Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Following Robert Mueller’s statement in May spelling out the conclusions of his report and rejecting the president’s accusations about the origins of the special counsel’s investigation, Republican Rep. Justin Amash tweeted the most pertinent point: “The ball is in our court, Congress.”
The tweet came the morning after Amash returned to a hero’s welcome at a town hall Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After sending out a series of Twitter threads explaining why President Donald Trump committed impeachable offenses and why Attorney General William Barr covered up the findings of Mueller’s report, Amash has emerged as the singular voice of genuine GOP opposition to the President.
Much more representative of the party as a whole is the approach taken by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Barr and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who on this week’s The New Yorker cover are depicted shining Trump’s shoes: Establishment Trumpism is all the rage.
But Amash doesn’t seem to care. When the President has attacked Amash, the congressman has doubled down and gone after him even harder. His arguments offer the kind of clearheaded and pointed statements that Democrats had been hoping to hear from their own leadership.
Amash’s constituents are used to his being a rebel. This libertarian conservative, elected as part of the Tea Party movement in 2010, is no stranger to mixing with his own. Though he is extremely conservative, including on issues such as abortion, he has been willing to take on the GOP on matters such as surveillance.
His defiant stand against Trump, methodically laying out the case for impeachment, has received extensive attention. There are clearly some limited pockets of red America that are just fine with a Republican actually standing up to the President’s abuse of power on principle.
The next question is what comes from Amash’s rebellion. Most likely this will be a revolt of one or maybe a handful at best. As Jeff Greenfield recently argued in Politico, there is a long tradition of lone legislators standing up to their party but never finding support coming their way. Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, for instance, took a stand against Lyndon Johnson by voting against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, the measure that granted the President wide authority to use force in Vietnam. By the time that other Democrats came along, however, the country had hundreds of thousands of soldiers deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
The other model is the rebel who quickly inspires others to join him. Given that partisanship is such a strong force within the GOP, the odds of this happening are slim.
There are instances however when individual voices have helped break the orthodoxy of the party. Senate candidate Hubert Humphrey did this in 1948 when he called on his party to embrace civil rights, which many Northerners started to do over the coming decade. And there was the time that former California Gov. Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primaries, insisting that his party had to embrace the modern conservative movement rather than a broken Washington status quo. Many other Republicans took up his call, and Reagan won the presidency four years later.
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Few expect Amash’s Twitter rebellion to inspire a bigger movement within the GOP. But history always has unexpected twists and turns. Will Republicans other than Amash join Democrats in calling for impeachment proceedings or throw their hat into the 2020 campaign as part of a serious primary challenge to Trump?
Regarding impeachment, it is also worth watching whether Amash’s revolt puts more pressure on Democrats to be as forceful and resolute as this right-wing Republican in terms of how they respond to the President’s abuse of power.
With many of his constituents supporting him, Amash has now laid down the challenge to his party and to all of Washington. Now we wait to see whether anyone follows his lead or if he will remain a lone voice in the partisan woods.
This piece has been updated with news of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s remarks.