Donald Trump or Mike Pence? I'll take whatever's behind door no. 3

Lunatic or right-wing fanatic? Speculation spreads about Trump's mental state, but Pence could be even worse

Published October 21, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Ethan Miller/Olivier Douliery/Salon)
(Getty/Ethan Miller/Olivier Douliery/Salon)

Regardless of how one feels about the policies and political views of Donald Trump, it has become increasingly difficult not to be concerned by the president’s erratic and impulsive behavior. Whether one is Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, the president’s mental state should worry every sane person in America. Last week Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee — apparently one of the few sane Republicans left in Washington — captured the general mood when he responded to the president’s tweetstorm from earlier that day about Corker's decision not to seek re-election:

“It's a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

In an interview with the New York Times shortly thereafter, Corker offered a blistering critique of the president, saying that Trump was treating his office like “a reality show,” and that his reckless tweets could set the nation “on the path to World War III.” “He concerns me,” Corker went on. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

“I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Corker continued, painting a frightening picture of the increasingly unstable president, whose mental health is now a real cause for concern. A few days after Corker’s interview, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman painted an even more terrifying picture in an article documenting the president’s mood swings. According to people close to the president, who spoke to Sherman off the record, Trump is “unstable,” “losing a step,” and “unraveling.”

“In recent days,” Sherman writes, “I spoke with a half dozen prominent Republicans and Trump advisers, and they all describe a White House in crisis as advisers struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods.” The inability of congressional Republicans to pass any major legislation, along with Luther Strange’s defeat in the Alabama Republican primary last month, has reportedly pushed the president close to the edge. “Alabama was a huge blow to his psyche,” someone close to the president told Sherman. “He saw the cult of personality was broken.”

The president’s apparent mental decline has made the newly released book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” in which 27 mental health experts access Trump’s mental state, all the more timely. In an interview with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir last week, the book’s editor, Dr. Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, warned that “in the office of the presidency, [Trump] poses a danger to the public, and in fact the international community.”

“Assessing dangerousness is actually more about the situation and not just about the person, whereas a diagnosis would be about the person and stays with the individual," explained Lee. “So a certain individual may be dangerous in a certain position of power and not dangerous in another situation.”

Lee and the book’s 26 contributors argue that in his current position of power, with his fingertips on the nuclear codes, Donald Trump poses a great danger to the world, and that it is the moral and civic duty of mental health professionals to warn the American public. Of course, people have been saying this much for the past two years, and Trump’s temperament has long been a major area of concern. But this assessment carries more weight than anything that has come before it, and confirms the popular sentiment that Trump is uniquely dangerous, and that anyone — including Vice President Mike Pence — is likely preferable in the White House.

Yet even as Trump appears to lose his grip on reality, it is not universally accepted that Pence would be any better, and many of the president’s fiercest critics have expressed the belief that Pence would be even worse. “He's ideological, I consider him a zealot, and I think that in terms of a lot of domestic policy certainly would be worse than Trump,” Sen. Al Franken said about Pence last June. In the Huffington Post, Jerry Bowles summed up the dilemma last year: “Donald Trump might blow up the world, but Mike Pence would set the clock back to 1954.”

The choice between Trump and Pence is ultimately a choice between a madman and a steely-eyed fanatic. While the former’s erratic nature and “dark moods” could provoke the sudden outbreak of World War III, his incompetence has thus far made him one of the most ineffective presidents in history. Trump also lacks any clear ideological convictions, and his pathological need for praise makes him highly susceptible to flattery, which could always bring him closer to the center (if, that is, he is advised by sane individuals).

Pence -- who of course would become president if Trump were removed from office, as the Constitution dictates -- may not have the mercurial temperament of his boss and is unlikely to provoke nuclear war on Twitter. But he is a much more committed ideologue than the president. The vice president is a virulent homophobe and anti-abortion extremist whose theocratic worldview shapes his politics. Since he has both legislative and executive experience, having served 12 years in Congress and one term as governor of Indiana, there can be little doubt that a Pence administration would be much more disciplined in implementing its reactionary agenda.

In a recent tell-all report by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, two sources recall a meeting in the White House discussing abortion and gay rights, in which President Trump comes across as the sensible one in the room:

During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. "You see?" Trump asked Pence. "You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway." When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, "Don’t ask that guy — he wants to hang them all!”

This anecdote makes it clear that the choice between Trump and his vice president is no choice at all, and that each is horrific in his own way. From a purely political perspective, Trump is almost certainly the better option. But this could change if the president continues to spiral out of control; as time goes on, Pence’s fanaticism may begin to look preferable to Trump’s madness.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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