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Justin Amash: The Last Republican in America

He was the first Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment. Now, he’s quit the GOP, and is betting his political future that there’s room in conservative politics for anything other than Trump

GRAND RAPIDS, MI - MAY 28:  U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) holds a Town Hall Meeting on May 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Amash was the first Republican member of Congress to say that President Donald Trump engaged in impeachable conduct. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash at a town-hall meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Jason Pye has never told anyone this story, not on the record. It’s about Justin Amash, the Michigan congressman. Earlier this year, Amash was the first Republican to call for President Trump’s impeachment. After his colleagues branded him a loser and a traitor, Amash quit the GOP and switched his party affiliation to independent, gambling his political future on the quixotic notion that there is room in conservative politics for anything other than Donald Trump.

Sitting at a coffee shop in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, Pye drops a snuff pouch in his lower lip (“Can’t get rid of all the redneck, right?”). A Georgia native who likes punk rock and to soup up guitars in his spare time, Pye is the top lobbyist for FreedomWorks, the anti-tax, pro-free-market libertarian group that scores members of Congress based on how sufficiently conservative their voting records are. Amash is one of the few lawmakers with a 100 percent lifetime score and one of Pye’s most reliable votes in Congress. Amash can also be infuriating. That’s where the story comes in.

In late 2017, having failed to repeal Obamacare, Republicans were desperate for a win. They chose tax cuts. For procedural reasons, they first had to pass a budget bill to get a vote on taxes. To the party leadership like then-Speaker Paul Ryan, the budget bill was a placeholder, a means to an end. To Amash, it was a mess of a bill larded with billions in new spending that would skyrocket the federal deficit.

Pye didn’t love the budget bill either, but without it, there were no tax cuts. So Pye blasted out an email pressuring members of Congress to support the bill; those that didn’t would take a hit to their score as a “true conservative.” When he got back from lunch, there was a banker’s box on the couch in his office. No note, no return address. Inside was every trophy FreedomWorks had awarded Justin Amash.

Politicians take tough votes all the time, holding their noses to get something passed. Only Amash would get so upset at being asked to compromise his beliefs that he would respond with a gesture any reasonable person would interpret as: Fuck you. “He really is one of the most principled lawmakers out there,” Pye says. “Sometimes, he’s principled to a fault.”

JUSTIN AMASH IS SITTING IN A PUB in a Norman Rockwell-esque town in his district, talking to me about principles. The way he tells it, he had no choice but to leave the Republican Party. It wasn’t all that hard of a decision, he says, and when you listen to him talk about what he believes and why he got into politics, you understand why. “My gratification comes from being true to the principles that I speak about,” he tells me. “At the end of the day, if I feel like I stuck to my principles, I go home happy.”

With his rimless glasses, boyish face, and habit of long-winded digressions, Amash brings to mind a junior professor gunning for tenure, the one with the punishing reading list and zero-tolerance attendance policy. He is, by his own admission, an introvert, which made him an outlier in the U.S. Congress even before he left the GOP. At one event I attended in his district, he sounded almost apologetic when he had to interrupt patrons at a local brewery to start a town-hall meeting. (As it happened, those patrons had come to hear him speak.) When he travels he prefers not to wear the lapel pin given to every member of Congress, most of whom have a Gollum-level attachment to their pins and keep them on everywhere they go.

A five-term congressman who represents a swath of West Michigan, Amash, 39, is about as conservative — albeit with a libertarian streak — as any politician in America. In 2015 he co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative and libertarian members who wanted changes to the way Congress operated and were willing to hold the federal government hostage to make their point. His office brims with awards from small-government groups like the Club for Growth and the National Taxpayers Union. Some congressional offices give visitors free tchotchkes from a local business in their district; Amash’s office hands out copies of Frédéric Bastiat’s 1850 treatise, The Law, an urtext of the libertarian movement. Asked to describe Amash, people who know him reach for words like “doctrinaire” and “purist” — and those are the people who admire him.

In fairness, Amash didn’t leave the Republican Party so much as the party left him. Since then, he has become an unlikely resistance hero, whose righteous tweets and blistering critiques of the Trump-owned Republican Party have earned him legions of new fans. What used to matter, he said at a town hall this summer, was whether a member of Congress cared about the Constitution and the role of government, about economic freedom and individual liberty. “Now, it’s how much do you support Trump?” he said. “That’s a dangerous place to be in our politics, where a man becomes more important than the ideas behind our country.”

Trump’s swift and total takeover of the Republican Party created an omertà on any criticism of this president, his policies, or his behavior. The few conservatives who speak out do so from the comfort and safety of retirement, bravely taking Trump to task in the opinion section of the Washington Post or on CNN. Call it Jeff Flake syndrome: Instead of doing anything to check a deranged and lawless president when you have power, talk a lot about the need (for someone else) to stop him once you don’t.

Amash is the rare exception to this. He is running for re-election as an independent, betting that his principled stand against Trump, his old party, and a broken Congress will carry the day, even with the Republican machine eager to make an example out of him. He may even run for president, he says. “I want to show people back in Washington that this can be done,” he says. “I think my colleagues expect that if you leave your party you’re in big trouble.”

Is there room for an American conservatism that’s not Trumpism? Can Amash persuade voters to choose principle over party — or have the politics of unreason and tribal warfare won out? 

ON THE DAY SHE WAS SWORN IN this past January, Ilhan Omar, the progressive congresswoman from Minnesota, tweeted about all the firsts in the new 116th Congress. The first Somali American and first refugee. The first Muslim women. The first Palestinian American. A few hours later, Amash replied with a correction: “My father is Palestinian, and I’ve been in Congress since 2011.”

The son of a Palestinian refugee and a Syrian immigrant, Amash doesn’t lead with his family history. But understanding where he comes from helps explain why he turned out the way he did and why he broke from the party.

Amash remembers his father, Attallah, telling him he was forced from his home in the town of Ramla by armed Israeli soldiers. It was 1948, and the Arab-Israeli War was underway. The Amash family later sought refugee status and moved to the U.S., thanks to the pastor of a Christian church in Muskegon, a sleepy town on the shores of Lake Michigan, who sponsored the family. They arrived in America with $17.

The Amashes would go on to live the quintessential immigrant success story. Attallah started a successful business, and he and his wife Marie’s three sons each went to good colleges. In one of several conversations this summer and fall, Amash says his father instilled in him the belief that “this is an amazing country, and that anyone here has the opportunity to succeed.” That familial influence, combined with his years in the Calvinist schools of West Michigan, shaped Amash into the libertarian he is today — fervent in the belief that less government means more freedom, a defender of civil liberties and individual rights.

After law school and a stint working for the family business, Amash won a seat in the Michigan legislature in 2008. His colleagues there nicknamed him “Mr. No” for how often he voted against new spending and taxes or any bill he didn’t have time to read in full. He embraced social media long before it was cool and posted long explanations on Facebook for every vote he cast as a legislator. When he ran for Congress in 2010, Betsy DeVos, the future education secretary under Trump, hailed him as a “really fresh and long-overdue voice that needs to be heard.” Members of the DeVos family donated tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign. Amash won handily.

Over time, Amash fell in with a small clique of libertarian-minded politicians like Rep. Thomas Massie and Sen. Rand Paul. (If Congress is a high-school cafeteria, they were the far-out nerds at the table off in the corner who swapped copies of Hayek and von Mises like so many zines.) For years he held the record for longest active streak without missing a vote, a title he relinquished in 2017 when he forgot to vote on an amendment because he was yakking with reporters just off the House floor, ending his streak at 4,293. But he had no qualms defying the party leadership on issues like government surveillance or marijuana legalization. Horrified by the government overreach on mass surveillance revealed by the Snowden leaks, Amash joined with Democrats ranging from civil-rights icon John Lewis to Sen. Ron Wyden to introduce various bills and amendments to scale back the government’s mass surveillance regime and end all spying on American citizens. 

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: (L - R) Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) exit the Senate chamber after Paul spoke about surveillance legislation on the Senate floor, on Capitol Hill, May 31, 2015 in Washington, DC. The National Security Agency's authority to collect bulk telephone data is set to expire June 1, unless the Senate can come to an agreement to extend the surveillance programs. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

From left: Rep. Thomas Massie, Sen. Rand Paul, and Amash exit the Senate chamber after Paul spoke about surveillance legislation on the Senate floor on May 31st, 2015, in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Wyden says he admires Amash for applying the standard and scrutiny to the policies of both parties. “I don’t think he does it any differently when Democrats call the shots or when Republicans call the shots,” Wyden says.

The Republican leadership didn’t take kindly to Amash’s willingness to defy the party line. Speaker Ryan limited members from offering amendments on the House floor, in part, because of how frequently and effectively Amash used amendments to shift the debate. Ryan and the other Republican leaders couldn’t control what Amash said or how he voted, but they could prevent him from ascending within the party or landing important committee assignments. “He would from time to time ask me to try to help him get on the Judiciary Committee,” Trey Gowdy, the former Republican congressman, recalls. “I went to the chairman and I went to leadership, and it always came down to the same thing: Is he going to vote to get bills out of committee? And if the answer’s ‘no,’ leadership’s not going to do that.”

More than once the establishment tried to oust him. His Republican challenger ran ads calling him “Al Qaeda’s best friend in Congress,” a sobriquet first used by one of Amash’s Republican colleagues, Devin Nunes. Amash won anyway and delivered a fiery victory speech in which he called one of his critics a “disgrace” and said his opponent “owes my family an apology.”

Amash says he began to think about leaving the party several years before he did it. The legislative process, he says, had broken down well before Trump came along. What had replaced it, he says, was “an elaborate form of performance art” in which two or three Democratic and Republican party leaders dictated everything — which bills got a vote and which didn’t, who got on what committees — and the rest of Congress made a lot of noise. There was little actual debate and even less appetite for any line of thinking that veered from party-issued talking points.

“You finally get to the point where nobody breaks from what the speaker wants or what the party leaders want,” Amash tells me. “I’ve called it a partisan death spiral. There’s no real way out because you’d have to convince the majority of Congress to break from the system that seems to work well for a lot of them.” He doesn’t see that happening any time soon: “For most of them, from their perspective, it’s a good gig. They get to stay in power. They don’t have to think. And they’re taken care of.”

All of this worsened under Trump. Amash’s comrades in the House Freedom Caucus stopped caring so much about deficits and an open legislative process — now, it was all about delivering for the president. “I used to feel like I had more people who were willing to stand up for the right thing,” Amash says. “In recent years and especially in recent months, people have capitulated and allowed the system to consume them.”

The Justice Department released the Mueller Report on April 18th, Amash’s 39th birthday. He told himself that, unlike his Republican colleagues, he wouldn’t weigh in until he had read the report, front to back, all 448 pages of it. The Russian interference findings in Volume I unsettled him, but it was the evidence of obstruction of justice laid out in the second volume that floored him.

A month after the report came out, Amash wrote a tweet. He took aim at Attorney General Bill Barr for having “deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report.” He stated that Trump had “engaged in impeachable conduct” as laid out in the Mueller report. And he blasted his colleagues in Congress for not bothering to read the report in the first place. He took a deep breath and hit send.

“CAN I SAY HELLO for one sec?” We’re halfway through dinner at the pub back in Amash’s district when a stranger approaches the table, his eyes locked on Amash. “I’m a die-hard Democrat but a lover of Justin Amash,” the man gushes, “and I just needed to say hello.” Looking up from his French dip sandwich, Amash responds with a tight smile and a polite thanks. “Thank you,” the man replies. “I’m a big supporter.”

Since declaring his “independence” from the GOP on July 4th — a bit on the nose, yes, but classic Amash — the congressman has lost track of the number of interactions he’s had like the one at the pub. This summer, I followed him to a series of town halls across his district, at coffee shops and breweries, in Trump-loving rural towns and purplish midsize cities. The story he told about how Congress works could best be described as Schoolhouse Rock on meth. I heard gasps as he described, for instance, how party leaders handed members literal bills on the House floor, telling them how much money they owed the party in exchange for their seat on a prestigious committee.

It’s a “totally corrupt” system, he told one audience. “You either fall in line and the party apparatus supports you, or if you have independent thoughts, you are punished, criticized, and attacked even by your own party.”

After he tweeted in support of impeachment, Trump called him a “lightweight” and a “loser.” The Republican National Committee accused him of failing the people he represented. As of this writing, there are five Republicans (and four Democrats) vying to knock Amash out of office, including the scion of one of Michigan’s wealthiest families. One accused him of teaming up with “radical liberals…to try and bring down our president.” One of his biggest donors, the Christian conservative DeVos family, disavowed him. Some of his closest friends chastised him for going public with his support for impeachment. Why couldn’t he have kept those thoughts to himself?

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, I-Cascade Township, center, holds a constituent meeting at Rising Grinds Cafe, in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

Amash, center, holds a constituent meeting at Rising Grinds Cafe, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in August. Photo credit: Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press/AP

Amash says he wasn’t happy to have found what he did in the Mueller report. “Nobody wants to find that the president has engaged in impeachable conduct,” he tells me. “But I had an obligation to constituents to tell them. It was an attempt to write something that would be correct for history.” He says he’s still friends with lawmakers like Massie and Jim Jordan, but neither Massie nor Jordan would agree to speak about Amash for this story. 

His central message, however, is not about the poisonous partisanship in Washington. It’s about putting his faith in the very people who came out to his town halls and chimed in on his (still active) Facebook page and Twitter. The typical voter, he says, isn’t as partisan as the politicians and consultants in Washington think. Amash believes he has more support in his district, not less, since he turned independent. That was true at the handful of events I attended, where the number of people who thanked him for what he’d done outnumbered the ones who criticized him for “betraying” the president.

“That is not the narrative they expected,” he told one crowd. “That means we are going to surprise them with this. It will help change the mindset in Washington, and I think that is critically important.”

When we speak again, later in the fall, I ask Amash about any plans to run for national office. It is one of the few times that he sounds distinctly like a career politician. “I’ll continue to weigh where I think I can make the most impact, but I also think it’s important to be successful when you run for office,” he tells me. “If I were to run for president, that’s not something I would do unless I felt very confident I could win it. And so if you were to see me get into the race it means that I’m confident I can win the race.”

This would surely be a kamikaze mission given the president’s rock-solid approval rating within the party. Even if he doesn’t run for president, Amash’s re-election bid will test for the first time whether an ex-Republican who supports impeachment but has more claim to the traditional values of the Republican Party than Trump can build enough of a coalition to survive. “It remains to be seen how Republican voters will respond to that,” says Ryan Costello, a former Republican member of Congress in Pennsylvania. “But I also think it’ll be interesting to see how independent and Democratic voters respond. They may say that shows integrity — or they may say this is our chance to vote a Republican out of office.”

It’s the question that looms over every conversation about Amash. Thanking or retweeting Amash is a lot easier than crossing party lines and voting for the guy. And remember: Anyone who votes for Amash in November will have to cross party lines to do it.

Even if you don’t agree with him on spending or taxes, you sort of want to root for him for putting his faith in the people. Even if he ends up a cautionary tale.

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