On Wednesday, as Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.) was voting with the nearly-unanimous House Democrats to impeach President Donald Trump, a group of former Republican campaign strategists for the likes of former Sen. John McCain and former Gov. John Kasich announced the formation of a new Super PAC to support Amash's effort to retain his swing-district congressional seat as an independent.
"While we don't agree with him, or each other for that matter, on every issue, we think Washington needs more Justin Amashes," wrote Country Above Party Super PAC co-founders Rick Wilson, John Weaver, and Jeff Timmer in a joint Michigan Live op-ed yesterday. "Whether Amash is successful or not in his re-election bid as an independent will have consequences beyond his district's boundaries or even Michigan's borders. Allowing him to be swept aside in favor of a craven Trump apparatchik will further coarsen our politics and threaten the rule of law."
Wilson, author of the 2018 bestseller Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever, previously worked on campaigns for George H.W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and Evan McMullin, and was appointed to a Defense Department job by Dick Cheney. Timmer, an Amash constituent and former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, announced last month that he "will support any Democrat—even a yellow dog—against any Republican who supports Trump." Weaver, a key strategist in both McCain presidential runs (though he was canned from the second when it was floundering in 2007), headed up the quixotic presidential bids of Jon Huntsman in 2012 and Kasich in 2016, and has been drawing a $10,000 monthly fee from the pro-Kasich Super PAC New Day for America ever since.
Wilson and Weaver on Tuesday joined former McCain advisor Steve Schmidt and the interestingly married legal analyst George T. Conway III in announcing the formation of a parallel national Super PAC, the Lincoln Project, dedicated "to defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box and to elect those patriots who will hold the line."
On the surface, it may seem odd for a bunch of McCainites to be rallying behind a man who came to Congress heralded as the next Ron Paul. After all, it was only six-plus years ago that the curmudgeonly maverick lumped Amash with Ron Paul's senator son and Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) as "wacko birds." ("Bravo, Senator. You got us," Amash clapped back.)
But one of the features of our political moment is that anti-Trump activity on the right tends to emanate from two main camps: Libertarians (Amash, Judge Andrew Napolitano, etc.), and neoconservative-style interventionists (Bill Kristol, David Frum), with the second group being considerably larger. A third category, Mormons, is dispersed liberally within the other two.
So it was only a matter of time before the strange bedfellows collaborated more directly. And while it's tempting to concoct theories for what these disparate groupings have in common that Trump's base does not, the grim reality for all is that they have been driven to the outer margins of the modern Republican Party.
Mark Sanford, a former governor and representative of South Carolina, tried to run at Trump with an old-fashioned fiscally conservative campaign, and got crushed in nine short weeks. Former Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee Bill Weld is trying fiscal conservatism plus character/legal issues, and is polling at 3 percent nationally since Sanford dropped out, more than 85 percentage points behind the president. Joe Walsh is running purely on character, and lagging behind Weld. Debt, divisiveness, and decorum ain't what they used to be, issue-wise.
While the Lincoln Project in particular sounds like one of those old-timey Weekly Standard-style calls to stir men's souls—"Patriotism and the survival of our nation in the face of the crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump are a higher calling than mere politics," goes the first line in their New York Times op-ed—the likeliest scenario on the national stage is that such exertions will amount to little more than a vehicle for spending the money of the anti-Trump conservative rich.
You can see the fatalism beginning to sink in about the Trumpification of the GOP, even among people who only recently held out hope. After Sanford entered the race in early September, Executive Editor Jonathan V. Last at the #NeverTrump outlet The Bulwark enthused, "Three Horsemen Are Coming for Trump." This week, even with Super PACs springing up all around him, Last concluded: "Trump Is Forever."
But Amash isn't running against Donald Trump, at least as of now. His re-election race, which is being contested by both parties in vigorous primaries, is widely rated a toss-up. In rattling the cup for what they optimistically project could be as much as $5 million for Congress's lonely libertarian, the Country Over Partiers are appealing luridly to the way the whole country is fixated on the president.
"In the 1987 film The Untouchables, Robert De Niro's Al Capone circles a table where his lieutenants are seated. He stops behind one guy and pounds his head to a pulp with a baseball bat—savagely sacrificing one as a warning to keep the rest in line," Wilson, Weaver, and Timmer wrote. "Donald Trump and the Republican Party are acting out the political equivalent of that movie scene."
"The impenetrable partisan divide on display throughout the impeachment proceedings in the House and the non-existent prospects of conviction in the Senate underscores the effectiveness of Trump's Untouchables strategy. Many Republicans serving in Washington agree with Amash and think Trump has committed impeachable acts. However, they're watching their political backs and see Trump and the party apparatus aiming at Amash. None are willing to speak up or also risk being 'that guy' at Trump's Capone table. They fear they'll attract Trump's wrath the way Amash already has—and will continue to receive right through to November."
Bonus link: Read my August 2018 interview with Rick Wilson here.