Since announcing his late-breaking presidential bid last week, Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) has been making the interview rounds—with Politico‘s Tim Alberta, CNN’s Jake Tapper, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, The Washington Post‘s David Weigel, and Reason‘s own Nick Gillespie, among many others.
In a recording released this morning, the candidate added to that list The Fifth Column, a podcast I co-host with FreeThink’s Kmele Foster and Vice News Tonight‘s Michael C. Moynihan. The conversation ranged from the coronavirus response to armed Michigan protesters to the decline of Amash’s own House Freedom Caucus, from Foster’s unwillingness to serve as vice president to the congressman’s claim that contemporary Americans are more classically liberal, yet let less constitutional, than the Founding generation.
“They loved the Constitution but couldn’t see the evils they were doing,” Amash said. “We see the evils but reject the Constitution. It doesn’t make any sense!”
You can listen to the conversation here.
Below is an edited transcript:
Moynihan: You weren’t, of course, always a Libertarian—you were independent, and prior to that a Republican. Can you give us a little kind of sketch of the arc of your career as a Republican, and why and how you left the Republican Party, which I think a lot of people who don’t really know you would be interested in finding out?
Amash: Well, I’ve always been a small-l libertarian, and I probably think of myself as more on the classical liberal side of things, for those who are maybe a little bit wonky about it. I’m more of an F.A. Haeyk guy than anything else.
I’ve been kind of anti-authoritarian since I was a kid, and didn’t really describe myself as a libertarian for a lot of my life. When I got older, I started to really realize where I fit in the political world and I spent some time reading and studying libertarian thought. So Hayek is a guy who really came up first for me, when I really was immersed in a lot of this.
I was looking at the state government and seeing a total disaster, a total mess brought on by Republicans and Democrats, and I thought at that time it would be good to take a crack at it, to run for office as a Republican. At that time I didn’t really think about any parties other than the Republicans and Democrats; those were the ones that were on my radar as a twentysomething-year-old. I thought that I could maybe cast the Republican Party in more of a libertarian image. They weren’t that far off on a lot of the things they talked about. In practice, they weren’t doing any of it, but at least they were talking about it. So I thought, well, maybe I can bring people along.
It was obviously well-received by my constituents. They elected me to Congress after one term in the state House, so it worked. People liked what I was talking about.
And when I got to Congress, at first I thought, well, this is a disaster again, just like the state House, but we can make some headway. And the first few years I thought we were making headway; I thought we were improving the political system. I thought we were improving the Republican Party and moving it into a more liberty-oriented direction and a more representative direction than where it had been.
But then I would say about, I don’t know, 2014–2015, things started to take a really bad turn in the party. You had a few people at the top, starting with [Speaker John] Boehner of course, who really started to lock down the legislative process and try to wrestle control away from the members who are interested in some of this change, or interested in making it a more liberty-oriented party or a more representative party. And then you saw a gradual creeping of nationalism into the party’s messaging that happened before Donald Trump. I’d start to see it in town halls. And so I could sort of see Donald Trump coming ahead of time before he was even a candidate. You could see this starting to grow at town halls, where you’d hear people on the left and the right talking in a more nationalistic way.
Moynihan: So you heard that from constituents?
Amash: Oh, yeah. I definitely heard that. And I was still doing very well in my district; I’d win these elections with good margins. But I started to more and more hear things about nationalism and protectionism and things that were really counter to the Republican Party of, say, the ’80s and ’90s, which had moved in more of a Reagan direction, if you will—not necessarily quite libertarian, but a little more free market and classical liberal in many ways.
So I saw it coming. And now, I don’t even really recognize the party. It’s very different from the party I was a part of. It’s more of a party of personality than anything else. It’s quite nationalistic, of course, but it really revolves around personality, I think, a little bit of a culture of ridicule. It’s almost like a class warfare of a new sort. The media is all “evil” on everything. Of course everyone has problems with particular parts of the media; it’s not like I go through a year and I don’t think “Oh, this story is not great” or that someone wasn’t unfair. But it’s really turned into a culture now.
Even this “Deep State” stuff. The government’s bad in many ways, but I think the president uses it like a hook on everything now—no matter what he does to grow government, there’s always some Deep State that wants to thwart him for some reason. His growing of government is not his fault; it’s the Deep State.
Foster: Along these same lines, I think a lot of people, when they hear your story or encounter it, the sensibility is that you somehow abandoned the president and abandoned the party. I was re-reading the editorial you wrote around the time that you left the Republican Party, and it seemed very obvious that your concern wasn’t merely what was happening in the Republican Party but some sort of broader change that you were seeing with respect to partisanship and the country. Could you speak to that a little bit?
Amash: That’s absolutely right. Both parties have their own sets of problems, and you’re not seeing the Democratic Party act in any representative way either. What I’d like to see is a government where you take all these ideas, and libertarians can come into the government, conservatives can come in, progressives can come in. And we can all debate these ideas, and then have a vote, and whatever happens, happens. But let us debate the ideas in front of the American people and let them weigh the outcomes. Let them make decisions based on what happens in our debates, in our discussions, and judge us on the outcomes we produce.
Instead, what really happens in both parties is a few people at the top control everything. Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi controls the entire legislative process right now. [Former Speaker] Paul Ryan controlled the entire legislative process. And I can’t speak for the Senate; presumably the Senate operates in a very similar way, with a very top-down structure. But speaking for the House side of it, it’s really stifling, and you don’t have any discussion anymore of policy.
People don’t even bother reading the bills, because why should they? What’s the point of reading a bill, from their perspective, if you’re not going to have any say in it, all the leadership wants is your vote—yes or no? They don’t care whether the details aren’t right. They’re not interested in your amendments or your thoughts on it.
Paul Ryan shut down the legislative process so badly that for the first time in our country’s history, we had a whole Congress where there wasn’t a single amendment that could be brought to the floor without being preapproved by the speaker of the House. The history of our country, our government, is one where the House is supposed to be a deliberative body: If you want to present something, especially an amendment on an appropriations bill, you bring it to the floor and you offer that amendment and nobody can stop you as long as it’s germane to the bill. Nobody can stop you. You have a vote on it, and you win or you lose.
Paul Ryan said, “No, we’re not going to do that anymore. From now on, you want any amendments? I will decide whether you get that amendment.” And you can imagine what kind of amendments get to the floor if the speaker gets to decide—only amendments that don’t really do anything, or amendments that he’s pretty confident are going to fail. So if your amendment does something and might pass, it’s excluded; you can’t have it. He was the first speaker of the House to do that. Now Nancy Pelosi is the second speaker of the House, so two in a row right now.
And what this does, is it creates a lot of tension in society, because my constituents, just like other people’s constituents, are saying things like, “Hey, can you offer this amendment? Can you offer this idea?” And we’re basically not able to offer anything or do anything. The committee process is totally shut down too; the speaker decides what goes to the committees. When you have all of this tension and all of this breakdown in the system, you get a huge level of polarization. Now the members of Congress who can’t debate policy anymore, what do they do? They debate personalities.
And that’s how you ended up with something like Donald Trump, because you created an environment that is perfect for a candidate like Donald Trump to come in and tell the people, “Drain the swamp! Make America great again! Look at how they’re not doing anything!” So he’s capitalizing on this broken system that Congress has created.
What I want to do as a president is go in and force Congress to represent the people. And this is what makes my candidacy very different from Donald Trump or Joe Biden. We’ve seen how Donald Trump works; Joe Biden is going to operate in the same status quo way as every other president we’ve had in the past few decades. It’s not going to change.
We have to open up the process. And when Speaker Pelosi or any speaker comes to my office and says, “Hey, I want to go negotiate with you on his legislation,” I’ll say, “Have you negotiated with the legislature? You should negotiate with them first. Bring the legislation to Congress, run it through Congress, allow the committees to work, allow the floor to work, and then you bring me what you got after everything’s worked. Then I’ll tell you if I’ve got an opinion on it: I can sign the bill or I can veto it.” But I don’t want to take power away from the people.
So I’m promising to be a president who will reduce my power. And that’s a unique sell to the American people, and I think that’s something that we really need, because if the president can check his own power, then we can get Congress back doing its own job, and we can help make the American people more satisfied that they’re represented.
Welch: You talked about a variety of speakers you were as instrumental as anyone else in dethroning, defrocking, [especially] John Boehner. So it sounds like because of your good work there’s been no amendments ever introduced again on the floor of Congress. Congratulations!
But my question is more about the vehicle by which you did that, which was the House Freedom Caucus, which you co-founded. After Donald Trump became president, he picked fights with you a lot. You were stubborn about a variety of issues, mostly spending, and some other things too, [like] Obamacare repeal/replace/whatever-the-status-of-that-was in early 2017.
You left the House Freedom Caucus even before you left the Republican Party. How did this organ that you helped start and create, along [the lines of] a lot of these principles that you talk about, go so quickly from stubborn independence [and] reigning in executive power to being [the] talent pool for the attack dogs to defend Donald Trump against congressional investigations? What happened? Name names.
Amash: Well, I’ll try to name some names.
But what happened was, the House Freedom Caucus was designed to address the things I talked about earlier. It was designed to open up the process. That’s why it existed. People think it started as a conservative group. It didn’t start as a conservative group, and I know, because I was instrumental in trying to steer it in the right direction right from the get-go. There’s a reason “conservative” is not in the name of the group. There’s a reason that when you look at the mission statement of the group, it doesn’t say anything about conservatism, because that wasn’t the point. The point was to open up the process so that everyone could participate, so that everyone in America could feel represented, and that includes progressives and conservatives and libertarians and anyone else who wants to participate in the process.
People forget that Donald Trump took aim at it early on, as you mentioned. Donald Trump was a person who said that we must defeat the House Freedom Caucus. He declared that on Twitter. But what ended up happening is he realized that this was a bad strategy to make enemies of the House Freedom Caucus, and that he needed to start picking off the members. So he started elevating them to executive positions. He started to play nice with some of the members. And I think what happens is people get enamored with someone who pays attention to them, especially if that person is the president of the United States.
So if the president is constantly flirting with you, and you’re one of the House Freedom Caucus members, it’s easy to get taken by it. He calls you up and he says, “Hey, you want to go golfing? Hey, you want to go for dinner?” You’re not going to turn the president down. So you have House Freedom Caucus members who start doing that stuff. And once you get to spend time with someone, even if it’s a person who’s been a jerk in so many ways publicly, or has called for the defeat of your group, or whatever he might have done, it’s easy to get taken by it and say things like, “Well, he’s not so bad. Maybe I can work with this guy. Maybe we can change him. Maybe if I stay close to him, I can start to amend his ways and, and get him on the right track.”
And I’d start to hear this from my colleagues. They’d say, “Oh, well, you know, Justin, we don’t agree with him, but we can work with this guy and we can change him.” But what ends up happening is not that they change Donald Trump but that Donald Trump changes them. And that’s what they’re not seeing. Donald Trump changed them. They didn’t change Donald Trump.
He’s the same person he was before, and they are different now. They no longer care about things like fiscal restraint. And sure, you have a vote, and some of them will vote against it, especially some of the ones who are the true believers in that stuff. But in terms of actually pressing the president, or pressing House Republican leadership, they’ve totally forgotten about that. They’re not interested in the fight anymore. They don’t want to have that fight on any of the principles that they used to talk about, like opening up the process or making sure that our government is restrained properly by the Constitution.
Now they’re fully on board, and the superficial went to the real, when you started to get House Freedom Caucus members [Mark Meadows] serving as the chief of staff. But then again, what power do they have as chiefs of staff? What power have they really had? What influence have they had? I haven’t seen it. It’s run the same way, whether you had a House Freedom Caucus member there or not.
Moynihan: I always appreciate the phrase—and I mean this—when someone says, “true believer,” because it implies that everybody else doesn’t believe it. And that has become apparent to me over the years. I remember when I was at Reason and I first interviewed Paul Ryan, and Paul Ryan gave me the absolute Randian stuff, he was going through the whole thing. And it was maybe a year, a couple years later that I did a double take, and said “Who is this guy?”
And this seems to be pretty consistent. I rarely see somebody who doesn’t fall victim to this. Why will it not happen to you?
There’s a lot of dealmaking that has to go into to the position, and what you saw—you, being cut out of the process—[as president] you start making that process. And then you say you want to devolve power from the presidency: Can you do that without having Washington take advantage of you?
Amash: Yeah, I can. And I’ve proven that by breaking from the Republican Party multiple times on a whole host of issues. I know people focus on the Mueller report, but really I’ve broken from the Republican Party time and again on issues where I thought they were overreaching, where they were pushing for constitutional violations or not standing up for their principles.
I think at the end of the day, what makes me tick is quite different from what makes some of my colleagues tick, even in the House Freedom Caucus. And I have close friendships with many of them, so I’m not trying to suggest they’re bad people or anything like that. But people get into politics for different reasons. And for me, it’s important to stay true to my principles. I really believe in what I’m fighting for, and I always made a commitment to myself that I didn’t want to be in politics if I couldn’t stand up for what I believe in.
Moynihan: What is politics without principles?
Amash: I mean, there’s no point of politics without principles, in my opinion. Why even get involved? What’s the point of running for office and then fighting for things you don’t believe in? It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t want the job—
Foster: You can enrich yourself, you can get a cushy job afterwards so you make a couple million dollars a year, that sort of thing…
Amash: I don’t want this job just for the job. A lot of my colleagues do just want the job, I think. I think at the end of the day, they like being called congressmen and showing up at the meeting and having everyone applaud for them.
What I want is to stand up for the principles I talk about, and when I go home at the end of the day feeling good about myself and about the fact that I did what was right and I stood up for my beliefs. The people have the right at home to vote for who they want; we’re not elected to have a direct democracy, where we just poll our constituents and then we vote according to the poll. We express what our principles are, and I tell my constituents what my principles are, and then they get to vote. And if they like what I stand for on principles, then they vote for me to use my judgment. And so I believe standing up for those principles and standing up for that judgment is really important. I don’t want the job if I can’t do that. That, to me, is the essence.
And so that makes me quite different from a lot of my colleagues. At the end of the day, what they want to have is the Republican leader come and pat them on the back and say, “Hey, you did a good job today. Let’s go get a dinner. I want to introduce you to some of my lobbyist friends. I want to introduce you to this fundraiser over here.” And getting the text messages from the leadership or from the president saying, “Hey, I really appreciate what you’re doing. I know that that was a tough vote, you know, voting against your principles, but you’re really helping the team.” They like that kind of stuff.
If you’re doing that, though, you’re not helping anyone. Helping the Republican Party achieve some kind of short-term win doesn’t help the American people.
Moynihan: So what you’re saying is that the Hollywood vision, the negative Hollywood vision of what Washington, D.C., is—lobbyists, golfing, donors, backslapping—is true.
Amash: Yeah. I think that that is basically the way it works.
I think the thing that people get wrong is that it’s not direct lobbyists’ influence on individual legislators. It’s indirect influence through the leadership. There’s an assumption that the lobbyists are going to each individual House office and picking off the legislators one at a time, but that’s not what’s happening. They’re going to the Republican or Democratic leadership and getting them to do their bidding, and getting the members to go with the leadership team.
Moynihan: That’s depressing.
Foster: When you were making your case for the American people, and you talked about them having a government that’s truly responsive to them and explicitly devolving some of the power that’s accrued to the executive—it’s interesting to have a conversation about that. One, I fully endorse the program, and I fully endorse you. Not that you need my endorsement, but you have it.
Amash: Thank you.
Foster: But to go a step further—
Moynihan: He’s fishing for the veep! He wants to be your vice president.
Welch: Yeah, I can hear it.
Moynihan: I’m just telling you, that’s what he wants.
Foster: I’m not doing it, I’m not doing it.
Amash: That’ll be the call afterwards.
Foster: That’s what the people want, but I can’t speak to that.
But in a time of COVID, it seems to me that there are a lot of Americans who almost certainly want a super-empowered executive branch. They look to the government, and they have an expectation that the government will be big enough and strong enough to protect them, because many imagine that it perhaps is not, and that the president in particular will somehow articulate a vision to rescue them from their current circumstance.
Obviously, there’s been a lot of legislative action related to COVID, some pretty extraordinary numbers in terms of the amount of dollars that have been tossed at this, but it’s likely that the whole of the presidential election might turn on this very issue. The quality of the response, the quality of the aid that’s being rendered to Americans, and perhaps the subsequent battle against the economic depression that we might be contending with: Is it being entrusted to the right hands? How can people be confident that your hands are the right hands and that your program is consistent with the really good outcome here?
Amash: Well, this big government response hasn’t worked. There are people who have called for the president to have even more power, but imagine if he had even more power: I think you’d have a worse outcome. At least we have the fact that these 50 states can make their own decisions on a lot of things; that helps protect the rights of the people while also balancing the particular needs in the community. Not every state has the same issues with respect to COVID, and they need to address it differently. People talk about, “Well, the risk is the same every single place.” It’s not the same every single place. And the doctors and epidemiologists will tell you it’s not the same. Otherwise, when we were talking about “opening things up,” as we often use that phrase, why would they be saying some places have to open up at different rates? They’re admitting that it’s not the same everywhere. They acknowledge it.
And what I would say is, you do need a federal government that is available to provide some kind of coordination between states when you have something that is international like this. You have a virus that’s come across borders, and it can affect the whole country—you do need some federal coordination involved. But the federal government doesn’t need to direct every decision. You can leave a lot of the decision-making to the individual states and individual communities.
I would say, federal government leaves it to the states, states can then make decisions about how to divide things up among the various counties and cities, perhaps. But if you have the federal government in charge of everything, you’re actually making a big mistake in terms of addressing things quickly. Because now if one part of the whole system makes a mistake, the whole system is broken, the whole system collapses, and you don’t want that. It makes the system very vulnerable. It makes it fragile. It’s not a good way to run a government.
So look at this coronavirus relief package as an example. Here’s a package which shows you how adept the federal government is at things. They put this convoluted package together that puts all sorts of barriers in the way when, if you wanted a federal solution and you want it to have it happen quick, just get money to the people quickly. So if the federal government’s going to be involved, it should be as simple as possible, and as quick as possible, and otherwise it should really try to get out of the way as much as possible while coordinating things but letting people on the ground make decisions. Because the federal government doesn’t have all the knowledge that’s needed to resolve the issue. You don’t have a bunch of people at the White House sitting in a room who can figure out what’s going on in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It doesn’t work that way. People in Grand Rapids, Michigan, need to make that decision.
I think the federal government has overreached in so many ways but at the same time failed the people in so many ways with its overreach, with this massive $3 trillion package that mostly benefits large corporations.
Foster: How does that happen? How does it happen that a policy like this comes out of the pandemic? Democrats especially are not supposed to favor big corporations, but all of these rescue packages nearly always seemed to be calibrated in this particular way. You’ve seen the way the sausage gets made. Why is that happening?
Amash: There’s one simple reason, which is that if you get relief directly to the people, you don’t get that much political capital out of it. In other words, the two parties could get together and say, “Hey, let’s get the relief to the people right away. Let’s just start sending out checks. We’ll send out a $2,000 check. It’ll be fast and simple and easy.” But guess what happens when you do that? You make millions of Americans happy, but you don’t get much political capital out of it. You still end up with several industries that come back to you and say, “Hey, what about us? We want something special.” What about farmers? What about truck drivers? What about labor unions? Everyone wants something else.
So what they try to do is they put together the most convoluted package that gives a little bit of something to a bunch of discrete constituencies. And then all those people can say and tell it to their own membership, “Oh, look what a great job our congressman did. He got us this thing.” And I see this right now with my colleagues, I see a lot of them going around and saying, “Hey, I did so much for the particular industry X, I did this thing for them.” And they’re bragging about it, something that was stuffed into the bill. But at the same time that they’re bragging about all this stuff, millions of people are not having their needs addressed. They’re on unemployment, but they’re not getting their benefits. Or they can’t even get onto the unemployment system, and they’re going into food banks when they were doing OK before but now they can’t get a job because they’ve been told to stay home.
So the Congress has not addressed these concerns, and they’ve made it more convoluted, and that’s because this is the system they’re used to. This is the one that works for them. They want to be able to go to constituencies and say, “I did this for your particular constituency,” rather than say, “I helped all the American people in one fell swoop.”
Moynihan: The initial bailout, of—I can’t even keep track, was it $2.5 trillion out of the gate? And the half a trillion for the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program], you know, to support small businesses, supposedly. Some small businesses like Potbelly—
Foster: The Los Angeles Lakers.
Moynihan: The Lakers is a very, very small team, as these things go.
On both of those, you voted “present.” You didn’t vote against.
Amash: No, no, that’s not true. On the $2 trillion plus package, I voted no. We didn’t have a recorded vote, but I recorded my vote as “no.”
Moynihan: You recorded your vote as no. OK, so let’s take the second one, then, the most recent, the PPP. Tom Massie, I guess four other Republicans, and AOC [voted no]. And AOC’s objection was there wasn’t more money in there. Explain why you voted present and not no.
Amash: Yeah, so the bill doubles down on the first package, the one I opposed. I voted no on that first package—at least I submitted my vote to the record. They didn’t take a recorded vote, so I had to specially submit my no vote to the record. But the second bill doubles down on that system. In other words, it doesn’t address all of the problems in that convoluted package, including with the PPP program. They didn’t fix the program. The program can work for a lot of businesses, and in even in this broken stage or state, it does work for some businesses, but it doesn’t work for a great number of businesses. And they didn’t really fix the program. So here’s a bill that doubles down on that messed-up, convoluted bill, the $2.2 trillion bill, with this new bill.
But at the same time, I’m a big rule-of-law guy. And when I see this PPP program, where many of the more connected businesses got benefits through the program even if they aren’t well-crafted and even if the bill is not very well-designed, they still were able to go and get a loan. When I see all of these businesses that got in there and got it done, and they’re the ones who probably don’t need it as much as many of the ones who are left out, then that causes me concern. And so, I think it would be wrong to also double down on this idea that we’re going to design the system to benefit those who need less help, and the ones who need more help, we’re going to leave them out. So it doubles down on a bad piece of legislation, the previous package, and it doubles down on a rule-of-law violation, and these cut in opposite directions.
So I voted present, because you have a good reason to vote no and a good reason to vote yes on the bill. And to me, the rule of law is important. So I voted present. I didn’t want to send the message to the businesses that were left out that you don’t deserve to be treated the same way as the businesses that got in. I think that’s a bad message to send.
Welch: The last two years haven’t been very friendly to people who spend a lot of time talking about constitutionalism, fiscal restraint, and whatnot. You could just march right through it: Your friend Mark Sanford gets bounced out of a primary election as an incumbent in South Carolina in 2018. Gary Johnson, runs as a Senate candidate in New Mexico [and] only gets 15 percent—he’s running against an absolute nobody Republican who doubles him up there. Jeff Flake retires rather than face the voters who were ready to absolutely kick him to the curb in Arizona. Bill Weld tries to run against Donald Trump, gets squashed like a bug. Sanford thinks about it for a half a second, gets squashed like a bug, and retreats.
What makes your story or your moment any different than all of the people who in different areas, different parties, different moments over the last two years have made at least somewhat overlapping cases to people electorally?
Moynihan: Why are you so stubborn, Congressman?
Amash: I think I have a unique combination of skills I can get out there, and get this message out in a way that is maybe unique. I’ve been good at social media. I have ease of access to a lot of the young people out there, I think, who can get this message out. And I have a lot of experience in Congress with the problem I’m talking about. I understand what ails our system, and I’m talking about it in a way that is different than the generic “Hey, we just need more liberty and we need someone who’s going to respect the Constitution.” People need to understand when you talk about liberty and the Constitution, they need to understand why those things are important to them. They need to understand how the Constitution is connected to our overall system and how that’s connected to people’s rights.
So it all goes hand in hand. And I think I’m uniquely positioned to really talk about this message with the American people, because I understand the problem and I’ve been talking about it for a long time. And it’s not going to be a simple message like we’ve had before, of “Oh, the government is just spending too much money” or “The government is doing too much.” We have to assess the problem. We have to explain to people at home why this is happening. Why is the government spending too much money? Why is the government not following the Constitution? Why is the government not protecting our rights? They need to understand the why, if you want to resolve this problem and make some headway in the political world. You can’t just say these are problems; you need to tell people why that is.
Moynihan: I mentioned something before we started recording about somebody who was a friend of yours, who said, “I love Justin. I’m a friend of his.” But he said it to me in kind of a conspiratorial way in the halls of Congress—like, Don’t want to say it too loud, but he’s great and we really appreciate him.
I am interested in what sort of pressure people within the party are putting on you. Because all those people that were squashed like bugs—some of them, anyway—have talked quite openly about how the party apparatus kind of came for them in some way.
And for you, obviously those are your former colleagues, people who know you, and a lot of whom were ideological comrades who decided to defect and go to the other side. What is that interaction like with people? Is there a lot of pressure to say, “Hey, stop it. It’s not good for anyone, and this is only going to hurt you”?
Amash: There was early on. For example, when I left the House Freedom Caucus, that was a big deal. And even before that, when I said the president had committed impeachable conduct, that was a big deal to a lot of people within the House Freedom Caucus and within the Republican Party. And they did come pretty hard at me to try to get me to apologize or change my ways or say that I didn’t really mean it or whatever. It was kind of like a hostage situation in some ways. “You have to recant, we’re going to put you on tape…”
Moynihan: Hold today’s newspaper.
Amash: Right. So there was a lot of pressure like that early on. When I became an independent, all that all went away, because now my colleagues on the Republican side at least were saying to themselves, “Well, he’s not one of us anymore, so we don’t have to pressure him in the same way.”
You mentioned one of my colleagues. I still get this from colleagues, a lot of colleagues who respect me on the principles and respect what I’m doing but aren’t willing to say it publicly. They don’t want to go out on a limb, and some of them are almost in hiding. They’re out there willing to defend the president in some ways, but in many ways they’re staying kind of quiet and trying to just ride it out and hoping that it all ends at some point. When I look at former colleagues, I’ve had a lot of former colleagues, people who used to be in the party, I get messages from them all the time thanking me for what I’m doing. And a lot of unlikely people, people who would have been fighting me left and right in the old days, coming out and saying, “Hey, thank you for what you’re doing. I really appreciate it. You’re standing up for truth and principles.”
Moynihan: Can I quote Matt Welch and say, “Name names,” Congressman?
Amash: I’m not going to get into names, because I want to respect, especially when a lot of them are private citizens now, but—
Welch: Bill Kristol really loved you about three months ago. That was fun to watch.
Amash: They’re all just people who loved me before and now they don’t…
Foster: Yeah, a lot of the NeverTrumpers have had very unkind things to say about you recently.
Amash: To get into that topic, just very briefly: They are not the largest group of Republicans, let me put it this way.
There are lots of people in the Republican Party who still do not like Donald Trump. Now if you poll them on it, and you say, “Do you approve of Donald Trump or don’t approve of Donald Trump?”—they will still say they approve of him. Because a lot of people, when they get those polls, they’re thinking about Donald Trump versus Nancy Pelosi, or Donald Trump versus Joe Biden, or someone else. So they’re saying, “Yeah, well, compared to those people, I definitely approve of him.”
But if you really press them on it—I know Republicans. I’ve spent a lot of time with Republicans. I’ve served as a Republican in Congress. There are a lot of them who do not like Donald Trump. And with my entry to this race, I provide them an alternative, someone who they would consider voting for. Because for a lot of them, their first choice might be Justin Amash, but their second choice is not Joe Biden. It’s Donald Trump still. They don’t like him, but they’re still voting for them.
And I think that’s what a lot of Democrats are not understanding. You know, I’ve gotten some pushback from Democrats in the past few days. People think it’s NeverTrump Republicans, [but] there are actually very few NeverTrump Republicans who have pushed back, because there are very few NeverTrump Republicans like that. There just aren’t that many people out there relative to other population groups who have a first choice of maybe Justin Amash, let’s say, and a second choice of Joe Biden, a third choice of Donald Trump. That’s not a big subset.
What is a pretty big group is: first choice Justin Amash, second choice Donald Trump, third choice Joe Biden. That’s a much larger group, and for some reason people are all up in arms now on the left, because they’re listening to some of these prominent Republican figures who no longer support the Republican Party and they support Joe Biden, and they think that’s what a lot of Republicans are thinking too. And it’s just not true.
Foster: Obviously, you still need to achieve greater name recognition. That is hard in any normal campaign cycle. This is anything but normal. We have no idea what November will look like, but leading up to November, how do you stay relevant? How do you maintain the presence that you’ve been able to have over the course of the last week or so since you announced?
Amash: Well, I just have to keep pushing. I’m lucky that I’m 40 years old. I feel like that makes me old now, but I’m still young relative to the other candidates. It’s like when you’re in your thirties you still feel a little bit like you’re a kid, but now I’m 40, and I still have the energy and still can go out and do this day after day. I’m not confident that my two general election opponents—if I’m fortunate enough to be the nominee of the Libertarian Party—I’m not confident that those two opponents are going to have the energy to do the kinds of things I’m doing. So I’m going to keep pressing, keep doing programs like this. I’m going to keep doing things day after day, getting on the radio, getting on TV, putting out social media posts, and just trying to spread the message so people can understand what I’m about.
Right now, people have a very simplistic notion of what I’m about, right? They don’t really know much about Justin Amash because I’m not familiar to them. My name ID is low nationwide. And so the only thing they know about me is I’m a guy who voted to impeach the president, and now for some reason I want to run against the president. Those are the things that they know about me, and they can’t figure out why it is that he would want to run against the president when he voted to impeach him. How could this be?
Moynihan: You’re in Michigan, and of course these protests that are getting a lot of attention in Michigan are making me wonder what you think about this. Because on one hand there’s people out there talking about liberty. They’re talking about government overreach. And when I see them visually, I think these are the exact people that Justin Amash doesn’t really like, because he left the party—the MAGA hats, that sort of strain of conservatism. But there’s kind of probably some balance in there, I’d imagine. So what do you make of these people in your home state who are sometimes armed and sometimes storming into buildings? What do you think of this protest?
Amash: Well, I can’t speak to them as a general group, because they come from all sorts of places. Some of them are doing the right thing, and some of them are doing the wrong thing. You’ve seen some people who’ve come to the Capitol with Nazi symbols or Confederate flags or things like that, and of course I reject all that stuff and denounce all that stuff. That’s not OK.
I also don’t think it’s a good idea—even though I’m the strongest supporter of our gun rights and strong supporter of the Second Amendment—I don’t think it’s a good idea to open-carry large weapons in the Capitol. I think that that is intimidating to a lot of legislators. Whether they intend it or not, that’s how it’s perceived by people: It looks like you’re trying to pressure the legislature to do your bidding. And I just think that’s a really bad idea and bad look, and does not help the cause of people who support open carry.
I support the idea of protecting people’s right to keep and bear arms, including open carry. And I think that this kind of stuff makes people second-guess it. And you don’t want to have some kind of a weird constitutional amendment in Michigan that prohibits it or something like that. These ballot initiatives are pretty easy to get done in Michigan. So I think they have to be really careful about that stuff.
Well, look, people are not happy about what the governor has been doing here. The governor has done a lot of things that are really draconian. Everyone understands the need for social distancing and staying home, and there are a lot of measures that most people would say, “Yeah, this is reasonable.” I think you’d get 80, 90 percent of the population to say, “Yeah, those are pretty reasonable measures, and we’re okay with that.” But when you start telling people things like, if your bike is broken, you can’t take it to the bicycle repair shop to get fixed because you might get sick. Or she says you can’t have landscaping services, because then that will mean more people have to go to the gas station; the landscapers have to stop at the gas station, and that will increase the spread of COVID-19.
Of course any kind of interaction marginally increases spread of anything—COVID-19, the flu, anything. But you have to weigh the marginal increase in risk versus the significant detriment to people’s lives when they feel really frustrated and feel like they can’t get things done and can’t live their lives enjoyably.
People in Michigan were told you can go to the store but that store shouldn’t be selling a particular item—the government has decided that that’s not an OK thing to be selling at that store at this time. We’ll just have them tape off the aisles so that you can’t get the item. And that makes no sense! And then the governor says, “Well, there are other stores that specialize in this stuff, and you could go to the other store and get it.” If you’re worried about spreading coronavirus, why would you send someone to another store? How does that make any sense?
Moynihan: They just went to two stores now.
Amash: So now you just send someone to two stores. These kinds of things don’t make sense. And I promise you she is getting advice from people; I know she’s hearing from epidemiologists and doctors, but it’s not always good advice. Just because someone gave you advice doesn’t mean it makes sense, even from a specialist in the field. You have to use common sense, and you have to think about society as a whole. And you’re telling people, too, they can’t go between two homes that they own. Look, I’m not, like, super-sympathetic to all these people who have these two homes that they want to go to. I don’t think it’s the most important thing to be doing right now.
Welch: Yeah, Kmele!
Amash: Between your lake home and your other home. However, it doesn’t make sense as a restriction. It just doesn’t make sense. You get in your car; you go from one home to the other. OK. You had to stop to get gas. Yeah, you’ve increased the marginal risk somewhat, but it’s so small relative to the overall risk, that it’s not worth making everyone angry and frustrated. Because when you do that, guess what happens? People stop paying attention to the reasonable guidance that they’re getting. They start to think things like, “Well, if she’s going to do this, then we’re not even going to socially distance. We’re going to just meet up in big groups and we’re going to protest and we’re going to do other things.” And she creates more havoc this way. People don’t take it seriously anymore. They don’t respect their government.
It’s like something Bastiat said: “If you want to make the laws respected, then you have to make them respectable.” And he said it in French, and I’m sure it was more eloquent than that, but that is an important point.
Foster: I saw a congressperson today, it sounds like, calling for us to take over Chinese companies, perhaps in an attempt to recoup some of the costs associated with this particular pandemic. So there’s a lot of saber-rattling that is in some cases explicit. There’s things happening in the South China Sea that make me very nervous. But even just the general tone of the criticism that you see emanating from Washington these days directed at people who are our trading partners, but some would also describe them as adversaries, and I think with good cause in a lot of respects. How do you keep things calm? What is your level of concern about the likelihood of the United States becoming entangled in some potential military conflict beyond the entanglements we already have? And do you think that that likelihood is going up as a result of some of the economic dislocation that’s taking place, not just in the United States, but around the world?
Amash: Well, China deserves a lot of condemnation for what it’s doing here, there’s no doubt about that. And we still haven’t gotten to the bottom of everything with respect to China, and they’re being very secretive about it. So I think a lot of that is warranted, of course. But you don’t want to get to the point where you end up in some kind of armed conflict. And so you have to be really careful about how you handle foreign policy situations like this and a foreign policy crisis like this. You want to make sure that you get to the bottom of it, but at the end of the day, you don’t want to start pointing guns at each other. And the more you talk about things in a tense way, or the more you start to threaten the other country, the more likely you get into that situation.
So what I think every American understands, and our businesses certainly understand this now a lot better, is that we do have to think about our ability to survive some kind of situation like this. Some of our trade ends up making us more fragile as a country, and we do need to think about that very carefully. And that’s a decision for individual businesses to make, about whether they bring more stuff home or diversify their trading partners. And I do think that there is a lot of cause for a lot of companies in the United States to start thinking about how we diversify things so that we are not as reliant on a country like China.
But that doesn’t mean we should shut off all trade, or put all sorts of tariffs in place, or try to create a huge economic conflict with a country that may eventually lead to a physical confrontation. We have to avoid that at all costs, and let people through the marketplace now make decisions about how they handle countries like China. And I think a lot of American companies are going to make different decisions going forward about how they do things.
Welch: We’ve had a kind of a populist moment, internationally and in this country, on both left and right, that seems to be on the increase in the preface to the coronavirus. So looking around, to the extent that you do, at the domestic politics of other countries, do you see any classical liberal strains? Do you see any other countries where there are, in a populist moment, people going in a more Amashian direction? Are there any role models for you out there politically in the world right now, or evidence that there’s an audience for this kind of case? Or do you think it’s more of a kind of sui generis America-remembering-its-own-heritage type of thing?
Amash: Well, America has a unique heritage in this respect, I think with respect to classical liberalism. It’s an old country in terms of classical liberalism, even though it’s a young country. So we have a lot of heritage and history there, and that’s still largely embedded in people’s souls. People really believe in classical liberalism in this country, in a way they maybe don’t in a lot of other countries.
And then you look at populations of other countries, and it’s not really reasonable to compare a country with a population of five million or 10 million, maybe the size of a New York City or something, or even smaller than New York City, and then compare it to the United States. It’s easy for countries with very small populations to do particular experimentation. You know: having a more capitalist method of this or a more socialist method of that. They can try these little experiments because the people are more represented, in a sense. It’s a smaller unit of government. It would be like Michigan trying something, or New York City trying something.
So I don’t think you can compare a lot of other countries. And when you look at other large countries, you’re talking about China and India and Brazil and Indonesia. And there are some countries out there that are big, but we obviously are the one that is the most free when you look at countries of that size. And so I don’t think that there are other role models for us. I think we have to look at our own history.
And for those who haven’t heard me talk about this before, for many Americans, when you look at our history, they say, “Well, it’s a history of intolerance, and it’s a history of all sorts of wrongs.” And that is true; that’s a part of our history. Our country did not start out as some kind of beautiful flower. It had a lot of problems. There was slavery at the beginning, and evil that was still perpetrated at the beginning of our country. There was, for many, many years, discrimination and segregation on levels that are not comparable to today. Today there’s still discrimination, there’s still racism, but it’s not the same as, say, 50 years ago, or 100 years ago. There were some really bad things perpetrated. Women couldn’t vote for a long time.
So we have gotten better in terms of reforming our institutions. I think we are, in many respects, more of a classical liberal country in terms of our institutions today than we were at the founding. Our Constitution has changed very little over the two-plus centuries. But the changes that have been made have largely been positive. Not all positive, obviously—there are a few amendments in there related to taxation and other things that a lot of people will quibble with, but a lot of the other changes are positive.
The 14th Amendment, for example, put the federal government in a role to protect individual rights in a way that did not exist before. As much as people talk about states’ rights—I hear that all the time—states don’t have rights; individuals have rights. And the job of the government is to secure those rights. We have a federal government that is more suited to securing those rights now, thanks to changes we have made to our Constitution.
So I look at our own history, and how we’ve overcome things and we’ve adapted and we’ve improved, and what’s missing right now is that we have a government that doesn’t respect the system that we’ve created. We put together a great Constitution. It’s a fantastic document for how to operate a government. And then we don’t follow it. We don’t allow the system to actually work in a representative way. And this is why people are so frustrated.
When you go back and read things like The Federalist Papers, they didn’t even conceive of the kind of liberty that we have today. They didn’t even think about the true equality of all people. Yet they could see the brilliance of the system, our system of federalism and separation of powers. They could see the sensibility of having a Bill of Rights back then. They could see how the rule of law was important, even if they didn’t always follow it. They still talked about it and they could still see that it was important. They just were blind to a lot of their evils and wrongs.
Today, I think we are more open to seeing the evils and wrongs. And now we reject the Constitution! It’s weird. They loved the Constitution but couldn’t see the evils they were doing. We see the evils but reject the Constitution. It doesn’t make any sense! Now we’re in the prime position to actually follow the Constitution. We see a lot of the wrongs that are going on, and we have a great Constitution. Let’s follow it!