Justin Amash and the myth of Tea Party conservatism

The now-former Freedom Caucus member is a true believer. And that's where he went wrong.

Justin Amash.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Rod Lamkey /Getty Images, javarman3/iStock, str33tcat/iStock)

Did anyone even know who Justin Amash was until a few weeks ago? Outside of veterans of the old Ron Paul scene, that is. Old (or in my case former) comrades of eternal Paulism will remember that Amash was elected to Michigan's third congressional district in 2010, the same year that Rand Paul won his first Senate election in Kentucky.

After nearly a decade of quietly voting against federal aid for Flint — less than two hours from his district — and opposing virtually every meaningful attempt to protect the environment or regulate the financial industry that came his way, Amash is in the news because he thinks that President Trump should be impeached. His evolution from unknown congresscritter to liberal folk hero took a long time, but it was almost instantaneous.

On Monday evening Amash resigned from the House Freedom Caucus, a group he helped to found in 2015. The Freedom Caucus was meant to be a kind of successor to the old Tea Party-era Liberty Caucus (with which it is often confused and of which Amash is now, hilariously, still chairman), a vehicle for "open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans." In practice this means not believing in climate change and dismissing GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act as "Swampcare" presumably because they would have allowed too many people to continue receiving Medicaid.

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Lots of Republicans talk this way. Only Amash is silly enough to believe any of it. This was quietly acknowledged on Tuesday afternoon when Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, was asked whether Amash should also leave the Republican party. "Justin Amash can determine his own future, but I think in a philosophical basis, he's probably in a different place than the majority of all of us," McCarthy said before laughing.

This is absolutely true. It is also as good a reminder as any that the Obama-era Tea Party movement that died with Trump's election was not about any of the things its participants claimed to be interested in. Limited government, cutting entitlements? Nobody would actually vote for us if we got rid of that stuff. Reining in deficit spending? We'd rather cut taxes. The Constitution? It means what we need it to. Pretending that the all-powerful American president is some kind of glorified European prime minister with few if any broadly defined powers or prerogatives who should spend his days quietly sitting at a desk waiting for tricorn-hatted citizen-statesmen to send him patriotic legislation to consider? Please, that's only something we do when the guy in the White House is an uppity minority with a terrorist-sounding name. Holding the White House accountable with scare-mongering hearings that call the president's legitimacy into question? Bo-ring. All that "Get a job!" talk? Get outta here with that coastal elite Harvard MBA garbage. The noble American worker was screwed over by Kill and Killary Clinton and the rest of the globalist elites who invented NAFTA. We only meant that stuff about black people.

The blame for this cannot all rest at the feet of GOP politicians. At some undisclosed point between Rick Santelli's CNBC rant and Trump's famous escalator walk, the same GOP base that had enthusiastically dressed up in John Adams costumes decided to put on MAGA hats and start waxing lyrical about the plight of caricatures from Bruce Springsteen songs. This surprised a lot of people, not least the 16 other Republican candidates for president in 2016, nearly all of whom had convinced themselves that they were only one mangled Thomas Jefferson quote away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They knew that they didn't believe their own BS. What had never occurred to them was that the voters didn't either. It was never about reforming Social Security or originalism or entrepreneurship or whatever the hell The Federalist is; their politics were about one thing, a somewhat nebulous but implicitly defined "us" versus an equally amorphous but undeniably sinister "them." It's libs all the way the down, and they're all there to be owned.

This makes Amash a hard case. No one could argue that he is without principles or that he is just in it for the money. He is not selective about applying his ideas to practical questions; he is a bona fide fanatic who would be happy to see millions of his fellow Americans starve in order to honor a 231-year-old piece of toilet paper. The problem is not that he is a grifter or a charlatan but that the things to which he has sincerely devoted his life and political career are fantasies.

Which is better, really believing in nonsense when you should know better or nihilist worship of power for its own sake? Sometimes the answer has to be none of the above.

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