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Justin Amash's decision to leave the GOP reveals a truth Republicans don't want to face

According to some critics, the smarter move would've been for Amash to fight from the inside. But even if Trump is defeated next year, what will taking back the GOP look like?
Image: Justin Amash
Justin Amash walks up the House steps of the Capitol on May 23, 2019.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Last week, Michigan Congressman Justin Amash announced via an oped in the Washington Post that he has left the Republican Party. Given his status as the lone member of the House GOP minority calling for President Donald Trump’s impeachment, this was not an altogether surprising development.

That Amash's departure was a real possibility does not diminish the personal and political courage it took him to take this step. American politics is filled with hundreds of examples, such as former Sen. Phil Gramm (who actually resigned his seat in the House as a Democrat, then ran and won that same seat as a Republican), of legislators switching parties when it appeared their former home was headed the way of the dodo. Far fewer examples, however, exist of a sitting member leaving their party for the cold and lonely plains of political independence.

That Amash's departure was a real possibility does not diminish the personal and political courage it took him to take this step.

The real surprise in Amash’s move, if Twitter is to be believed, was the reluctance with which many never-Trump Republicans supported his decision. According to these critics, the smarter move would have been for Amash to fight for the party from the inside. Such thinking sums up two of the biggest misconceptions of conservative thinking that have taken root since Trump’s unexpected 2016 victory. The first is that once Trump is gone, these elite establishment Republicans will be able to take back the GOP. And the second is that the GOP is going to be able to return from whence it came.

It’s never going to happen.

The Republican Party that I was practically born into, of Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush (both), and longtime House Republican Leader Bob Michel is gone. It’s been gone for a while. We didn’t understand the sickness when it first infected the party back in 2008 in the form of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. We were too slow and too entrenched to recognize the growth when it metastasized during the 2010 Tea Party wave (of which Amash was a part, ironically enough.) Sen. Mitt Romney’s nomination in 2012 let us believe that the establishment was still in charge. But Trump’s unexpected takeover was just the last and most dramatic mutation.

As Amash wrote in the Post, the principles that so many Republican elites (and for decades their voters, too) held dear — small government, strong national defense and individual liberty — have been subsumed in the name of Trump’s unique brand of ugly, populist nationalism that keeps the crowds coming.

Mix in just enough actual policy (driven by Congressional Republicans) in the form of lower taxes (without corresponding spending cuts) and an seemingly endless confirmations of conservative jurists, and even those party grandees and donors who once proudly backed the Bush family and raised millions for Romney have now thrown in the towel. This is the “Trump is a jerk, but he’s good on policy” defense being espoused by many who would never otherwise associate themselves with the chief executive.

But where does it end? Even if Trump is defeated next year, what will “taking back” the GOP look like? How will all those folks who huddle in conference rooms and salons convince millions of conservative voters to give the establishment another chance? What will make this effort different and more palatable? How will they convince the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that Rockefeller Republicans are worth aligning with?

The truth is, the GOP hasn’t provided a reasonable, conservative option for voters in elections at the local, state and national level for close to a decade. And if Trump is victorious in 2020, there appears no clear plan for 2024 when someone like Sen. Ted Cruz could be the (unlikely) heir apparent. Cruz is no more palatable to most never-Trump Republicans than Trump. In fact, in many ways he’s scarier — Cruz actually know what he wants to do.

The truth is, the GOP hasn’t provided a reasonable, conservative option for voters in elections at the local, state and national level for close to a decade.

The issue facing so many Republican rebels extends far beyond just their own tribe. Regardless of who the Democrats nominate in 2020, and regardless of the election’s outcome, the system that we believed existed prior to Barack Obama’s election may not be coming back, either.

The country is currently in a state of perpetual political change. The parties have less and less ability to control who runs under their banner (Trump and self-identified Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders being the most notable examples) and before long whatever overarching ideology or program the elephant or donkey once represented will be consumed by forces unleashed by both and as yet uncontrollable.

Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, we should not be surprised to see more candidates with two distinct backgrounds. The first will be those like Trump with no political experience, no pre-formed ideology but a singular ability to garner attention and keep themselves in the middle of the conversation.

The others will represent hardline, unflinching ideologues, never attempting to convert those not of the faith. Instead, these politicians will rely on the double-edged sword of increased activist turnout and unaffiliated voters left with two terrible choices and throwing darts in hopes of not sinking the ship altogether. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not a fluke. She’s the canary in the coal mine. There will be more AOC’s in our future, not fewer.

The good news, for those of us who no longer live and die by the latest breathless cable TV moment or Washington-based contretemps, is that today there exists a latency in the American electorate, one that is ready and willing to throw the two-party system bums out on their ears.

Back in late January, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced on “60 Minutes” that he was considering an independent presidential bid. Within a week, Schultz was earning double-digit support in national surveys. The Democrats in the midst of their mania, said Schultz would only help reelect Trump. Much of the establishment media, predictably, brushed off these numbers as not enough to win, but only proof Schultz would play spoiler.

Schultz’s critics missed the point then, and America’s political establishment is still missing it today. That a former CEO with no political experience or program started in double digits simply by sounding sane should have sent shockwaves through the political system.

Instead, the politico-media hive (myself included) did what it’s gotten fat and happy doing: It ignored the warning signs of a bigger movement at work. We gave in to the echo chamber.

The confirmation bias that gave us Trump, and should have been smashed into a million pieces, is alive and well today. The next shock to the system will be even more extreme. On this highway into the political unknown there are plenty of off-ramps; Rep. Justin Amash is just the first to use his turn signal. Meanwhile, there are millions more ready to further upend an already moribund system. When they finally do, let’s hope we have leaders with the vision to point us in a new, different direction.