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America’s Next Top Morally Upright Conservative

I reserve all my patriotism for two things and two things only: the U.S. Women’s National Team and the Fourth of July. This year, even though I spent July 4 on another continent, I awoke thinking about the fireworks over the lake in my hometown, the promise of a blackened hot dog and my grandma’s potato salad, the twang of Country Gold on the radio. My mind still engrossed by memories of summer in the Mitten state, I opened my phone to an announcement by one of its representatives: Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) tweeted early that morning, “Today I’m declaring my independence.” Amash was leaving the Republican Party.

Responses from Democrats were overwhelmingly positive, and Amash’s unwillingness to rule out a 2020 challenge to Donald Trump had anti-Trump conservatives delighted. The hullabaloo was compounded by my fellow Michiganders—some Amash’s constituents, some not—applauding his accompanying anti-party, anti-establishment op-ed in the Washington Post and hoping for the reinvigoration of real, gun-toting, liberty-loving, capitalism-worshiping (and, most importantly, Trump-hating) American conservatism. All of this is painfully naive.

Amash is widely regarded as one of Congress’ most conservative members, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus who has described himself as the “last of the Tea Party Republicans.” He is a self-described libertarian favoring an originalist constitutional approach. He described his approach to legislation to The New York Times in 2011: “I follow a set of principles. I follow the Constitution. And that’s what I base my votes on. Limited government, economic freedom, and individual liberty.”

These combined principles make Amash a political anomaly in the big-government two-party system. Amash called for the House to initiate impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump in May, and has bucked Republican Party leaders on numerous topics, including opposing increased military spending, rejecting restocks for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defenses, and remaining the only Michigan Republican not to file a lawsuit opposing new Michigan anti-gerrymandering legislation. He’s against abortion but abstained from voting on defunding Planned Parenthood. He rejected Republican House resolutions to support I.C.E. He supported a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. He opposed the Trump-backed replacement to the Affordable Care Act, then changed his mind.

Increasingly, Republicans have become a party that claims to value what Amash values—“limited government, economic freedom, and individual liberty”—but push for greater government oversight, higher military spending, and infringements on civil and reproductive rights. Amash doesn’t quite fit this mold. But reactions to Amash going independent also represent how Donald Trump’s election has allowed Americans to ignore the past four decades of American political history in opposing him.

The Republican Party is and has always been a frilly, dressed-up version of the Party of Trump, and Donald Trump is not an isolated event. Rather, he is the actualization of a multi-decade dream of increasingly authoritarian American conservatism, the crystallization of the Bushes, McConnells, Reagans, Gingriches—and yes, even the Amashes—who have built American conservatism into a self-consuming machine intent on taking the entire world down with it. 

While he’s radical in rhetoric and delivery, Trump’s policies don’t fall outside the Republican mainstream. While he may engage in openly white supremacist action, from making racist dog-whistle attacks on Representative Ilhan Omar to calling white nationalist protesters “very fine people,” it’s not as if racist and fascist rhetoric have only recently existed in American politics. With Trump, they have just become acceptable to say in public rather than after a few drinks at the family-only Christmas party. As my mother might say, the Republican Party is what happens when you “put lipstick on a pig.” Trump is what happens when you take it back off.

This is where Amash comes in. By painting himself as a valiant defender of the Constitution and good-ol’ American freedom, Amash is coronated by the spirit of John McCain himself as Congress’ new Morally Upright Conservative, the man who reminds the Republican Party about what conservative values are really about. “I don’t agree with him,” everyone you know will say, “but I respect him.”

Still, Justin Amash has among the most abhorrent voting records in Congress. He has stood firm on his opposition to reproductive rights and has opposed initiatives designed to rebuild and restore the American middle class. Just in the last month, he voted against the Equality Act for the protection of LGBT+ individuals, against numerous environmental initiatives, and against the S.A.F.E. Act for more secure federal elections. With this evidence, then, it becomes difficult to ascertain exactly what Americans mean by a morally upright conservative. Does it start with rejecting civil liberties for vulnerable populations, or maybe supporting corporate interests despite it furthering ecological collapse? Or is it undermining the democracy you’re sworn to protect?

Amash may not represent the mainstream Republican. He may not like Donald Trump. But that cannot be enough for Democrats anymore. That cannot be enough for the American people anymore.

The reason why Amash receives praise from Democrats is because the moderate leaders of the Democratic Party cannot devise a compelling strategy for reaching the American people. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is publicly sparring with freshmen members of the House Progressive Caucus and Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are cross-examining each other on the debate stage. The only compelling or uniting narrative the Democratic Party—not individual members, but the Party as an entity—has right now is that Donald Trump is a piece of shit.

There’s overwhelming evidence to prove them right. But the American people were suffering under Republican policies far before Trump. Democrats allying themselves with anti-Trump conservatives like Amash now under the guise of patriotism and unity underestimate the American people’s ability to distinguish rhetoric from action, condescencion from solidarity. There is a distinction between being “morally upright” and disliking an immoral president, but Democrats don’t want to make that distinction because they correctly recognize that it implicates many of their own.

Maybe here is where I agree with Amash most: we should all declare our independence. We should declare independence from bad-faith political actors who don’t advocate for our interests, who care more about rhetoric than change. We should invest our resources in people who don’t just portray themselves as moral, but who actually conduct themselves morally. If we want to win, we can’t just stand against Trump. We have to stand for something, too.