Justin Amash and the Moral Minority

The Republican representative met with his constituents for the first time since urging Donald Trump’s impeachment.

Justin Amash
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

On Tuesday, Representative Justin Amash faced his constituents for the first time since becoming the only congressional Republican to urge Donald Trump’s impeachment.

For two hours, he stood at the front of a high-school auditorium in Grand Rapids, Michigan, taking comments and questions from a divided crowd. A majority of those present joined a standing ovation after one constituent declared, “I want to salute your courage.” But some attendees insisted that President Trump is the victim of groundless persecution by his political opponents, and that their GOP congressman’s call for impeachment is a betrayal.

Amash got the best of the debates that ensued.

Several Trump supporters alleged that the FBI was guilty of abusing the process for obtaining warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and ought to be punished for spying on the Trump campaign. Why didn’t Amash seem to care about “deep state” abuses like that?

In reply, Amash accurately noted that he has been the leading champion of FISA-reform efforts in the House of Representatives, that he had introduced an amendment that would have reined in the ability of the surveillance community to spy on all Americans, and that both the Trump administration and many congressional Republicans had opposed him, fighting to expand those very powers.

“They don’t support FISA reform,” he declared. “They are not protecting your rights. They want to protect the president. But the rest of you, forget about it. The government can spy on all of you, and they don’t give one crap about it.”

But it was Amash’s comments about character and virtue that best underscored why he presents a potent challenge to Trump loyalists in the Republican Party.  “More than anyone in our government, we need the president to be ethical, to be of high moral character, and to do the right thing,” he said. “And the pattern you find in the Mueller report is someone who does not meet that standard.”

Trump’s moral deficiencies trouble many of Amash’s constituents.

“As a retired educator, a grandparent, a parent, someone who has taught in Sunday schools, I don’t know how we tell our children not to lie, that it’s wrong to lie, when it’s evident throughout the highest levels of government,” one woman said. “I don’t know how we teach our children not to bully on the playground when bullying comments are constantly coming out in the media.”

The crowd responded powerfully when Amash spoke against the example Trump was setting for children, perhaps because Amash made the version of a moral critique most likely to resonate with constitutional conservatives and libertarians. After a Trump supporter noted that the economy is strong and complained that many Americans oppose the president anyway, for example, Amash said:

Think about how well things are going with the economy and people are still so mad. Why is that? … I think it’s because of the tone we’re setting at the top. We’re not treating one another with respect. We need to bring that back. We need to treat one another with love and respect. And we don’t have that right now. If there’s one thing that I pray and hope for our country it’s that we’ll love each other and care about each other regardless of our backgrounds and differences.

This kind of division is dangerous and it destroys liberty.

I’m a big believer in liberty and the Constitution. Nobody cares about liberty in Congress more than I do. One thing you see around the world is liberty cannot survive in a system where people hate each other and where there is no virtue. You can’t have a system like that. Our Founders and Framers talked about that. You have to have people who care about virtue and you have to have love.

If you hate each other, if you disparage each other, other systems prevail … When you have people who are angry and upset at each other all the time, you’re much more likely to create a system where the government takes more control.

Later, another Trump supporter declared that the people applauding Amash for coming out for impeachment might pretend to like him, but were unlikely to vote for him in the next election. He chided Amash to wake up to that reality. Amash replied:

I represent the entire district. So it doesn’t matter to me if a person voted for me or didn’t vote for me, or donated to me or didn’t donate to me. I think I’ve been pretty clear about that. That’s not going to change my principles and who I am … I agree with you that many of the people cheering me on aren’t going to support my campaign. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. This is what it means to be a bigger person. It doesn’t matter to me that some people won’t support me or are hypocritical. You have to do the right thing regardless.

Amash’s criticism of Trump may never spur an impeachment inquiry. But the nature of it forces conservative Trump voters to make a clarifying choice: To stay loyal to a president of bad character, they must attack a man of good character who votes in accordance with the principles they share.