By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 22, 2017
Ever since November’s election, it’s been hard to shake the feeling that we’re living in an airport-bookstore thriller. I can just envision the jacket copy for this beach read:
An erratic businessman has been elected to the White House. Ultra-wealthy Americans, Washington bureaucrats and foreign governments plot how to implement their divergent agendas while distancing themselves from the damage that the unpredictable president is doing to the social, political and international institutions that have maintained domestic and global stability ever since the end of the Cold War. But a small faction of fanatical conservative elites are using the conflict and chaos as cover for a secret plan that could leave America under their direct control for years to come…
The plot almost writes itself. Vladimir Putin and his top advisors subtly push the president to disavow America’s NATO commitments; China, Iran and various fundamentalist terrorist groups — of both the radical Islamic and radical Christian varieties — scheme to undermine confidence in America’s ability to maintain peace and security; the upper crust and their conservative allies work to reduce the 1 percent’s tax burden while cutting the safety net and other social services; a medley of Fox News broadcasters and Republican governors, administrators and legislators promote and enact reforms that allow conservative Christians to punish unmarried women for having sex and homosexuals and non-Christians for reminding anyone of their existence.
Meanwhile, the president recklessly stumbles from international incident to bureaucratic nightmare, nearly all of them avoidable, nearly every one worse than the last. In their frantic efforts to keep up, news media and Internet influencers careen from one outrage to another, some substantial and genuine, others overblown and unimportant. And indeed, all these episodes serve to distract from the scheme that the conservative cabal at the heart of the book intend to execute. It is this plan that gives the book its title: The Pence Contingency.
Why this contingency? Because cabal members anticipate a point when having a erratic, blustering commander-in-chief will become more trouble than it’s worth. Once that moment has been reached — once the president is no longer able to advance the right-wing agenda and begins alienating wide swaths of the electorate — he will be replaced by the vice president.
I know this scenario sounds crazy, but ask yourself this: Is it any crazier than what we’ve seen emanating from the Oval Office over the past month?
Timing is crucial. If this implausible scenario were to play out in real life, then I believe the cabal would want to trigger the Pence contingency shortly after November 2018 election, regardless of whether control of Congress changes hands. That way, an unpopular executive would be replaced by a VP who — however radical he may actually be — would seem preferable just by dint of his not committing one unforced error after another. This, by extension, would give the Republicans a presidential incumbent in 2020 who would be much more likely to get re-elected than Trump.
This sequence would also qualify Pence to run for a second full term as president under the first section of the 22nd Amendment. In other words, activating the Pence contingency could set up the Republican Party to control the White House for 12 years. And if Pence governs adeptly enough, his vice president would have a shot to give the Republicans a fourth straight term controlling the executive branch.
In the book version of The Pence Contingency, the protagonist might be a heroic intelligence officer, politician or journalist who works tirelessly and against all odds to expose the cabal’s sinister machinations. But this isn’t a novel; it’s real life. So who will save us?
Dear readers, we must save ourselves. Not by doing anything terribly dramatic, like we see in the movies and on television or read about in best-selling airport thrillers, but by carrying on the everyday work of members of a democratic society. To wit: Calling and writing and conversing with the people who make laws and the bureaucrats who enforce them; speaking out, demonstrating and litigating against government actions that hurt or demean people, especially vulnerable segments of society; volunteering and raising money for nonprofit organizations and political groups that share your values; making sure that community members are registered to vote; and encouraging those people to cast their ballots.
This is demanding, unglamorous work. The barriers to success are high, and opponents are highly organized and lavishly funded, although rarely as obviously villainous as the antagonists in best-selling thrillers tend to be. The process is typically slow-moving and frustrating; it often does not bear fruit, and it almost never concludes with the kinds of resounding victories depicted in popular fiction of print and screen.
But if history is any guide, this is the most reliable way to make major changes in American society. And if we want our children and grandchildren to inherit a nation — and a planet — that’s at least as good as the one we enjoyed in our youths, we’ll have to put in the work and hope for the best.