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Fred Upton’s Retirement Isn’t All Because of Trump. And Yet.

Legislative redistricting, not the badgering ex-president, is probably most responsible for the longtime Michigan congressman’s decision. But his exit is still cause to fear our political future.

Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Representative Fred Upton in 2020

In the classic Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None, an unknown murderer strikes down, one by one, 10 strangers who are stranded in a house on an otherwise deserted island. The assailant’s identity remains a mystery until after the tenth corpse has fallen.

The case of the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach then-President Trump in his term’s dwindling days and now are disappearing from Congress is a nearly obverse mystery. Instead of a criminal mastermind working from the shadows, we have a spotlight hound eager to take credit for the deed and a political media willing to bestow it upon him—even if the available evidence doesn’t quite add up.

Michigan’s Fred Upton on Tuesday became the fourth of the 10 congressmen to announce his retirement. Trump wasted no time gloating. “UPTON QUITS! 4 down and 6 to go,” the former president kvelled in a written statement, sounding every bit the serial killer taunting the police. “Others losing badly, who’s next?” (All but one of the other six face Trump-encouraged primary challenges.)

Trump has long described himself as a “counter-puncher,” believing that no slight should pass without a forceful response. He has fulminated against the Impeachment Ten since they cast their votes, and his MAGA hordes have worked to exact his retribution. House Republicans voted last May to remove Liz Cheney from her leadership post (she’s used her spare time productively, serving as vice chair of the chamber’s investigation into the January 6 insurrection). She and others received death threats for their unwillingness to bend the knee and embrace Trump’s warped unreality, in which the election was rigged against him and January 6, 2021, was a flock of freedom-loving tourists besmirched by antifa commandos.

We get really nasty threats at home,” Upton told CNN at the end of last year. “The tone gets, you know, tougher and tougher, and it’s a pretty toxic place.” Trump undoubtedly contributed to that noxious environment, but in Upton’s case his vendetta was probably not the deciding factor. Upton, who was first elected to the House in 1987, had biennially wrestled with running again before Trump came on the scene, said Doug Heye, a former House GOP leadership aide. Michigan’s new congressional map, drawn by an independent commission, had set Upton up for a Thunderdome primary (two men enter, one man leaves) against fellow incumbent Bill Huizenga. One can see how the prospect of a death match against a colleague for the right to keep basting in toxicity may have convinced Upton to finally call it quits, even more than the ex-president’s badgering did.

But Trump looms over every media account of Upton’s departure. “Something happens in the Republican Party, therefore Trump,” said Heye, a steadfast never-Trumper. “It’s always the case.” That’s dangerous, Heye argued, because Trump survives on attention. “I compare Trump to a professional wrestler,” he said. “If you cheer him, great; if you boo him, great. Just so long as you’re there.” That’s why, more than a year after leaving office, Trump endures in our political discourse in a way no other former president has. “Journalists often talk about ‘sunshine is the best disinfectant,’ but they ignore the fact that weeds need sunshine to grow,” Heye said. “And those things are symbiotic.”

That only underscores the broader problem of Congress losing someone like Upton. Images of Tip O’Neill chumming with Ronald Reagan notwithstanding, Washington has always been defined by partisan struggle—and punctuated by moments of limited, yet consequential, bipartisan cooperation. Upton is a case in point. Michigan’s longest-serving congressman, he’s long been willing to work with the other party to get bills enacted, such as 2016’s 21st Century Cures Act and last year’s infrastructure bill. He’s also no “squish,” to borrow conservatives’ parlance: He was a key leader in the effort to overturn Obamacare. As Washington loses the last few remaining old-school Republican congressmen, our political ecosystem’s balance is further upset. Congress risks becoming a venue solely for political performance, and passing legislation may well go extinct.

You don’t have to agree with the likes of Upton to appreciate their importance as legislators who can distinguish opportunities for partisan gain from opportunities for substantive accomplishment. He has been the proverbial workhorse who’s overshadowed by the freak-horse antics of his party’s ascendant, Trumpian fringe. His departure removes one more guardrail in a party increasingly given over to performative posturing and uninhibited conspiracy-mongering. “When the Uptons of the GOP leave, the vacuum is filled by the crazies,” Norm Ornstein, the venerable congressional scholar, tweeted Tuesday. “So sad.” What happens when there are none like him left?