Five-term Michigan Congressman Justin Amash has announced that he’s running for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, which will be decided in late May. The 40-year-old son of Middle Eastern immigrants took office in 2011 as a Republican but left the party last July, saying he didn’t want to be part of a partisan death spiral. He has consistently voted against corporate bailouts, increases in debt-financed government spending, overseas military interventions, and the prosecution of the federal drug war.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Amash has castigated federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, first for botching containment efforts and then for asserting monopoly control over testing. He was one of a mere handful of no votes on the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, arguing that all relief payments should go directly to individuals and households rather than corporations, nonprofits, or government agencies.
Nick Gillespie talked with Amash about why he thinks Donald Trump is too erratic to be given a second term, why Joe Biden is too old for a first term, and why he believes his vision of a freer country will take him to victory in November.
Audio production by Ian Keyser.
This is a rush transcript. Please check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: Okay, so let’s get right to it. Why are you running for president as a Libertarian?
Justin Amash: Well, I’m running for president because I think we need an alternative to these two candidates and we need someone in Washington who’s going to be honest and practical and respect the rights of the people and fight for a system that will benefit the people.
Gillespie: So what’s your vision of the country then? And I’m sorry to chop you off there because you’re talking about fairness and competency, but then in broader terms, what is the country you want to live in?
Justin Amash: I want to live in a country where people feel they have freedom to make decisions for their own lives and where people live respectfully with one another. So if someone has a difference of opinion, someone has a different perspective on how things might work, we can all live together, and we don’t all have to have the same exact rules from community to community. That’s why we have a system of federalism: different people can live in different places and make different choices about their lives. And I think that’s the system the Founders really intended. And we’ve perfected that over the years—we’ve perfected the system so we actually have, at least under our Constitution, more freedoms, more protections today for the people to make decisions for themselves.
Yet at the same time we have a government that has been moving in the other direction in recent decades because of how they run the system, where they’ve been consolidating power in just a few people and taking away representation, and moving more and more to the federal government and away from state governments, local governments, and individuals.
Gillespie: Let’s talk about that more broadly in a second. But right now the reason we’re doing this the way we are is because of the coronavirus pandemic and the state and federal responses to it. And I think in talking about this it will illuminate your larger ideas about government. But what is the single biggest mistake that Donald Trump has made and the federal government has made in combating or confronting the novel coronavirus pandemic?
Justin Amash: They were very slow right from the get-go, in terms of getting testing, finding the individuals who had the initial cases. And we don’t know exactly when that happened either. There is some evidence that maybe it started earlier in the states than we realized, but there wasn’t enough of an effort when we first heard about it coming out of China to find those cases and also get the testing ramped up really quickly so that people could be tested and we could contain it. And part of that is a regulatory issue. Just the FDA and the CDC getting in the way of the ability of private labs to actually get the tests out there.
Gillespie: Right. And that’s what they exist for, and they were not prepared and then getting in the way. What about and that’s kind of the long-term government. These are lifers, it’s not political appointees. What has Trump done that you think is either right or wrong in the way that he’s kind of responded to things?
Justin Amash: I think his instincts about the way the power should be split up is probably right. He has some instincts about the federal government not managing everything at the top. He conveys it in totally the wrong way and he vacillates from day-to-day. So one day he’ll say he has ultimate authority and he controls the whole thing. I don’t know if he’s trying to appeal to some group, or own someone with that kind of statement, or what he’s trying to do, but then the next day he’ll go back to the states should handle things.
He’s vacillated, but in some sense I think he probably has some instincts that are right about this, that one person or one small group of people sitting at a table can’t make all of these determinations that you have to divide the process, and you have to use the knowledge that’s at home. But he’s been both good and bad in the sense that, like I said, he vacillates. One day he’ll say he has ultimate power and controls everything; the next day he’ll say, which I think is probably closer to his instincts, to say that we need to divide this up a little bit.
Gillespie: You have been critical of your governor in Michigan, Governor Whitmer. What would you do differently if you were president, or if you were governor of your specific state?
Justin Amash: So setting aside for now the relief package—because I think the relief packages is a whole nother issue—I would be very clear about the division of powers in our system and very clear that the White House is there to coordinate things. It’s there to provide guidance, it’s there to provide assistance. It’s there to help when there aren’t sufficient resources. So some states might have a massive surge like New York, and the state might need resources that it can’t obtain quickly. The federal government might step up in that circumstance, whereas for some other states maybe there’s not the same need because you know it might be some state out in the Mountain West, or something, where they don’t have the same immediate need for the federal government to step in. So the federal government would be there to assist and provide guidance.
As for how state government should operate: state governments obviously have more authority to shut things down if you will, like tell businesses they’re not going to operate, etc., than the federal government does. But you have to be mindful of the way people react to it. So if I were a state governor—which I’m not running for to be clear—but if I were a state governor, I would give communities, particularly counties for example in the state of Michigan, more authority to make decisions along with the cities in those counties.
Like I live near the city of Grand Rapids and you might give those counties and cities more authority to make decisions about how to allocate resources and handle the virus in the particular community. Because there’s a big difference between, say, what’s happening on the east side of the state and what’s happening on the west side of the state. And some of the rules you put in place on the east side of the state might not make a lot of sense on the west side of the state and might actually lead to more deaths and more economic devastation than would otherwise happen if you just allowed people to make decisions at home.
Gillespie: From a public health perspective, do you think we have overreacted to the problem so far?
Justin Amash: It’s hard to say whether we’ve overreacted in the sense that it is a big issue. We don’t know what will happen with the virus, so at first you have to take some pretty extraordinary measures. But a lot of these measures can be taken by society. I’m not sure that they all have to be compelled by government, and that’s a big difference between my approach and maybe some of these governor’s approaches, where I would say you can make more decisions at home and there’s a lot of reasons to think that people would make voluntarily the right decisions. There’s actually data on this showing that many people would just make the right decisions in these circumstances. I’m sure governors nudging it along does also help, but you want to give people the most room possible. We’ve overreacted in some ways and maybe underacted in other ways.
Gillespie: Let’s talk about The Cares Act, the $2.2 trillion spending bill passed a few weeks ago by Congress. You were one of the few people who were public in Congress who was publicly on the record as saying “no,” you actually entered a no vote even though it had been done by voice vote. What is the essential mistake that is being made by the way that the federal government economically is dealing with the economic collapse caused by the shutdown of the economy?
Justin Amash: It’s pretty simple: When you have a crisis like this, the key is to get assistance to people who need it the most as fast as possible. It’s that simple. You don’t spend time, weeks and weeks like they did, coming up with a convoluted scheme and negotiating it back and forth about, well we want this enhancement, and we want this change, and we want this provision and we want these restrictions, and we want these other guidelines and other. You’ve made it too complicated for people.
And you slow the process down so that by the time they get the assistance they need, it’s already too late. They’re already in trouble. And what happened with this coronavirus relief package is the massive pot of corporate welfare, the $500 billion for the Federal Reserve, that went out pretty quickly because the federal reserve and minutia and they can get that stuff out quickly to the big corporations. And then this convoluted scheme at the bottom with PPP and enhanced unemployment benefits, etc. It’s very slow. I have constituents right now who can not get the unemployment benefits they need. I have small businesses in my community that can not get the loans they need, so they’re struggling right now. They have to go to food banks and other things, and they could have had assistance very quickly and it could have been done at a lower cost than what we spent, which is up to now about $3 trillion, I would guess.
Gillespie: Yeah. So what would you say is Donald Trump’s biggest failure as president? And what do you fear most from a second term of Donald Trump?
Justin Amash: Well, there are lots of policy failures. For example, he talked about getting us out of the wars. He didn’t get us out of the wars. I mean it’s always like next week we’re going to do something or we’re coming up with some deal with someone and it’ll happen sometime in the future. So there’s a lot of talk of that kind of stuff. You see him talk about FISA of course, because of what happened with respect to his campaign and with respect to the Russia investigation. But then when it comes to the legislation that comes through where we try to reform FISA, he hasn’t been helpful in any way really with respect to FISA reform. And you’re getting the same stuff brought over and over again and he’s putting a stamp on it and signing the legislation to continue the same kind of surveillance laws that have violated our privacy.
Look at civil asset forfeiture to. Another example where he’s continued the civil asset forfeiture process and actually enhanced it where you have federal adoptive forfeitures happening, so there are—I could go policy after policy and Donald Trump in most respects is an establishment Republican. He essentially merged with Mitch McConnell at some point. He took his rhetoric and his style and merged it with Mitch McConnell’s policies and that’s what you have now. That’s basically the Republican party.
Gillespie: That’s a terrifying apparition to be quite honest with you.
Justin Amash: Yeah, it’s basically Mitch McConnell’s policy with Donald Trump’s style and that’s today’s Republican party, which is a frightening combination.
Gillespie: Yeah, what do you fear most in a second term? Does he take us finally over the fiscal cliff that seems to be in the immediate future, but we haven’t yet reached?
Justin Amash: I didn’t even mention the spending and all that. Even when the economy was good, he kept signing these spending bills and saying the debt doesn’t matter, the deficit doesn’t matter. So I do see us going off a cliff. I don’t think that the president cares at all about the deficit or debt. I think he’ll just keep running it up. What he cares about is reelection, his ego, people loving him, that kind of thing. And anything to get him to that point where he has adoration and he gets enough of the percentage of the vote to win, that’s what he cares about.
Gillespie: So you’ve said that we were talking about Donald Trump, switching to Joe Biden. You said that Joe Biden is not up to it, meaning the job of being president. What do you mean by that? And what is your assessment—Biden was in the senate basically longer than you’ve been alive. He was the vice president for eight years. What is your knock on Joe Biden?
Justin Amash: Well, there are lots of things to criticize here, but I do think that he’s had his opportunity. He’s run twice for president. He’s had a long career in politics. I don’t think the time to become president is when we’ve got Donald Trump in office and then you’re running and you’re 77, 78 years old, or whatever he is at this point, and you’re going to turn 80 during your term. I think he is not at the prime of his career to be able to handle a job of that kind of pressure. And my dad’s 80 years old, we all have older parents and grandparents and others. We know that it becomes difficult as they get older to manage something like being the head of the executive branch. So you want to have someone who’s more in their prime. And I think that matters.
Justin Amash: And when you look at Biden’s policies, he’s been all over the board throughout his career, but he’s pushed for some of the most anti-liberty policies that we know about.
Gillespie: Name a couple of those? What are those?
Justin Amash: Whether it’s an expansion of federal criminalization—he was at the forefront of that for many years. With respect to privacy laws, he was pushing for programs and other surveillance laws that eventually evolved into things like the Patriot Act and FISA. He’s been terrible on corporate welfare and a variety of corporate issues over the years, giving more power to corporations at the expense of people. So there’s a long list of things you could go through with Joe Biden where he has been essentially an establishment Democrat-Republican. They’re not that far off in many respects on some of these major policies.
And that’s not really what we need right now. If you go back to the status quo, you’re going to end up with another Donald Trump. If you revert to pre-Donald Trump, Republican versus Democratic battles, you’re just going to get another Donald Trump because the people are not happy with this system. It doesn’t represent them. And they’re going to rise up again, and it might be a Democratic Donald Trump or it might be a Republican Donald Trump, but you’ll get another one.
Gillespie: Biden was obviously part of the Obama administration, which gave us health care reform. Health care is more important now than ever because of Coronavirus. What is your assessment of Obamacare at the time—you were a staunch opponent? Where are we now in terms of health care and how would you reform health care spending or the insurance system?
Justin Amash: Well, I think you can have some sort of government backstop, but it should be handled at the state level, not at the federal level. So you mostly want to have a private market and then you want to have some kind of backstop for people who don’t have proper coverage. And that might be some kind of expansion of a Medicaid-style system or something like that, that’s handled at the state level and gives people the assurance that when things aren’t going well for them and they need some healthcare and they don’t have the insurance to cover it, there will be someone to cover it.
But when you do things like that it needs to be understood that the government will have to make decisions about what’s covered and what’s not. Because if you set it up so that it covers every single thing under the sun, no matter what, the cost will go through the roof because there’s no limit on that if you don’t have private actors.
Nick Gillespie: Trump and Biden have both been credibly accused of sexual assault. Can you state definitively that you have never assaulted anyone or acted improperly toward them? And how do you balance concern for victims with concerns for due process of the accused?
Justin Amash: Yes, I can say that definitively. And I think it’s important that everyone have due process. In other words, if an accusation is made, you can’t just say the person is guilty without a trial and a proper venue and all that. You can’t just rush the judgment on it. Because accusations can be made that are false and we should be willing to acknowledge that.
At the same time when someone makes an accusation, I think we should not rush the judgment about the accuser because it very well could be a real situation where the person was harmed, and we should respect people who are making the accusation and give them the full opportunity to make their case and to present evidence and have that evidence corroborated.
Gillespie: Do you think if Joe Biden is guilty of digitally penetrating Tara Reade that disqualifies him from running for president or holding public office?
Justin Amash: I think anyone is disqualified if they’ve engaged in some kind of assault, like especially a sexual assault. So I think that’s disqualifying him. But for my part, on this campaign, I’m focused on other issues, and I think that needs to be sorted out, but it will be sorted out through the media and through the parties involved.
Gillespie: Foreign policy—you’ve raised it a couple of times already. Donald Trump had talked a good game about getting us out of dumb wars, overseas wars. Foreign policy and military intervention has faded a bit over the past few months, at least as the topic of discussion, where, obviously, we still have troops all over the place, we’re still working with countries that are bombing and droning people. What is your vision for the US as a world power especially in a world where China and other regional actors or world powers are starting to flex? What does an Amash foreign policy look like?
Justin Amash: We need to be engaged with the world, but that doesn’t mean we have to be at war throughout the world. So I’m not opposed to bodies where countries from around the world come and meet like the UN and can engage and discuss things, that doesn’t mean that we should give those bodies authority over U.S. citizens to decide laws for our people, but it does mean that these can be positive venues where countries can come together and hash things out and work through differences. I think that kind of dialogue is always important, and it would be a mistake for the US to retreat from the world in the sense of not talking or engaging with other countries. We have to have that engagement. And if we don’t have that engagement, if we don’t have that interaction, if we don’t have trade with other countries as well, you will have countries like China come in and take advantage of the situation and potentially present a threat to us down the road. So we want to have that engagement.
As for wars and having our troops everywhere, those things have to be authorized and I think the American people have to be firmly behind it with a congressional authorization. And so often we’ve heard presidents say, “We’re going to end this war or that war,” but nothing ever happens.
What I would say if I were president in the first few days of my presidency, I would look at these wars that are going on overseas and I would tell Congress, if I don’t think the war has an authorization, I would say to Congress, “Give me an authorization for this conflict within 90 days. If you don’t do that, we’re bringing the troops home.” And force their hand on it. And then if the American people support engagement in that war, then they can authorize their representatives and senators to vote for that engagement. That’s how that should be handled.
Gillespie: Can you talk about why? What are your qualifications to run the country? You’re a five-term congressman, but is that enough? How are you qualified to actually assume the office of the presidency?
Justin Amash: Yeah, and I’m sure you didn’t mean to say run the country because as we know the president is not running the country. But I think it’s important that I do have a background in Congress. I’ve served nine years in Congress, and I understand the problems. And I think I’ve uniquely defined and identified the problems over the past few years when I’ve talked about the way Congress operates, the way it is a top-down system. And I wrote about the partisan death spiral that’s going on.
There hasn’t been a member of Congress who’s emphasized those points more and I think has gotten to the bottom of what’s really hindering our system and causing people to not feel represented at home. When you have a few people at the top who control everything, of course, people at home are going to feel like they don’t have real representation in Washington and it also enhances the partisanship. Because when people can’t fight on policy, what they start doing is fighting on personalities. And you get more partisan sniping, you get more sticking with your team, because there’s nothing else to do. You’re not actually working on crafting legislation. So when Pelosi says, “We’re doing this,” you stick with her because that’s your team. Or when McConnell says, “We’re doing this,” you stick with him.
And that’s a really dangerous environment, and I recognize that. And I think I’m uniquely suited to challenging that system because I’ve shown in Congress my determination on these things, my willingness to go it alone if I have to, to stand up for what’s right. I’ve been willing to break from my party when I was a Republican many times on many difficult issues because we understood what was going on and we did, in my office, we did what we thought was right. I think those are important considerations.
I’ve also pushed for rules changes in the House. For example, I was able to change the House rules to make the bills we read look more like track changes in a Word document so that people could more easily read legislation because for a long time you had people having to just do cross-references on the bills where you have to go back and forth. And at least for the committee report portion of the bills now, you are getting them in more of a track-changes form.
It doesn’t go all the way through the process, it doesn’t go as far as I would like, but I was at least able to get that change through. And those are the kind of ideas. There are a lot of process ideas that I think need to come into play if we want to fix the system. And most people are focused on substance, and I’ve been very focused on process over the past nine years.
Gillespie: Let’s go back to generational politics for a moment. You have essentially said Joe Biden is too old to be an effective president. Donald Trump is much younger and shows scattered thoughts and whatnot. Millennials and Gen Z voters are less partisan. The older you get, the more likely you are to just keep voting for one party or the other. They’re also the ones who are going to be paying for the $23, $24 trillion debt. Can you talk specifically to younger Americans, how does having that much debt screw them over and kind of beggar their future?
Justin Amash: Well, if they have that kind of debt, they have a very uncertain future because there’s no guarantee that our economic system can sustain that kind of debt in the future. Right now, of course, we’ve been able to handle it, we’ve remained the strongest economy in the world, but that’s all not guaranteed. Things can change in the future. You could have a situation where another country starts to rise, and it starts to gain prominence, and its currency starts to become a dominant currency, and you could have then a massive debt problem in this country where things spiral out of control, there’s massive inflation or very high interest rates and the people left holding the bag will be the next generation who have to pay back all of this debt and can’t spend the money then on the things that they want to spend on in the present.
Gillespie: Younger voters also care a lot about immigration, ending the drug war, emptying prisons, and reducing economic inequality. Can we go through these real quick? What is your basic position on immigration?
Justin Amash: I support immigration and I think we need to fix our immigration system so that people can come here lawfully. Right now what we have is a system where millions of people come here unlawfully. And you’ll probably have the same number of people arriving in the United States, it’s just that they would be lawful and that would be a benefit to our country. Because then instead of hiding, many of these people would go and integrate into society in a way that is beneficial to all of us. It would be more likely for those who are concerned about people learning English or people assimilating into communities, they’d be much more likely to do so if they come here lawfully and are welcomed as lawful residents of the United States and potentially lawful citizens of the United States. So we should do that.
And I come from a family of immigrants. My parents are both immigrants and they were welcomed here to the United States. My dad was welcomed as a refugee, and that, I’m sure, made a big difference in his life and a big difference in my mom’s life, in how they integrated and how they felt about America as a country. And that was instilled in me as a child where I understood what a blessing it was to be born in this country, and how much better off we have it than so many other countries in the world. This is the best country on earth. And I really sought to preserve it and uphold our constitutional system. That’s why I ran for office so that we could preserve this for the next generation.
Gillespie: Would you be in favor of an immigration policy that is essentially if you want to come here and work and live legally, you can, as long as you don’t have communicable diseases or a violent criminal past?
Justin Amash: I think for the most part, yes. Anytime you have a policy, it’s never laid out that simply, so you want to work through all the details and make sure you’ve covered all the bases. But for the most part, yeah. If someone wants to come to the United States and work here and be a resident of the United States, we should make that as open and possible as we can.
Gillespie: What about the drug war at the federal level? Obviously a lot of drug war stuff happens at the state level, but what should the federal government’s role be in telling people what substances they can or cannot use?
Justin Amash: I don’t think the federal government should have a role in that. I believe that should be left to the states. States can make those decisions, and states are perfectly equipped to make those decisions. There’s no reason you should have one government, the federal government, telling everyone what to do. And when you do that, you also have state laws now that conflict with the federal law and you might even have local laws that conflict with the state laws.
In some places, like Michigan for a while, we had a huge conflict where the City of Grand Rapids had a different law than the state of Michigan, which had a different law than the federal government. And that’s a total mess. So depending on which officer approaches you, you’re in trouble in different ways.
Gillespie: What’s your vision in terms of economic mobility and economic inequality? It seems that the spread between the richest Americans and poorest Americans is growing. In your mind, is economic opportunity dwindling in America? And if so, how? What are the types of policies as president you can support or push that would make that better?
Justin Amash: I think there is a gap between the rich and the poor that is widening, and you can see it in businesses. You can see that people who have professional skills are often advancing while people with blue-collar skills are being left behind. And some of that is due to automation, some of that is due to productivity gains through technology and other things, and perhaps trade in some instances too. So we have to find ways to make sure that people are educated. I think this starts with the education system. And these are mostly state-level issues, not federal issues. But finding ways for adults who are in difficult circumstances to get education and training in new fields, I think, is really important.
But, again, it’s not something that has to happen at the federal level, it makes more sense at the state level. The needs of the state of Michigan are going to be very different from the needs of New Mexico or Idaho or some other state, or the state of New York. So we have to allow states to make more of those decisions, and base it on the needs of the people there.
Gillespie: What about environmental issues? And again, keeping it kind of focused on younger voters, who I suspect may be the ones that give you the longest look. Most polls show that millennials, Gen Z people, really care about things like climate change. Is climate change a priority—would it be a priority in an Amash presidency? And how do you conceptualize government action when it comes to environmental issues?
Justin Amash: It is really important. And I believe climate change is happening. I want to be clear about that because you sometimes hear from elected officials and it’s not clear where they stand on that. I believe there is climate change. I believe it’s very important. I believe that humans do affect it, and that we should take action with respect to climate change. But we have to be smart about the actions we take. And some of the things we can do, for example, would be to look into further nuclear power, and finding ways to get nuclear power in this country because it is a relatively safe form of production and very low emissions compared to other forms of energy.
There’s a lot of pushback about that, whenever you talk about nuclear power, but I think it’s important to consider it. I also think we need to make sure we’re not subsidizing any particular energy sources. So to the extent there are oil subsidies or any other subsidies, we should get those subsidies out of the way and allow people in the market to make decisions about how they get their energy.
And then, we need to continue to make sure that we’re innovating as a country. And that really happens at the private sector level. So, for individuals who are buying a product, if they want to have an energy-efficient product, go buy that product. I do my best to try to buy energy-efficient products. I love the idea of electric cars as much as I love a V8 and manual transmission.
Gillespie: You are from Michigan, right?
Justin Amash: Yeah. So love the idea though of having electric vehicles. I love the idea of wind power and solar power and other things. I think that private actors need to get more involved and companies need to make it more of a priority. Companies themselves can get together and present their own metrics and present that to the public. There’s no reason companies, for example, couldn’t show off all the time about how environmentally friendly they are with their products. And then the people who like that can go buy that product, and it would be a very high proportion of the United States.
What I always warn people is that we need to have that balance. If you put too many regulations in place, you may stifle innovation in a way that actually hurts the economy and hurts the climate. Because if the economy goes bad, people stop caring about innovation as much. When you’re really struggling, you’re not as worried about the energy-efficient refrigerator or vehicle. You’re more worried about, can you put your food in something and can you get to work? You’re not thinking can I pay a few hundred dollars more or a thousand dollars more for this energy-efficient model. So we want to keep the economy strong.
Gillespie: Your congressional colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a while back made a huge splash with the Green New Deal. Joe Biden has signed on to at least some version of that. You are not a supporter of the Green New Deal, are you? And if not, what’s wrong with it?
Justin Amash: Well, I haven’t read the Green New Deal, but from what I’ve heard about it it’s a lot of guidance and other things. There may be some parts of it that are okay in terms of just providing guidance and suggestions, but I haven’t really spent time with it and I couldn’t really answer the question effectively.
Gillespie: Okay. Let’s talk about your chances of actually winning and reception of your announcement, which has been pretty extreme in many ways. At least in libertarian circles, I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm, everywhere else, not so much, and we’ll talk about that in a second. But you told my colleague Matt Welch just the other day that you wouldn’t be running unless you thought you could win. Realistically, what’s the possible path for you to get 270 electoral votes?
Justin Amash: Well, it depends on what voters do. My job is to get out there and get the message to the people. I’m doing lots of interviews, I’m talking to journalists, I’m talking to delegates, I’m talking to people around the country doing video conferencing. I’m trying to get the message out there, and I believe that if you hear this message for many months and then you compare and contrast me to the other candidates, you will see a big difference. You will see that the more capable candidate is the one running for the Libertarian Party nomination and is serving as Libertarian Party candidate, if I earn that nomination.
So I think that’s really important. Just getting my face out there, getting media hits and trying to get that message out there because I think that it will be an appealing message. At the end of the day, I think people just want someone who’s normal, honest, practical and capable. That’s what they want. And when you look at that criteria, Donald Trump doesn’t fit the bill and Joe Biden in most respects, doesn’t fit the bill.
So I think there’s a real opportunity here and maybe this situation where we’re all working from home and we can do all these video conferencing outreaches, maybe that will actually help get the message out there.
Nick Gillespie: Talk a bit about that because not only as a Libertarian or as a third-party candidate, you’re already starting with kind of support deficit and all of that. But now we’re in an age where it may not even be that you can have rallies of more than five people or something. How does that challenge you or how do you think that gives you an opportunity? How do you campaign for president in an era of social distancing?
Justin Amash: In the short run, I think it’s an opportunity for me because I don’t have high name ID. So if Donald Trump goes anywhere in the country, people know who he is. He can hold a big rally. Joe Biden, for the most part too, I don’t know that he’s been holding big rallies like that, but he could do it.
I have pretty low name ID, so I’m starting from scratch. For me, it’s an advantage to start an outreach in this format, where we’re doing video conferencing, where we are able to reach out to people digitally. I think that’s an advantage as I grow my name identification over time. And then once I’ve built up enough name ID and gotten my message out there enough, we can go from city to city and hold some rallies. So, hopefully, that will happen later in the cycle. But I think right now this presents an opportunity.
Gillespie: Let me give you a couple of quotes and I’d like you to respond to them. These are people responding to your announcement. George Conway, a prominent, never-Trump Republican. He’s married to Kellyanne Conway, who’s in the White House administration. He said, “The only real effect Amash could have in this campaign is to enhance Trump’s chances. This is a terrible idea.” What do you think about that?
Justin Amash: It’s not based on any evidence or math. Nobody has any real evidence of this, and the math is impossible. People keep pretending that it’s actually possible to figure this out, and it’s mathematically not possible because there are so many variables.
Gillespie: Is your support more likely to come from disaffected Trump voters or disaffected Biden voters?
Justin Amash: This is the way I look at it, and, like I said, it’s mathematically impossible to figure this out because there are too many variables. There are a couple hundred million voters in the United States, potential voters, and there are infinite preferences. So each voter has a different set of preferences. You’d never figure out what the number of possibilities are. You can’t figure out all the permutations on this kind of thing. And so to analyze it and figure out who’s going to vote for who, I don’t know.
What I would say anecdotally, my instincts, especially interacting with people and talking to people over the past year or so, are that if people are worried about potential Trump voters who might go to Joe Biden or might go to me, what I would say is this: if you look at Trump voters who are…Let me put it this way, Republicans who don’t like Trump but are still voting for Trump, versus Republicans who don’t like Trump but are voting for Biden, which group do you think is bigger? I would say that the bigger group is Republicans who don’t like Trump but are voting for Trump. That’s probably the pool that I will pull more people from anecdotally. But again, we can’t figure that out. Nobody knows the answer.
Gillespie: Will you actualize or kind of activate people who are not interested in politics to do something? And this was Ron Paul, who is a mentor figure in many ways. He, in 2008 and 2012, seemed to bring people into politics who otherwise didn’t care. He wasn’t necessarily making people switch. Is that your goal or do you think is that the thing that you need to do in order to be a real force in this election?
Justin Amash: I think there are some Republicans who will vote for me. There are some Democrats who will vote for me. And then there’s a large swath of voters, which is probably the plurality of the United States, who aren’t closely affiliated with either of the parties. And I think many of them often don’t vote and it gives them an opportunity to vote for someone they actually want to be in the White House. So it’s possible it changes that dynamic in a very big way, but we can’t know until we try it.
I think everyone spends so much time trying to figure out what’s going to happen instead of just trying it and seeing what happens. And I wouldn’t try it if I didn’t believe it was winnable. When you look at the groups of voters out there and the opportunities, it is a winnable thing, and we should try that and we should give people more options on the ballot. At the end of the day, if you don’t want to vote for someone, don’t vote for that person. Nobody is required to vote for me. Nobody’s required to vote for the other two candidates either, so just vote for the one you want, and that’s the person who will win if they get the most votes.
Gillespie: To talk about polarization, you left the Republican Party partly because obviously you disagree with the way the Republican Party is going on things like spending immigration, military interventions. But also you said you left because you didn’t want to be party to a partisan death spiral, and kind of tribalist loyalties that were destroying the country. And obviously I agree with you. Matt Welch and I co-wrote a book called The Declaration of Independents about how independent voters are the single largest group. It’s about 40 percent of voters identify at least when polled as independent. But to talk about this tribalism, in your district in Michigan, you went from winning re-election by 60 percent, to when you started criticizing Donald Trump, suddenly you’re getting all kinds of flack. And when you became an independent, you’re facing a challenge where you probably according to many polls wouldn’t win. It’s not a sign that tribalism is actually alive and well, it might be ugly and stupid, but it seems to be a major, major force in the way politics operates.
Justin Amash: Well, just to correct you on that point, in my district, when you talk about this race, the polling did not actually show that I would be in trouble. There was no polling on a general election, no public polling on a general election that had me as an independent. There was no such polling done and all of our polling had me in the lead or very competitive at the top of a three-way race. So we felt very confident in this race, and I was able to outrace everyone in the race until I decided to pause my fundraising.
I think that when you look at what happened in this district, my favorability went up when I became an independent because people are sick of the two parties, and they’re sick of all the fighting, and they want someone who’s going to go to Washington and represent them and stop worrying about the partisan nonsense.
So I think people are ready to abandon these parties and move toward a system that is more independent. But, in the meantime, I do think we need a competitor to these two parties. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. I can win this district as an independent, but many other people would not dare to try it because it is a complicated thing to run without that kind of support behind you and apparatus like a party. So most people aren’t that comfortable doing that. So in the meantime, in the short run, I’d say in the next decade or so, you have to have a strong competitor and that competitor can be the Libertarian Party.
Gillespie: Yeah. Two quick questions. One is, are you not running for re-election for your congressional seat now?
Justin Amash: That’s right, yeah. I’m running for one seat at a time, so I’m running for the White House.
Gillespie: So here’s a question for you: Reason obviously has a lot of fans who are registered with the Libertarian Party. You have not yet won the nomination there. That will be held in May at their nominating convention. What is your specific message to Libertarian Party members, and particularly those delegates. There’s about a thousand of them who will decide the Libertarian Party candidate. Why should it be you as opposed to people who have been laboring in the fields of the L.P. for four years now?
Justin Amash: Well, I’ve been a libertarian my whole life, a small l libertarian. And I brought that to Congress and served in Congress as a small l libertarian for more than nine years and was able to bring those principles to the table and to fight for libertarian principles.
Justin Amash: I became an independent because I realized that these two parties weren’t cutting it, and I thought genuinely that I could make the Republican party a more libertarian party, because when I first joined the Republican Party, they espoused some principles, at least on paper, that were closer to libertarianism than what we see today.
So I thought I could change the party. I became an independent and wanted to change the system that way. I’m coming to the Libertarian Party at a later stage than I’d like. But, at the same time, I’ve been a libertarian, a small l libertarian, my whole life. I’m going to work to earn their support over the next few weeks. I’m going to spend time reaching out to delegates and reaching out to the party to make sure that they feel comfortable with me. And I’m committed to the party. So, yes, I’m just starting in the party, but I’m going to serve in Congress as a Libertarian. I’m going to change my ID to Libertarian. I’m committed to working with the party and making the party a major competitor and, not just in this cycle, but in future cycles as well.
Gillespie: You came to Congress as part of a Tea Party-wave back in the 2010 elections. Do you think the combination of both the lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic, and the spending that is coming out of that—do you think that’s capable of creating a new set of political movements, like the financial crisis did? Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement came out of that? Do you think something like that is going to happen or might happen coming out of this particular situation we’re in right now?
Justin Amash: I think it’s possible. I hope it’s channeled in the right direction. Some of it seems to be protesters who are rallying for Trump. And if they’re rallying for Trump, I think they’re missing the point a little bit. A lot of the things the states are doing, for example, that restrict rights are at the behest of the administration through its own guidance. It might not be firmly pushed by the administration, but it’s the administration’s guidance that is leading to it.
So I think we have to be careful and channel it in the right direction. We need to channel our frustration toward making sure that our rights are protected generally and not into some kind of partisan message about one party is good and the other party is bad. And you can see that also in the economic relief package. You can’t just blame one party for it. So we can’t have it be a partisan message again.
Gillespie: I mean it was, truly, like the Patriot Act and actually the TARP bailouts, this was almost passed unanimously, right?
Justin Amash: That’s right, with very few exceptions. There were maybe a few of us who submitted a no vote on the record. I don’t know how many, but you can count them on your fingers.
And it was Republicans and Democrats working together to bail out the big companies, help those who are well connected very quickly, and then leave millions of other people behind who really needed the help. So, if we can channel it in the right direction, I think we can have a movement that is actually a libertarian movement that can upset the status quo and push back against these two parties.
Gillespie: Presidents often, or presidential candidates typically talk about their biography as a form of political expression. You mentioned your parents are immigrants. Your father was a refugee from Palestine. Is that correct?
Justin Amash: Yeah, that’s right.
Gillespie: Okay. And you have kids. So, I mean, you’re first-generation born in America. How do you see your personal history as somehow illustrating something that is meaningful about America? And what are the hopes and dreams for the country that your kids will live in, other than paying off all of the bills because of the legislation that your colleagues decided they should be paying for?
Justin Amash: Well, the one thing that gives me hope is that America has always risen to the task. So, we’ve had a lot of challenges in the past. There are times where things looked grim or where we took steps that looked like there were steps backward. And we’ve come through it and found ways to expand liberty. And sometimes it can take decades. It might not happen overnight. But we’ve found ways to move forward and improve the country.
I think, in most respects, when it comes to our laws, the major laws affecting our rights, you have more liberty in a great sense today than you did before. Now, you have a government that has consolidated a lot of power in other ways, but there are also a lot of advancements. For example, you didn’t even have gay marriage—it wasn’t that long ago that you didn’t have gay marriage in this country. It wasn’t that long ago, frankly, that black Americans were treated as truly second-class citizens with different rights, the way they were treated. And there’s still discrimination in this country. And there are still problems that we need to move forward for a whole bunch of communities, including black Americans. But there have been gains made in the past decades. And we’ll keep moving forward. So I have hope for the next generation.
My parents coming here as immigrants, they instilled in me a love for this country and a love for the opportunity it provides. That every person can come here or be born here and have a chance to make it and to set their own course for their life. They don’t have to have the government set the course for them or have the right last name, or the right religion, or right background. Anyone can do it here. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t disparities and disadvantages. There are all of those things. And, in fact, my parents face disadvantages as well coming here as immigrants and faced discrimination in some ways as well. Even though they don’t talk about it that much, frankly. But they certainly did face some discrimination when they first came here.
And so, there are opportunities here. And they taught me to love this country and love what it stands for. And I’ll keep fighting for what this country is about, which is the ability to interact with others freely and make the decisions for your own life.
Gillespie: Two final quick questions: First is, you mentioned discrimination. What is the role of the government in remedying discrimination? Do you have a general theory about that?
Justin Amash: Yeah. The federal government has an important role in remedying discrimination. And, in fact, the Fourteenth Amendment is really structured around that, particularly with respect to how the states might apply their laws. And the Fourteenth Amendment is my favorite amendment to the constitution because I think, at its core, is the libertarian—
Gillespie: Would you summarize? Would you summarize the Fourteenth Amendment for those of us who are English majors and/or bad at math?
Justin Amash: Well, importantly, the Fourteenth Amendment talks about due process and equal protection. And, at the core of liberty and libertarianism is this idea of the rule of law, and the rule of law really entails these ideas of due process and equal protection, particularly the idea of equality before the law. That every person should be treated equally under the law. And so, I think that there is a major role for the federal government to play in protecting individual rights. And, in fact, that’s why the Fourteenth Amendment exists. And it is my favorite Amendment to the Constitution because I think it really embodies the idea of liberty the best of any of the Amendments. Even though there’s a great case to be made for the First Amendment, and the Second Amendment, and several other amendments about the idea of liberty, I think the Fourteenth Amendment really embodies it best.
Gillespie: So the Fourteenth Amendment essentially applies the Bill of Rights or the Constitution, the Federal Constitution, to the states, the rights that are guaranteed under that. And I keep saying two more questions. I actually do only have two more questions.
Justin Amash: It’s okay.
Gillespie: And I guess the one is, you are anti-abortion if I’m correct. Can you explain how that would play out? What would your priorities be in an Amash administration in terms of abortion policy throughout the country?
Justin Amash: I’m pro-life, 100 percent pro-life. And I know that there’s a split, even within the Libertarian party, for example, on that issue.
Justin Amash: And I recognize that. And I don’t know which side is bigger right now than the other, but it’s definitely a divide within the Libertarian Party. And it’s a divide within the country. There’s no doubt about that. I mean, it’s a major divide between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. What that means though is that very little legislation is going to get through that changes it in the near term. I’ve always said that the life movement, if you’re a pro-life, the best way to advance it is through society, through methods of engagement, and discussion, conversation, and activism. So I’ve been involved in pro-life organizations that try to change it from the outside, not through the legislative process, but try to change hearts and minds and explain the issue to people. For me, as a—
Gillespie: So, you wouldn’t be calling for a repeal of Roe v. Wade? Or you would not be calling for a federal law that would ban abortion across the country?
Justin Amash: Well, to be clear, I think most progressive scholars also think Roe v. Wade is bad law.
Justin Amash: They might agree with the outcome, but they would likely disagree with the way it was drafted as an opinion. So, my job as a president is to execute the laws. It’s not to write the laws. Congress is going to write the laws. And I think it’s very important, as part of being a president, that you be humble in your role. That you have some humility about the process and your role in the process. And I want to leave it to Congress to make those decisions. But I’m very clear about my position on it. I’m pro-life and I support pro-life legislation or have supported pro-life legislation. But, as for what comes to my desk, probably the most you’re going to get is something to defund abortion providers, not provide federal funding for abortion providers, or abortions.
And I think most people, in the Libertarian Party for sure. But a lot of Americans can understand that concern. That in an issue that that controversial you should keep the federal government out of the funding. Whether it’s local government or private effort to fund those things or what have you, that’s a different story. And communities can decide that and individuals can decide that. But, at the federal level, it seems wrong, and it is wrong to have the federal government involved in such a controversial practice.
Gillespie: I have finally reached my absolute last question, which is what are you going to pick as a campaign song? And I want to kind of make it even harder on you because you are from Michigan. You’re proud of Michigan. You went to the University of Michigan twice. I look forward to you getting a Ph.D. from that mediocre institution. But pick a campaign song. And does it have to be a Michigan band? And, if so, I’m going to suggest you go with Iggy and The Stooges, “I Wanna be Your Dog.” But, Representative Amash, what is your campaign song?
Justin Amash: I knew you were going to ask me this. I had heard that this was going to come up.
Justin Amash: And I don’t have a song for you. I don’t know. I’ve thought through some of the people and music, but it’s just hard to come up with something. Sometimes I’m at home and I’ll hear something and I’ll say to my kids, that’s a good campaign song. But I can’t think of one on the spot.
Gillespie: Well this, I have to admit that Trump, I don’t know if it was his official song, but he would play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones.
Justin Amash: Yeah.
Gillespie: Well, that’s kind of inspired. And I’m assuming Biden is something like “When I’m 64,” because it would be aspirational for him to merely be 64. But, congressmen, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We will be checking in with you as you progress, looking to get the Libertarian nomination. And we’ll see how all of that goes. Thanks very much for your time.
Justin Amash: Thanks so much, Nick. Yeah. Take care.