Justin Amash

Justin Amash on His Break from the GOP: It's Not (Just) About Trump

He says partisan power structures have made government reforms impossible.


Newly independent Michigan Rep. Justin Amash spent the holiday weekend attempting to make it clear that his decision to leave the Republican Party was not just about President Donald Trump's behavior. It's about a rigidly controlled party system that made discussion and political change impossible.

Amash went so far as to tell CNN's Jake Tapper on Sunday that he probably would have left the Republican Party even if Trump hadn't been elected president. Amash says that political party power structures have gotten so entrenched that they keep members of Congress from genuinely participating in the lawmaking process.

"I don't think there's anyone in there who can change the system," he lamented to Tapper. "It's pretty rigid. It's top-down. It comes down from leadership to the bottom. And over the years it's gotten more rigid.  It's more difficult now to change the process than it was a few years ago."

Amash's comments to Tapper—and in a local interview with WZZM, the ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan—track with what he wrote in the Washington Post when he declared on Independence Day that he was leaving the Republican Party. Here's the WZZM interview:

Amash tells Tapper that he will be running for Congress again as an independent and that he is confident about his chances of remaining in Congress. Polling shows him losing a primary against a Republican challenger, and Michigan allows partisan straight-ticket voting, which tends to hurt third-party candidates. But Amash says he has been hearing a lot of support from citizens, and quietly from other Republicans. "There are lots of Republicans who are saying these things privately, but they aren't saying them publicly," Amash told Tapper about Congress' dysfunctions.

Amash is maintaining his support for impeachment proceedings against Trump for his alleged attempts to obstruct Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He also criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.), saying she's making a mistake by closing off (for now) the possibility of impeachment proceedings. "I believe she believes there's a strong case," he tells Tapper. "And, if so, she should move forward and make sure that the American people understand what's going on, because people at home aren't reading the Mueller report."

Amash's departure from the GOP has caused a new spike of interest in the libertarian-leaning conservative, but the numbers from Google Trends aren't showing the kind of spike he got when he initially broke from the party to lay out the case for impeachment.

He has, of course, inspired not a bit of "What does it mean, really?" analysis from libertarians, conservatives, and libertarian conservatives. Over at the USA Spectator, Daniel McCarthy brands Amash's form of libertarianism much more naïve than what we saw from the likes of Ron and Rand Paul:

Amash has many principles in which he professes to believe, including the unborn's right-to-life. Trump and the populist Republican party are clearly better than the Democrats, or any non-existent third force, where some of those principles are concerned. With respect to others, such as reducing government spending and power, both major parties do nothing for libertarians like Amash. But having presence in the GOP can pay dividends even there when the occasion arises—when it means that there are more small-government Republicans willing to hash out a compromise like the 'sequester' that limited both domestic and military spending, for example, one of the rare success stories for smaller government in living memory.

Two observations here. First of all, Republican voters are showing that they are not terribly interested in cutting federal spending in any significant way. And Amash in these interviews has painstakingly explained how party leadership cuts off these compromises and negotiations while preventing amendments from being introduced and debated. When your example of spending compromise is something that happened more than five years ago and ultimately ended up being a speed bump in the middle of a massive ramp-up of military spending, those dividends don't really amount to much.

Over at The American Conservative, W. James Antle III sees Amash's split from the Republican Party as a problem for those who want to restrain the party's hawkish nature. Antle's analysis goes to an interesting place, because Trump is frequently less hawkish than the GOP establishment. The president, he writes,

could either ratify his party's break with the neocons or court still greater disasters. But some of his intraparty foils, like former Representative Mark Sanford before Amash, are more supportive of the president's stated goal of a smaller military footprint in the Middle East than anyone on his team. And now the GOP establishment has trained its sights on [libertarian-leaning conservative Kentucky GOP Rep.] Thomas Massie.

The fight feels like an all-or-nothing scenario if you insist on seeing it solely in terms of Trump. But there's always nuance to be found if you know where to look. Even though Amash left the House Freedom Caucus as the rift grew over his objections to Trump's behavior, members of the Caucus continued to support his (unfortunately failed) effort to scale back the authority of the federal government to snoop on American citizens without getting warrants. Congress's bipartisan leadership has stood in the way of real surveillance reforms under both Barack Obama and Trump. And that has continued to concentrate power in the executive branch and has shielded Congress from having open and transparent debates about the amount of control the federal government has over our lives.

Amash did not rule out the possibility that he would join the Libertarian Party and run for president in 2020, which has prompted some debate over who he would draw his votes from and how much he'll affect the outcome. Given his conservative credentials, it would be logical to assume Amash would draw more from the right than from the left, but McCarthy wonders if Amash would give centrist Democrats a protest vote if their party nominates a candidate they think is too far to the left. Color me a skeptic there, if only because any discussion of Amash in liberal circles tends to end up focusing on his anti-abortion, fiscally conservative voting record, regardless of whether he opposes Trump. It's a sign, though, that people are already looking to blame third-party voters for how the election turns out.