THE TRUMP ERA has not produced many profiles in courage, particularly among Republican members of Congress. Representative Justin Amash is a notable exception.
Last month, he did the unthinkable for a member of the Party of Trump: He suggested that the president of the United States should be held accountable for his actions.
In an extraordinary tweetstorm, Amash shared his conclusions about the Mueller Report and his belief that President Trump “has engaged in impeachable conduct.”
Since then Amash has elaborated on his thoughts — doubling down on his calls for impeachment by highlighting all the ways in which Trump attempted to obstruct justice and excoriating Attorney General William Barr for having “deliberately misrepresented” the special counsel’s investigation.
Taking iconoclastic positions out of principle has been, over the past two years in Congress, the exception not the rule. Not for Amash. Since Trump took office he has repeatedly tangled with the president and Republican leaders. He has been a vocal critic of the president’s so-called Muslim ban. He was the only congressional Republican to vote against Trump’s emergency declaration for his border wall. He has similarly opposed the bipartisan push for higher defense spending and spoken out against the president’s various trade wars.
Amash’s willingness to stake out lonely positions goes back even further than the Trump era. He has long been a thorn in the side of Republican leaders in Congress, particularly in his opposition to government surveillance policies and his attacks on federal spending.
But calling for Trump’s impeachment is a far different and much more politically dangerous position. It’s one thing to stand on principle on policy issues, it’s quite another to call for the president to be removed from office. Since his impeachment tweetstorm, Amash has been called a loser by the president and criticized by his fellow House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. A conservative critic in his home district in Michigan has announced a primary challenge and there are indications that Amash’s usual financial backers may sit his next race out.
Amash was already tacking against some tough political headwinds back home. He won just 54 percent of the vote in 2018 in a district that leans red but is trending blue. With redistricting coming in 2020, it’s possible that Amash will be soon running for re-election in a district that leans Democratic.
While Democrats may cheer his bravery today (he received a standing ovation at a recent town hall), come election time it’s unlikely to translate into votes.
For all of Amash’s willingness to stand up to Trump, he still holds positions that are for most progressives non-starters. He is fervently anti-abortion, he is a skeptic on climate change, he has repeatedly voted to repeal Obamacare, and he has never seen a government program he didn’t want to get rid of. He even opposed federal aid for the Flint water crisis in his home state of Michigan, arguing that “the US Constitution does not authorize the federal government to intervene in an intrastate matter like this one.”
A self-described Hayekian libertarian, Amash puts ideology and a simplistic, knee-jerk belief in the evils of government ahead of compassion and common sense. Amash may laudably stick to his principles, but it doesn’t mean those principles are laudable.
So it’s a strange thing for me to pen an ode to his political integrity. But for two years, I and many others have pleaded with congressional Republicans to stop being complicit in Trump’s lawbreaking. We have beseeched GOP lawmakers to recognize the damage that the president is doing to the rule of law and our democratic institutions. We can disagree on policy, but as Americans we should be able to recognize and speak out against a president who is assaulting the core elements of our democratic system.
While a few Republicans have raised their voices, like former senators Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain, none of them were willing to take real political risks in standing up to the president. They have quite simply not been true to their convictions. For the overwhelming majority of Republicans, the only principle they’ve evinced over the past two-and-a-half years is supporting Donald Trump, no matter what he does or says.
Amash is different. I’ve not spoken to one political observer who thinks Amash’s move is anything but a loser for him and one that could possibly cost him his job.
Considering his libertarian views, I hardly think that the country would be better off with more people like Amash in Congress. But a legislative body composed of individuals willing to occasionally put integrity ahead of ambition and principle ahead of partisanship would go a long way toward fixing the political system that Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have gone to such great lengths to destroy.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.