposed universal health care via the private sector and proposed something very similar to what we now call Obamacare, although more generous in its protections. Nixon was actually to the left of President Barack Obama on healthcare.
Had Nixon not resigned, he would have been impeached; in other words, Nixon quit rather than being fired. And many Republicans would have sided with Democrats in that impeachment, as the U.S. wasn’t as bitterly divided among party lines as it is today. In contrast, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have no interest in seeing Trump impeached no matter how many allegations over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election surface.
After Ford replaced Nixon as president, his most controversial act was pardoning Nixon for his role in the Watergate crimes; many Democrats were furious, asserting that Ford was a Republican partisan first and an American second. Yet Ford, although conservative, was quite moderate compared to the Republican Party of 2018. When he went up against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in the GOP presidential primary in 1976—ultimately winning his party’s nomination and narrowly losing to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the general election—Ford painted Reagan as way too far to the right and outside the mainstream.
Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, Ford was critical of the Christian Right and the role that far-right theocrats like the Rev. Jerry Falwell were playing in the GOP. Ford was a practicing Christian, but he was never militant about it and described his faith as “not something one shouts from the housetops or wears on his sleeve.” Pence, on the other hand, is a hardcore social conservative and is hardly quiet.
The differences between Pence and Ford are both fiscal and social. Ford, like Nixon, was right-wing but saw the value of elements of the New Deal and its sequel, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society; Pence adores corporate power, loves Koch Industries and would like to see the New Deal and the Great Society eradicated altogether.
Pence, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected governor of Indiana in 2012, was often to the right of President George W. Bush. When Pence was in the House, for example, he opposed Bush’s Medicare prescription drug expansion in 2002 and his No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Pence has been active in the Tea Party, which believes that President Bush wasn’t right-wing enough.
In Nixon and Ford’s day, the John Birch Society were considered far-right extremists. Even William F. Buckley disliked them. But Pence has no problem with the Tea Party, which is very Birch-like in its outlook.
Although Trump is friendly with the Christian Right, it is a relationship of convenience. Trump has allied himself with far-right Christian fundamentalists because he sees it as expedient and an effective way to promote his brand; Pence is a true theocrat through and through. And he demonstrated that when he was governor of Indiana, supporting the blatantly anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act and pushing for severe abortion restrictions in that state. Bush was arguably the most socially conservative president in U.S. history, but if Pence became president, he would be even more extreme.
Earlier this year, Omarosa Manigault Newman—who became famous when she was on Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice,” in the mid-2000s—was absolutely right when she warned liberals and progressives who are calling for Trump’s impeachment that they would most definitely not enjoy having Pence as president.
Newman asserted, “Can I just say, as bad as y’all think Trump is, you would be worried about Pence. I will tell you. So, everybody that’s wishing for impeachment might want to reconsider.”
According to Newman, “We would be begging for days of Trump back if Pence became president…. (Pence is) extreme. I’m Christian. I love Jesus, but he thinks Jesus tells him to say things. And I’m like, ‘Jesus ain’t saying that.’”
Newman’s comments about Christianity and where Pence fits in are spot on. Christianity is diverse; within Protestantism alone, there is a huge divide between Mainline Protestants (Episcopalians, Lutherans) and the type of severe far-right fundamentalism Pence represents. Some Mainline Protestant denominations—such as the African Methodist Episcopal church in the black community—have a history of promoting liberal and progressive causes.
But there is nothing Mainline Protestant about Pence, who combines extreme puritanism with the Prosperity Gospel teaching that the poor are poor because God hates them. Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse once said of Pence, “If Pence were to become president for any reason, the government would be run by the Koch Brothers. Period. He’s been their tool for years.”
If Democrats are able to regain the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in November, they could be a major thorn in Trump’s side; that would be a much wiser strategy than helping Mike Pence become president. As president, Pence would be even worse than Trump, even worse than George W. Bush—and most definitely worse than Gerald Ford.