The imperial power of the throne of England is carried in three objects: the crown, the scepter, and the sovereign’s orb. Of these three, the orb is the most magnificent. It is made of hollow gold, six and a half inches in diameter, and set with over six hundred precious stones, including thirty rubies and twelve large diamonds and dozens of emeralds and sapphires. The orb was first made literal in the 17th century, but it has existed since the Middle Ages in the iconography of Britain: a globe, with three bands dividing the three continents known to medieval Europe and dominated by a cross protruding from its topside, held firmly in the hand of the sovereign king.
The orb as metaphor for the divine right of rulers is not unique to Britain. The kingdoms of Bavaria, Sweden, Poland Bohemia, Norway, the Netherlands have all had orbs in their regalia. The Holy Roman Empire had one too. Almost all are based on the globus cruciger, the orb of the Catholic Church, which transforms any painted Christ who holds it into Salvator Mundi, the savior of the Earth. Even before Christendom there was the Roman Emperor Aurelian, who in the 3rd century reconquered Gaul and Palmyrene. For this, he earned the title Restitutor Orbis, restorer of the globe, whose power grasped the extent of the known world. More than the scepter, and more than the crown, the orb has historically symbolized the divine right by which some men rule over others. More than that, it reflects the wealth and violence that enforce a rulers’ claim to that authority.
Today, though, the orb is mostly funny. Last weekend, President Trump clutched one during a trip abroad (telling, of course, that what we’ve come to call The Orb was literally a miniature globe under strange light) and the image went viral on joke Twitter, a punchline to accompany mounting efforts to strip the president of his authority at home. Let him have that orb, let him stay overseas, this joker has a date with the judiciary committee when he comes home. That’s how the joke went. That’s what the orb means now.
Donald Trump will probably not be impeached. But the prospect of impeachment has given way to one of the more tedious debates of this new era: Is it politically wise to remove a maniac like Trump from office? Or would doing so only unleash Mike Pence, the self-flagellating ghoul whose danger and efficiency is only constrained at present by the shackles of a job largely dedicated to nodding and mumbling while the President vomits out of our televisions? Some version or other of both cases has appeared in every major American newspaper and magazine over the past few weeks, despite the fact that this impeachment will almost certainly never actually occur. The pro-impeachment case, articulated everywhere, is simple: Donald Trump is a lunatic and quite possibly too stupid to know that you shouldn’t confess to obstruction of justice in public. He ought to be removed.
The most forceful articulation of the anti-impeachment case, meanwhile, appeared in the Jared Kushner-owned New York Observer, where Cliston Brown — a very serious and adult “communications executive” whose previous work includes penetrating essays like “Where Berners and Trumpkins Unite: Failure to Employ Basic Logic” and “Clinton Will Win” — argues that while Pence “clearly has more self-control… than Trump, that’s exactly what makes him more dangerous. He has all the same ideas and goals as Trump — and as an added bonus, a religious-right agenda that’s even worse — and a much better chance of actually implementing them.” Better, he says, to leave Trump in office, and reap the electoral rewards of his instability. In the New Republic, Jeet Heer — a political writer whose open disdain for “anti-anti” takes provides thin cover for his insatiable desire to write them — provides the anti-anti-impeachment take: “There’s no question that Pence, a creature of the religious right, would be a terrible president,” he writes. But Pence, unlike Trump, is unlikely to blunder us into a nuclear war. “The worst-case scenario under Trump is the world of Mad Max, while under Pence it would be The Handmaid’s Tale.” That alone justifies impeachment.
The orb reflects the wealth and violence that enforce a rulers’ claim to that authority.
By the laws of online discourse, we are all of us expected to pick a side in this fight — it doesn’t matter which — and advance with the relentless confidence of a savvy operator resentfully explaining the obvious. But an uneasy nihilism has crept into what ought to be the most consequential political possibility in 20 years. It is difficult to become enthusiastic about any of these possibilities. The debate itself feels futile and exhausting. What, after all, is the point of all of this? All options are terrible. Donald Trump is an idiot, and evil. Mike Pence is evil, and an asshole. It is awful not to seize the opportunity to throw your worst enemy from power, and it is awful to throw him from power knowing that he will be replaced by somebody whose central mystery is whether he will be marginally better or marginally worse. It is awful to know that all of this is a consequence of the utter powerlessness of the American left.
Political factions wait decades for a crisis they can exploit toward their own power, but here, on the brink of a crisis, the forces arrayed against Trump are forced to countenance the fact that they are too weak to seize anything but a symbolic victory. Even the marginally kinder reactionaries of the Democratic Party cannot extract much from triumph. Of the 18 people presently in the line of presidential succession, zero are Democrats. If they managed, through some bizarrely prevalent Supreme Court fueled special-election fantasy, to seize the White House, Democrats would still be short both houses of Congress and nearly every state government in the nation. Even then — what, really, is the point? Any American president will stand for a photo-op with the orb and sell weapons to the Saudis so they can torture and slaughter their dissidents. Any president will extend the ambient churning violence of our empire over the whole of the dying world.
In the history of Britain, the sovereign’s orb was not always transferred peacefully. At least seven English monarchs have been violently deposed by civil wars and uprisings that culminated, as often as not, in the imprisonment or murder of the king. But the peculiar metaphysics that still, to this day, justify the authority of the British crown required that these rebellions maintain an official fiction: The war was never fought against the king himself. The body and authority of the king could not be violated. So the war, almost always, was fought to “liberate” the king from his wicked advisors, from the sinister Dukes and foolish courtiers who had led the rightful monarch astray. Once “liberated,” kings might face summary exile and then imprisonment like Henry VI, or discover that they voluntarily “abdicated” the day before being hacked to death by foot soldiers in a field, like Richard III.
Some, like Edward II (whose sin, as it happens, was, collusion with the hated French, or at least one particularly handsome and charming French nobleman), found themselves “liberated” into a dungeon for ten years until he really did abdicate voluntarily, at which point his merely human body could be sadistically tortured to death. But in every case, the English maintained that despite the aberration, the monarchy itself was in perfect continuity. The sovereign’s orb had merely passed seamlessly onto a new holder, whose authority over his subjects could not be questioned. The king is dead; long live the king.
The danger of Trump is not the empire, but the possibility that he would take the empire and fuck it up.
Beneath the impeachment mania seizing today’s liberals, we have what appears, at first, to be a reverse fiction. The king is wicked, but the apparatus of the state is good. Trump must be removed in order to show that the rule of law persists intact, that despite the aberration, our state has never faltered and may now return to normal. But whether the continuity of power lies in the body of the king or in the institutions of the state is only metaphysics: the story, really, is the same. The desire to oust Trump is predicated on the belief that while Pence may be worse, Pence, at least, is normal. He may not be preferable, but he will be a steward of the empire, a steady hand to grasp the orb and maintain the right of capital to rule over the great mass of labor.
This, perhaps, is why liberals are the most enthusiastic about ousting Trump: for them, a return to normalcy is the whole point. Trump’s sin, from the Clinton campaign to the present, is that he is vulgar and irresponsible, selling us out to our enemies while blundering his agenda at home. His danger is not in exercising his imperial power to incinerate the bodies of Arabs or to allow the market to consume what little is left of the planet, how could it be? The danger of Trump is not the empire, but the possibility that he would take the empire and fuck it up. Get rid of him, and the rest is tinkering. The only reason to hold back is the possibility of a slight political advantage in the next election between the twin servants of state power. This is why this whole debate has taken on the stench of useless nihilism: Every outcome misses the point.
Whether Trump remains in power or not, the depravity of American power will remain in place. Yes, the king is wicked. But so are his advisors. So are the institutions that feud back and forth for a temporary claim to the throne. Normal is not preferable to abnormal, because normal is scarcity and hierarchy and violence. We may overthrow Trump and we may overthrow Pence and we may overthrow whomever we like, shuffle our sovereign’s orb between a thousand masters, and none of it will really matter so long as the dominion in the orb remains intact. We will become like the English, spilling blood through a dozen violent transfers of power, the importance of who wore the crown lost on us now as we look back and consider the curious upheavals that punctuated a thousand years of feudal and colonial brutality.
It is not enough to merely depose the sovereign while keeping the better part of sovereignty untouched. But what is the alternative? For a crisis like Trump to present any real possibility of transformation, then the American left must be in a position to seize on that possibility. There is no easy shortcut to power. It will be long and difficult work, often mundane and often frustrating, work that spans years if not decades and which nobody, really, has ever figured out how to accomplish. But there is no alternative. There must be a movement capable of doing more than transferring the orb to a new master. That was never the point. The point is to do what one wishes some British soldier had, when he saw the sovereign’s orb roll into the grass from the dead hand of a fallen king. The point is to take the orb and smash it, and to use its precious stones to buy our bread.