What Is Justin Amash Really Up To?
In 2016, a rather peculiar thing happened: A candidate for vice president of the United States expressed, out loud, his hope that he and his running mate would lose. In an interview on national television—just a week before Election Day—Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts governor, who was running on the Libertarian Party ticket, all but endorsed Hillary Clinton. “I’m here vouching for Mrs. Clinton, and I think it’s high time somebody did,” Weld said, after he was pressed on which candidate Americans should vote for. His main objective, it seemed, was not to earn votes for his ticket; it was to prevent a Donald Trump presidency.
Four years later, the prospective Libertarian Party nominee doesn’t share that same concern. Justin Amash, the five-term congressman from Michigan, who announced his presidential run late last month, has been embraced by Democrats and Never Trump Republicans for criticizing the president and trying to constrain his administration. But although he has made a name for himself as a vehemently anti-Trump conservative, he isn’t exactly the resistance ally some make him out to be. In fact, Amash told me that he’s really not bothered by the prospect of tipping the election in Trump’s favor—a curious position for someone who voted for the president’s impeachment.
At first, Amash said he wasn’t worried about being a “spoiler,” because it’s unclear whether a third-party campaign ever advantages one major-party candidate over the other. But the longer we spoke, the clearer he was: A second Trump term, in his view, is simply not the worst-case scenario.
“I’m a guy who didn’t vote for Trump, and I don’t particularly like the way he conducts himself in office,” he said. “But I’ve never described myself as a” Never Trumper.
If running a third-party campaign in the age of Trump is playing with fire, Amash isn’t too concerned. To him, it’s more like striking matches in a house that’s already burning down.
Amash was first elected to Congress in 2010, at the peak of the Tea Party movement. He’s a staunch fiscal conservative, having the distinction of voting to cut more government spending than almost all his colleagues. And he thinks of himself as a devout constitutionalist—so much so that he was the only member of the House to vote against a bill to create a national suicide-prevention hotline, because, even though he said he liked the idea, he believed that it lacked a “constitutional basis.”
But not until Trump’s swift ascendency over the GOP did Amash start getting a flurry of media attention. In 2016, he was one of the few congressional Republicans who opposed Trump all the way through the election. Since then, he’s become only more outspoken about the president, and in 2019 he left the Republican Party entirely.
“Going back to his time in the state legislature, he’s always been someone who didn’t necessarily follow party leadership on issues,” says Robert McCann, a Democratic strategist in Michigan. “So to see him progress into a congressman that followed the same path of staking out his own territory to the point that he had to leave his party wasn’t exactly shocking.”
Now Amash is running for president as a Libertarian, and to say that the odds are stacked against him—or any third-party candidate, for that matter—is an understatement. “It’s virtually impossible for a third party to win the presidency,” says David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, pointing to third-party candidates’ lack of resources and ballot access, among a host of other obstacles.
Evan McMullin, a former CIA official who ran for president as an independent, Never Trump conservative in 2016, believes that this time, the best path to winning the White House—and removing Trump from office—is through the major parties. “The best prospects for Americans to be united on Election Day is probably through a unifying Democratic nominee,” he told me, adding that Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee, has so far met that standard. “Many [anti-Trump conservatives] will at first say, ‘Justin Amash represents my policy positions better than Joe Biden does.’ But if [Amash is] unable to gain significant traction that would allow him to win, then he won’t be in a position to protect our constitutional order.”
Amash disagrees. Although he believes that Trump is uniquely dangerous to American democracy, he told me that a Biden presidency could, at least in the long run, be just as bad. “There are a lot of people who mistakenly believe that if you simply remove Trump from office, everything will be rosy and we’ll go back to having wonderful times and it’ll never happen again—and that’s just not true,” Amash said. “If you don’t fix the underlying problems, you just end up with another Trump.”
He thinks that the main underlying problem is the dysfunctional state of Congress. American representative democracy is rotting, Amash said, because the legislative process has become so dominated by the leadership of the two major parties that it isn’t providing an effective check on the president or his power. “This is what happens in so many countries across the world, where a few people start to consolidate power and it spirals out of control,” he said. In his view, Biden simply “masks” the problem, and doesn’t, by any means, provide an antidote.
Many third-party candidates make this argument—that whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House, they all ultimately lead to the same bad outcomes; it’s just a matter of time. One positive aspect of the Trump presidency, Amash said, is that it’s galvanized people to address the systemic problems that made a President Trump possible in the first place—namely, the two-party duopoly that rewards hyper-partisanship. Elect someone like Biden, and Americans will just become more complacent with the same broken system. For Amash, that’s potentially an even bigger threat than a second Trump term.
Ralph Nader—who ran several third-party presidential campaigns over the past three decades, most famously in 2000, when his Green Party candidacy was blamed for swinging the election to George W. Bush—talked about Bush and Al Gore in a similar vein. “If it were a choice between a provocateur and an ‘anesthetizer,’” Nader said in 2000, “I’d rather have a provocateur.” His tone was a little softer this time around when I asked him if he had a preference between Trump and Biden. “You mean the difference between a sheer cliff to shark-infested waters or a gradual slope? I’d take the gradual slope.” Amash told me that he’d have a hard time deciding between the two if he had to.
After Hillary Clinton very narrowly lost in 2016, many Democrats were quick to blame the third-party candidates running that year—something they’re preemptively doing with Amash. But evidence for which candidate he could affect the most is inconclusive. The presidential experts I spoke with predicted that, like most third-party candidates, he’s more likely to hurt the incumbent.
Still, one factor of Amash’s potential nomination that makes some anti-Trump advocates nervous is where he could earn his biggest share of the vote: his home state of Michigan, one of the key states where Clinton fell short. From my conversations with a handful of Republican and Democratic political operatives there, Amash seems well liked, or at least respected, in his district—just not enough to have an easy path to reelection without the GOP’s backing. “No one is taking Michigan for granted after what happened four years ago, but I don’t think folks are sounding the alarm by any stretch of the imagination” that Amash’s candidacy could jeopardize Biden, said McCann, the Democratic strategist.
So what exactly is Amash up to?
Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist in the state, sees Amash’s run as simply “the natural evolution of his career.”
“He had very little impact as judged by legislation in Congress, but he did have an impact in giving voice to a serious set of ideas,” McNeilly says. “This [presidential run] will give him a platform to pivot from an officeholder to a thought leader nationally. But this is the end of his electoral quest, I believe.”
When I asked Amash himself why he’s pursuing the presidency when his chances are so slim, he insisted that he’s running to win. He argued that he has an opening because the Democrats are close to nominating an especially weak candidate who lacks voter enthusiasm and new ideas. Had Bernie Sanders been the nominee, Amash said, he may have reconsidered running. “The amount of energy and dedication [Sanders’s] supporters bring makes it harder to break through as an independent or libertarian candidate,” he said.
Amash, who recently polled at 5 percent in a three-way race with Trump and Biden, also thinks that he can make inroads with certain demographics. As the son of a Palestinian refugee and a Syrian immigrant, for example, he could be “more appealing to people with diverse ethnic backgrounds,” he said. He posited that, with Tara Reade’s sexual-assault allegation against Biden, some women might “feel uncomfortable” choosing between Biden and Trump, whom more than 20 women have accused of sexual misconduct or assault. And unlike his septuagenarian opponents, Amash is only 40 years old.
But when it comes to policy, this might not be a libertarian’s moment to seize. If he wins his new party’s nomination, Amash will likely focus his campaign on reforming the legislative process, reducing the size of the federal government, and reining in executive power. That might not be a message that resonates with many Americans, who, for the time being, are dealing with the realities of a global pandemic. With more than 80,000 dead from the coronavirus and more than 30 million unemployed, Americans might be looking for more government in their lives, not less.
Amash is giving up his seat in Congress after this term, so this campaign may well be his last. And if he’s anything like the previous Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson, most voters won’t even know who he is, let alone that he’s running for president. “A year from now,” Nader told me, “people will say, ‘Justin who?’”
That is, unless Amash’s campaign gets real traction, siphoning just enough votes away from Biden or Trump in the most consequential states. If Amash takes votes from Biden, he’ll alienate himself even more from the anti-Trump activists who once called him a comrade, and who will remember him as the candidate who helped give Trump a second term.
Nader, whose best general-election performance earned him 2.7 percent of the vote, ran for president to draw attention to the issues he cared most about, including consumer protection, the environment, and, like Amash, reforming what he perceived to be a corrupt two-party system. He never thought he would win, but he believed that his runs could make a difference. So I asked Nader if, looking back, he thought his White House bids achieved what he had hoped for. “No,” he said. “It was like pushing a rock up a mountain cliff.”