Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Henry Olsen says Justin Amash Acts Like a Typical Democrat Because . . .

Welcome to Crazytown, USA.
May 31, 2019
Henry Olsen says Justin Amash Acts Like a Typical Democrat Because . . .
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf acknowledges that Justin Amash’s lonely stand may not lead to Donald Trump’s impeachment. “But the nature of it,” he wrote, “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.”

As if on cue, the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Henry Olsen accepted the challenge.

Olsen took to the pages of the Washington Post to argue that Amash’s break with Trump was overblown because Amash is “neither unbiased nor a typical Republican.”

Well, yes, we knew that, right? Amash is “biased,” because he has a point of view. And he is surely not a “typical Republican,” or he would be hiding in the tall grass with his colleagues.

Olsen’s point, however, is that Amash is an apostate, who has defected to the other side. Indeed, Olsen writes, the conservative Michigan congressman is really “more like a typical Democrat” because he opposed so many of Trump’s policies, including “the dramatic increase in government spending that Trump has sanctioned,” and his “tariffs and trade policies.”

Eyes rolled. As CNN congressional reporter Haley Byrd (who has profiled Amash) tweeted:

The reality is that Amash is one of Congress’s few consistent conservatives—he’s a libertarian who is respected by members of both parties for his principles, which bear not the slightest resemblance to the Democratic platform.

But Olsen tries to question Amash’s credibility by noting that Amash often splits with his Republican colleagues. He then quotes House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy as saying that Amash “votes more with Nancy Pelosi than he ever votes with me.”

McCarthy’s charge is simply not true. According to FiveThirtyEight’s congressional tracker, Amash voted with Trump’s position 54 percent in the 115th Congress and (so far) 92 percent in the 116th Congress. He votes with McCarthy 69 percent of the time. Yet Olsen parrots his line with total credulity and does not correct the record.  Perhaps because, as Olsen argues, loyalty to GOP these days is not measured by votes, but by pledged fealty.

And on this point, Olsen has been consistent, if disingenuous. In January, when newly-elected senator Mitt Romney penned an op-ed questioning Donald Trump’s character, Olsen lashed back with a piece headlined “Mitt Romney’s op-ed crystallizes all the reasons the old GOP establishment has been pushed aside.” (Because, of course, it was the belief that character counted that was the GOP’s fatal flaw. Or at least that is what Olsen argued.) He wrote:

Romney would like you to believe you can have your cake and eat it, too—that you can be against Trump’s character but for his policies. But that doesn’t work in the real world. Railing about character hurts the president, and Republicans know that.

It was a revealing moment in late-stage Trumpism. Olsen was providing intellectual cover to the argument that no criticism of Trump from the right should be tolerated. If you supported Trump’s policies, then you had to be silent about all the rest—the lies, the grift, the potentially illegal conduct. Everything.

In Olsen’s circular logic, any criticism of Trump is, by definition, an act of disloyalty to the GOP, and therefore none of it constitutes legitimate Republican dissent. To dissent is to betray.

And what exactly was Amash’s betrayal? He took the details of the Mueller report seriously.

Olsen makes no attempt to refute any of Amash’s argument that Trump may have obstructed justice, except to accuse him of prejudging Trump’s guilt by calling for an impeachment inquiry. What really miffs Olsen, though, is that Amash is getting so much attention:

Partisan pundits and Never Trump Republicans have latched on to Amash’s stance as a way to promote their unwavering agenda—the removal of Trump from office. But there’s no reason to think Amash’s decision represents anything more than what it plainly is: a decision by an ideologue who uses his review of the Mueller report to come to a conclusion he had already reached—that Trump is bad for America and needs to go.

And here we come to Olsen’s pièce de résistance:

In this, if in little else, Amash has much in common with the progressive “resistance.” Each believes their ideological ends justifies the means, no matter how divisive impeachment would be for the nation at large.

Let’s unpack the attempt at logic here. Amash is now the equivalent of AOC because he thinks that “ideological ends justify the means”?

But, isn’t this exactly what Olsen has been plumping for? An ends-justify-the-means ethos in which it is bad form for Romney, or Amash, or any Republican to express qualms about Trump’s character, ethics, or the legality of his conduct because . . . judges, tax cuts, immigration, etc.?

Isn’t that the whole point of Olsen’s insistence that Republicans cannot “have their cake and eat it too”? And isn’t it Olsen who argues that you have to break some eggs to make the Trumpian omelet?

In contrast, Amash struck a different note at this week’s townhall meeting. Here’s what he 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.

So yes, as Friedersdorf suggests, we do indeed have a clarifying choice to make.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.