A few days ago, which is to say an eternity in our Trump-dilated time, there was a story on NPR about anxious evangelicals’ seeking a meeting with the president.
The subject of their agita, not entirely surprisingly, was the Stormy Daniels affair, in which the president’s lawyer-fixer, Michael Cohen, appears to have averted a possible October surprise by buying the silence of a porn star (and perhaps more than one) with whom Donald Trump committed adultery shortly after the birth of his third wife’s only son.
But the prominent evangelicals seeking the meeting were apparently less concerned about the adultery (or the payoff’s possible campaign finance violation) than about the political ramifications — low religious-right turnout in 2018, a defeat for Republicans, and from there defeats on the policy issues that forced religious conservatives to make their peace with Trump in the first place.
Now with the FBI raids on Cohen’s various offices, the emanations and penumbras from Robert Mueller’s investigation seem to have raised the Stormy Daniels stakes, pushing us closer to a scenario in which our first openly Hefnerian president gets impeached for illegalities related to an adult entertainer and her charms.
The sudden investigatory focus on Cohen and Daniels might turn out to be a legal tempest in a D-cup. But still, for evangelicals concerned that their agenda is yoked so closely to the fortunes of that Hefnerian president, this seems like a good time to contemplate a simple question: Why not Mike Pence?
In the 2016 election, once Marco Rubio was defeated and Ted Cruz dispatched, religious conservatives faced a binary choice: Vote Trump or get Hillary. One does not have to agree with the ultimate decision that most of them made to understand the logic that motivated a decision for Trump.
But the politics of the coming year, once the Mueller investigation ceases to be a black box and delivers whatever it’s going to deliver (you’ll get no predictions from me!), might offer a very different choice. If Trump were impeached and removed from the White House, the presidency would devolve to precisely the kind of man whom much of pre-Trump religious conservatism insisted that it wanted in the Oval Office: an evangelical Christian family man with a bluenose’s temperament and a boring Reaganite checklist of beliefs.
Which means that if, in what is no longer an absurd hypothetical, the president were to face real legal-political jeopardy over the Stormy Daniels business, the evangelical leaders currently fretting about Trump’s political position would face a case where doing the consistent thing — namely, returning to their Bill Clinton-era position that character counts in presidents and using illegal means to conceal gross infidelities are impeachable offenses — would actually deliver something closer to what they claimed to want, not so very long ago: not a liberal in the White House, but President Mike Pence.
Now I understand very well all the reasons that in the event of a Trump impeachment over Stormy Daniels or anything else, most evangelicals will probably rally to him instead of gently elbowing Pence in to take his place. We do not have a parliamentary system where party leaders fight internal battles and get replaced by their internal rivals on the regular; instead, we elect a quasi-monarch, whose removal seems as traumatic as a regicide. And thus party loyalists tend to identify with their leaders the way royalists identify with their kings, and regard the prospect of impeachment not as an opportunity for a change of leadership but a revolutionary threat.
What this means for the Trump coalition is that lots of Republicans who once resisted the Trumpian takeover have now accepted the various narratives that cast him as an indispensable man — because he’s the only Republican who knows how to fight, because his removal would be a victory for the hated establishment and the even more hated media and the many-tentacled Deep State, because whatever else happens you can’t let the liberals win. And evangelicals have their particular version of these Trump-the-indispensable conceits, from the analogies to King David (who slept around a lot, too, didn’t he?) to the widespread belief that Trump’s repeated against-the-odds victories mean that Providence somehow chose him for this role — and whom God has elevated, let no man impeach.
But for all their inevitable appeal, these are bad reasons to pre-emptively reject impeachment, in the Daniels case or any other that Mueller might reveal. And I don’t just mean they’re bad reasons because they’re too partisan and tribal; I mean that the evidence from the last case like this, the Clinton impeachment in all its splendor, is that the partisan and tribal response does not necessarily serve your party or tribe that well.
There is no way of knowing exactly what would have happened, of course, had Clinton been pushed out by Senate Democrats and Al Gore installed in his place. But there are good reasons to suspect that as an incumbent steward of late-1990s prosperity untainted by his steadfast support for a lying boss, Gore would have had an easier time dispatching George W. Bush in 2000, and the entire trajectory of the early 2000s would have been more favorable to Democrats. And there are also good reasons to think that professional feminists, who contorted themselves absurdly in defense of Clinton’s predatory conduct, would have been better off accelerating their reckoning with the pigs of liberalism rather than waiting for the age of Trump and the old age of Harvey Weinstein.
These lessons could apply to a Trump impeachment as much as to the Lewinsky affair. A Republican Party that ran in 2020 with a boring Midwestern guy (albeit, yes, one sure to be trailed by protesters in Handmaid outfits) as the steward of prosperity would not necessarily be worse off than a party lashed to its current leader; if Gerald Ford could almost win in Nixon’s shadow, why not Pence in Trump’s? And a religious conservatism that sacrificed a lot of cultural credibility in defending Trump might regain a little by abandoning him, vindicating itself against what seem now like reasonable charges of “character for thee but not for me” hypocrisy.
Plus, there’s the providential aspect. Sure, making use of Donald Trump to keep Hillary Clinton from being president is a fascinating flourish by history’s Author, but the idea that the Almighty might use a porn star to make Mike Pence president represents, if anything, an even more amazing miracle. So anyone interested in looking for the hand of God in history should probably welcome that miracle’s arrival, rather than resisting in the name of MAGA.
Am I jesting? Only to a point. That God has a sense of dramatic irony and narrative surprise seems like one of the most obvious lessons to be drawn from the Trump era. That God is using Trump not as an agent of his good work but as a kind of ongoing test of everyone else’s moral character seems like a not-unreasonable inference to draw. That God would offer religious conservatives in danger of selling their souls a chance not just to step back from the brink but to literally replace Donald Trump with a fellow religious conservative — well, that seems like just the kind of opportunity that a beneficent deity would grant to erring members of his flock.
And for those same religious conservatives to pass up the chance, preferring a scorched-earth battle in defense of priapism, would be a sad confirmation of the point that a beloved Christian author made many years ago: The doors of hell are locked on the inside.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service