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Justin Amash and the Libertarian Future

Donald Trump's Republican Party was unable to change him. But can he change the Republican Party?

Ben Baker/Redux

Earlier this month, Justin Amash, the libertarian representative of Michigan’s Third congressional district, announced that he was leaving the Republican Party, his political home of the last ten years. In an article published July 4 in The Washington Post—Independence Day, get it?—Amash framed his decision as a classic pox-on-both-houses jeremiad, with the headline declaring: “Our politics is in a partisan death spiral. That’s why I’m leaving the GOP.” But there were enough clues sprinkled throughout to gesture at Amash’s real motivation: that he had worn out his welcome in a party that had long distrusted him and has now been almost wholly captured by Donald Trump.

Quoting George Washington, Amash wrote that blind party loyalty had opened “the door to foreign influence and corruption,” which in turn has come to ensure that the “policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.” If that complaint sounds familiar, it’s because Amash himself had become one of the most forceful voices in the country—and the only Republican in Congress—calling for the president’s impeachment, based on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations into Trump’s ties to Russian election-tampering. In his Post op-ed, Amash wrote that devotion to party over principle had undermined “the most basic tenets of our constitutional order: separation of powers, federalism, and the rule of law.”

The divorce had been in the works ever since Amash in May tweeted that Trump’s behavior met the “threshold for impeachment.” Later that month, at a rowdy town hall in Grand Rapids, a tearful woman told him, “You know you have no future in this district as a Republican.” Trump bashed him on Twitter, gleefully noting that Amash was facing primary challenges and calling the congressman “a total loser.” (We’re now up to four announced challengers.) No one in the GOP publicly wanted anything to do with Amash and his battle against Trump, including some of his closest ostensible allies: In June, Amash left the conservative Freedom Caucus that he co-founded in 2015, four years after he stormed into Congress as member of the Obama-hating Tea Party.

Then again, Amash had always been a weird fit inside the increasingly suffocating Republican tent—or any tent for that matter. The son of two immigrants from the Middle East, he has been called a Democrat, “Al Qaeda’s best friend,” and a “Benedict Arnold against the Constitution.” He has ticked off libertarian purists with his wishy-washy position on the border wall, in which he has stressed its sound constitutionality (though here I can speak from experience to testify that libertarian purists are an ornery bunch). He has crossed the GOP enough times to develop a reputation as a gadfly, while his support for an abortion ban after 20 weeks is alienating to many potential Democratic allies. And yet he has been a far more consistent advocate for civil liberties than many on the left, particularly as it relates to surveillance. Most recently, Amash’s bipartisan amendment to curb warrantless surveillance failed in the House, thanks in part to the many Democrats who are unwilling to spend any political capital to make sure Americans are not spied on by their own government.

Amash has never pretended to be a party guy. “I’m not here to represent a particular political party,” he told HuffPost in 2016. “I’m here to represent all of my constituents and to follow the Constitution.” His independent streak has recently made him something of a darling among liberals, who have howled at the Democratic congressional leadership’s refusal to bring impeachment proceedings against Trump. But his hard-line position on abortion makes him a lost cause for the left, and he is now the only independent lawmaker in the entire House. The question is where politicians like Amash fit in Trump’s America—and whether his particular brand of libertarianism has a future now that it’s been rather decisively decoupled from the Republican Party.

Libertarians are a motley lot, known for in-fighting and “no true Scotsman” debates. Some of them are fully anarchist and have no interest in electoral politics, while others have joined the government in order to peel back its reach. Amash is what could be called a constitutional libertarian—a “minarchist,” perhaps, devoted to stripping the state down to its essential functions. He does not want to legalize all drugs and prostitution, nor open the borders to all immigration. But in 2017 he co-sponsored a bill to effectively end the federal ban on weed, and has backed legislation to cripple the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is generally dovish when it comes to foreign policy, has no love for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and voted to prevent Trump from using military funding to build his wall.

Amash has always been something of a wild man compared to the Republican status quo, and a “close, but not perfect” kind of libertarian ally. Not yet 40, he is the son of Palestinan father and a Syrian mother, both Christian. It’s almost impressive that he hasn’t fielded more tinfoil-hatted accusations of being a secret backer of Sharia law—though he has been accused of being in the tank for Al Qaeda for wanting to close Gitmo.

Portraits of Ronald Reagan do not grace his office walls; those of the economist libertarian icons Friedrich Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat do. His fetishization of the Constitution informs his liberal positions on surveillance and drugs, as well as his heavily anti-interventionist leanings (he opposes American presidents’ habit of going to war without bothering to check in with Congress). As he showed in that town hall in May, he is smooth, likable, and unflappable—able to face even his harshest detractors openly and in good faith. He became known for explaining all his votes on Facebook, a practice he started as a state representative in Michigan, though he recently switched to Twitter and is uncommonly accessible there. (I’ve previously argued with him over his dislike of the Iran nuclear deal on that very platform.)

Amash’s apparently sincere commitment to the Founders is one of the only remaining legacies of the original Tea Party, which has otherwise been buried by Trumpism. He has a Ron Paul–ian penchant for voting down stuff that sounds nice—such as a national suicide hotline—but that he believes is not the business of the federal government. A huge critic of the apathy of lawmakers in Washington, Amash is also a giant dork for his job. He reportedly cried after he missed his first out of more than 4,200 votes back in the spring of 2017, then tweet-apologized to his district.

Does all that make Amash a “libertarian”? Well, there are libertarians and there are Libertarians, and some in the latter camp are trying to coax Amash into running for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination in 2020. The third-largest party in the United States, the LP usually poaches quasi-Republicans to run on their ticket; for the 2016 presidential ballots, it fielded former Republican Governors Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Bill Weld of Massachusetts as its standard bearers. The LP runs candidates every election year, which ensures that they are regularly accused of spoiling races. (Johnson and Weld broke 3 percent of the vote in 2016, which is unfortunately a big deal.) Sometimes, at least, Libertarian leaders manage to remind people that marijuana should be legalized. The party’s official platform contains a large number of socially liberal bullet points, such as (its very longstanding) support for gay marriage, legalization of sex work, free movement of immigrants, and an end to the war on drugs. Libertarians also advocate keeping the government out of abortion because it’s “a sensitive issue.”

Founded in 1971, the LP has flitted uneasily between alliances with the left and the right. But in America, at least, libertarianism is more associated with the right, partly because the whole idea of limited government has played into the hands of conservatives who are less interested in the much-debated individualist philosophy of small-l libertarianism than in perpetuating their own power. More orthodox Republicans, for good and for ill, have been more willing than their Democratic counterparts to grant libertarian thought its table scraps. After all, no matter how eager Republicans can be to expand big government in practice, they like to think of themselves as against it in principle. The result is that the party faithful will occasionally be exposed to some very good libertarian ideas—such as criticisms of bombing and spying on people—that both Ron and Rand Paul have espoused in their respective runs for the presidency.

The relationship is fluid enough that there were some who thought Donald Trump was a libertarian. “Libertarians for Trump” became a thing, as some key libertarians succumbed to the feverish hope that Trump would be a peace candidate in the 2016 race. After all, he dissed Washington swamp creatures and the architects of the Iraq War. Trump was a bizarre unknown competing against a known hawk commodity named Hillary Clinton—and so maybe he was a libertarian? Once in office, of course, he pushed tariffs, hired war hawks like John Bolton, and cracked down on immigration, joining a long list of Republican presidents who have betrayed the libertarian wing of the GOP. Even the sainted Reagan, who declared the end of big government, launched the militarized drug war of the 1980s, the fallout from which we are still dealing with today.

The libertarian movement has seen a nasty mutation in the Trump years. Lauren Southern, who once called herself libertarian, is now an anti-immigrant propagandist. Former libertarian anarchist Stefan Molyneux is now a raving white nationalist alt-righter (and also an alleged cult leader). Christopher Cantwell, known to many as the “crying Nazi” of Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally in 2017, was kicked out of New Hampshire’s libertarian free state project. The de-platformed and relatively-quiet-of-late Milo Yiannopoulos flirted with calling himself a libertarian for a hot minute. All of these people have fully embraced the hashtag-white-genocide panic mindset. Before he was an overt white nationalist, Richard Spencer attended a Christmas Party at Reason magazine, my former employer. Augustus Invictus, a failed Libertarian Party candidate for Senate, was a scheduled speaker at the Unite the Right rally; he has since joined the Republican Party.

The uncharitable might say all of these people are, in fact, libertarians, or that their shift to the alt-right-and-worse is the natural endpoint of libertarian philosophy. But I would direct such critics, again, to the socially liberated Libertarian Party platform, as well as this petition calling for liberty against fascism shared among members of the libertarian-anarchist Center for a Stateless Society and put out just before the Unite the Right rally. Libertarianism as a concept might be useless if all these people can claim it as their own; but let’s not discount those who use it to explain their concern about the way the overweening state treats immigrants, gays, and victims of police brutality. It’s a problem libertarians share with all kinds of Republicans—“Christians,” “conservatives,” “moderates”—who have seen their fellow travelers bend the knee to Trump. What libertarianism might mean going forward will depend a lot on how the president’s declared opponents, like Amash, distinguish it from Trumpism—especially when Trumpism occasionally stumbles into a shallow imitation of a libertarian position.

The great danger is that, in America’s two-party system, standing outside a party means relegating yourself and your movement to insignificance. There is a reason that Bernie Sanders, an independent, is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, instead of pursuing a third-party bid. But the Sanders example, in fact, is instructive in more ways than one, showing the ways an outsider can make inroads once his party is prepared to face a great reckoning—which, if there is to be any hope for the republic, is exactly what awaits a post-Trump GOP.

When the president isn’t a party loyalist but the party is loyal to him, it makes someone like Amash, who is above all loyal to his beliefs, both an oddity and a potential hero. Like Sanders, he is remarkably consistent in his views, so much so that he has grown increasingly out of step with his party as it has been drawn into the orbit of the Trump supernova. According to FiveThirtyEight, Amash has voted with Trump about 60 percent of the time; the rest of the Republicans are closer to 90 percent. His supposed fellow libertarian travelers in Congress have also grown closer to Trump, despite being bullied by him in the 2016 Republican primary. Ted Cruz, whose libertarian credentials were always shaky anyway, is fully lost to the right wing. Rand Paul, at best, is whispering in Trump’s ear for the greater good on issues like criminal justice, at worst flattering him because he knows it’s the only game in town. What we know for sure is that Paul has never tweeted, as Amash has, “Dude, just stop,” at the president.

Amash’s admonishments of Trump on Twitter predictably draw tut-tutting or disdainful silence from the right, while also endearing himself to the left. In July, Amash called Trump’s comments “racist and disgusting” after the president told four minority Democratic congresswomen to “go back” where they came from. His former colleagues in the GOP either defended Trump or were far less outspoken in their criticism. Just last Friday, he announced on Twitter that he was introducing legislation to prohibit the federal death penalty, after the Department of Justice announced that it would end an unofficial moratorium on federal executions that had been in place for two decades.

Still, even if Amash has won new liberal fans and mainstream plaudits for calling for impeachment, he won’t be joining the Democratic Party anytime soon. That’s partly the Democrats’ fault: Impeachment is a far more Democratic-friendly position these days than other supposedly liberal, mysteriously forgotten issues, such as curtailing government surveillance or ending the war on terror. But it’s mostly because Amash’s own libertarianism skews conservative.

To his credit, Amash has shown the ability to evolve. In 2010, he was in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act; by 2013 he had come out in support of the much more anarchist-libertarian solution of getting government out of marriage all together, tweeting that the “real threat to traditional marriage & religious liberty is government, not gay couples who love each other & want to spend lives together.”

Still, if Amashian libertarianism is to play a role in American politics, it will likely not be in expanding the liberal tent, but in rescuing libertarianism and other worthy political ideologies from being devoured by Trumpism. If he can survive reelection in Michigan’s eclectic Third District in 2020, Amash could be a crucial voice in that effort. Unlike his anti-intellectual peers in the GOP, he appears to read documents and bills before chiming in on them. He is allergic to the alt-right. He has stuck fast against the Bush-Obama war on terror, among other commendable peacenik positions. Whatever his faults, he’s a rare thing: a serious legislator who has balanced principle with compassion.

Is that enough? Maybe not, but it’s something. In that May town hall in Grand Rapids, he repeatedly tried to hush the rowdy crowd, urging them to be respectful of any and all people at the microphone, even those who were mad at him. When a woman in a MAGA hat stepped up to insult him, he just waited for it patiently, seemed to welcome it even, in a way that would be totally foreign to the most powerful man in the world.