Update: Last month, few members of Congress worked harder to send the the federal government careening toward a shutdown and an unprecedented default than Michigan Rep. Justin Amash. But with the most recent manufactured crisis in the rearview mirror (for now), the second-term libertarian has shifted his focus back to the issue that made him such an unlikely coalition builder. Amash joined 70 Republican and Democratic colleagues last week to introduce legislation designed to rein in the surveillance state. The bill's sponsor? Wisconsin GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the author of the PATRIOT Act, and as I reported in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, one of the congressmen Amash had lobbied on reforming the National Security Agency. Amash, whose initial attempt to curb the agency's powers fell just 12 votes short of passage last summer, may stand a better chance this time around: at least a half-dozen representatives who opposed the measure now say they'd vote differently. Even as he faces a primary challenge from a Republican businessman, Amash has continued to take a baseball bat to the GOP hornets' nest on Twitter, where he recently dismissed House intelligence committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) as "an NSA publicist."
Anticipation is rising on a night in early August as about 300 starry-eyed libertarians gather at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, for a lesson on how to save the Republican Party, the Constitution, and maybe America. The hero they've come to see is Justin Amash, a 33-year-old Michigan congressman who has spent the previous two months crusading against National Security Agency surveillance. The GOP gadfly is joined by three other congressional newcomers who serve as Amash's ideological sidekicks. As the crowd jumps to its feet to greet Amash, one young activist can't contain himself: "I'm on a first-name basis with the man who wants to save the Fourth Amendment!"
Just one week earlier, Amash had brought the House of Representatives to a standstill with a measure that would have prohibited the NSA from indiscriminately collecting Americans' phone and internet data. Leaders in both parties opposed his amendment, but Amash had sensed an opportunity to capitalize on strong bipartisan disgust over the surveillance scandal. In just a few days he'd cobbled together 205 votes split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats—and might even have seen his measure pass had House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the White House not applied last-minute pressure to stop it.
Amash and his colleagues are greeted as liberators at the Young Americans for Liberty Convention, one of the dozens of initiatives spawned by the 2008 presidential campaign of Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Every so often the crowd of twentysomethings breaks into chants of "End the Fed," or into a chorus of boos at the mention of establishment figures like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, whose existence Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina invokes the way a Hogwarts first-year might hint at Lord Voldemort.
The event has the feel of a fraternity reunion. At one point, Mulvaney takes an "End the Fed" trucker hat from an audience member and places it atop the curls of his colleague Thomas Massie, a Tesla-driving mechanical engineer who last year came out of nowhere to win one of Kentucky's congressional seats. Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho finishes the night with a winding joke about Amash's support for legalizing prostitution. And like any good brotherhood, they even have an initiation ritual: As the forum ends, Amash walks over to Mulvaney to recognize him formally with a custom red-and-gold "liberty pin" reserved for his closest allies in the House. A voice cuts through the din as they exit the stage: "We love you, Justin!"
After a decade of aggressive expansion of the national security state, Amash, a Star Trek-tweeting, Justin Bieber-quoting amateur arborist from Grand Rapids, has emerged as an unlikely leader of the most serious rebellion against unchecked surveillance powers since 9/11. He's also become a driving force in the fight for the future of the libertarian movement long led by the retired Paul—and perhaps even for the soul of the deeply fractured GOP.
His tactics have defied Beltway conventions. "There are committee chairmen that fear Justin Amash," says Rep. Jared Polis, a liberal Colorado Democrat who has worked closely with him on surveillance issues. "That is rare for a second-term member." Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, calls Amash "a game-changer."
Washington can't quite get a read on Amash. Karl Rove calls him a "liberal Republican"; Democrats insist his fiscal policy makes Paul Ryan look like a New Dealer; some in the GOP establishment just straight up say he's an asshole. But after his campaign against the NSA, what no one can do is ignore him. Not only has Amash flouted the respect-your-elders path for making it in Washington, he's also built a case that libertarianism can amount to more than just a protest vote. Increasingly, when he denounces government spending, military intervention, and abuse of executive power, Amash has company from both sides of the aisle.
Amash believes he's at the vanguard of a generational shift in how Congress approaches a whole range of political issues. The word he likes to use is "realignment." At the forum in Arlington, when asked to explain what sets the four horsemen on stage apart from the old guard, Amash breaks into a huge smile. "Everything."
The most immediate thing that stands out about Amash is that, for someone who never misses a vote and uses Facebook to report on each one he takes (some 2,000 and counting), he spends an inordinate amount of time trolling people on the internet. (Amash himself uses that term, telling the activists in Arlington that "I'm on those forums; I'm trolling the forums.") Favorite targets include McCain, whom he views as pretty much everything that's wrong with Washington (McCain, for his part, calls Amash a "wacko bird"), and Canadian pop star Justin Bieber (who has not weighed in on Amash). This is, in part, simply the way millennials communicate. But it also reflects two defining elements of Amash's political rise—his distaste for DC decorum and his aversion to compromising on core issues.
The son of immigrants, Amash was not politically active until his mid-20s. His Palestinian father lived in a refugee camp in the West Bank until 1956, when a church offered to sponsor his family's emigration to the Midwest. Attalah Amash arrived with $17 in his pocket but thrived in western Michigan, where he married his wife, Mimi, a Syrian immigrant, and launched a successful hardware business. Justin, the middle of three brothers, attended the University of Michigan and then stuck around Ann Arbor to earn a law degree.
Although he largely avoids discussing his heritage now, back in 2006 it compelled him to write a letter to USA Today protesting negative coverage of the Iraq War. Contrary to his anti-interventionist rhetoric these days, Amash aligned himself with the neoconservative proponents of the war, hammering the claim that Arabs might not be naturally disposed to democracy as "not only historically mind-boggling but also patently offensive." He now calls Iraq a mistake "in retrospect" and says of his earlier views, "I was pretty young at the time."
It was not long afterward that Amash discovered libertarianism and its irascible chieftain, Ron Paul. As he tells it, one day he stumbled upon the Wikipedia page of F.A. Hayek, the Austrian economist lionized by Paulistas. He breezed through Road to Serfdom, Hayek's hatcheting of the nanny state, and found his calling.
In 2008, Amash—who by then worked as a corporate lawyer and helped manage the family's tool business—poured $73,000 of his own money into a state House race to win a seat in Lansing, where he quickly went about distancing himself from basically all of his colleagues. "We would joke, 'Oh my gosh, Amash is voting no again!'" recalls Barb Byrum, a former Democratic state legislator. (At least 70 times Amash was the only one to cast a no vote.) "I know some media outlets are fawning over his supposed bipartisanship, but it doesn't square with the state rep I served alongside of."
Even some of his fellow Republicans were peeved, but Amash's work caught the eye of the conservative grassroots; after a year at the state capitol, he had about 10,000 fans following the explanations he posted for each of his votes on Facebook. He connected with his role model, Paul, through the congressman's brother David, a local pastor, and flew to Texas to meet him. With the support of big-time conservative players like the Club for Growth and Grand Rapids-based Amway magnates Dick and Betsy DeVos (Amash went to the same high school as their eldest son), Amash powered his way through a crowded primary in 2010 to replace a retiring GOP congressman in Michigan's 3rd District.
In Washington, Amash's propensity for pushing "nay" won him the admiration of Paul and ingratiated him with a handful of young colleagues also ushered in as part of the GOP's 2010 tea party wave. (Politico named him "most likely to lead a rebellion of the nerds.") He voted "present" on a bill to defund NPR on the basis that the measure was probably unconstitutional, and he launched a quixotic effort against commemorative coins, which he considered to be a form of backdoor earmark.
His habit of bucking party leaders was not without consequences. After he voted against Paul Ryan's budget plan last year, the House Republican Steering Committee stripped him of his committee assignments and his seniority, ostensibly for his lack of party discipline. What really set off the leadership, though, was something else—what Lynn Westmoreland, a veteran Republican congressman from Georgia, termed "the asshole factor." Amash didn't just break with his colleagues, he trolled them. On Facebook, he explained to his growing cadre of followers that Ryan's plan wouldn't have actually produced a balanced budget until 2040.
Amash viewed the committee purge as a betrayal by a party that "doesn't tolerate dissent or independent thinking." He told the National Review that John Boehner would be smart to avoid western Michigan for a while, and when it came time to elect a new speaker in January, Amash cast his vote for his friend Raúl Labrador instead.
"The Republican leadership put him in a position where he's got nothing to lose," says Marcy Wheeler, a Grand Rapids-based blogger who regularly writes about civil liberties and national security at Emptywheel. "He doesn't need their funding. He doesn't owe them anything."
When I asked him about the reprimand after a town hall in his district, Amash brushed off the question. "I didn't have to rethink my role" to make an impact, he said. "I lost my committee spot because I was making an impact." Or, as he put it on Twitter: "Some Members of Congress are playing checkers. Others are playing chess. I'm playing Star Trek 3D chess."
What that also meant was pushing his own balanced-budget amendment in lieu of Ryan's, and in an unusual fashion: He asked all 434 of his colleagues if he could come to their offices to try to sell it, in presentations running as long as 30 minutes. More than 100 accepted, even if the legislation seemed dead on arrival. It was a curiosity; as one Democrat confessed, it was the first time in his three decades on the Hill that someone from the opposing party had invited himself in like that. Amash was able to enlist 14 Democratic cosponsors, even though his plan dramatically slashed the social safety net. His door-to-door pitch highlighted his ambition to be more than just DC's next "Dr. No." One of Congress' most uncompromising radicals was also in the coalition-building business.