• Politics

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash on Why He’d Run for President as a Libertarian and the Culture of the GOP

8 minute read

Rep. Justin Amash announced April 28 that he was launching an exploratory committee to seek the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination.

There had long been buzz about a potential presidential run around Amash, who last year left the Republican party and became an Independent member of Congress (a spokesperson for Amash says he is now officially a Libertarian member of Congress). Though he’s been critical of Trump and the Republican party, Amash says his main argument is broader: He believes the country is locked in what he’s repeatedly called a “partisan death spiral” in which representative government is broken.

Amash, who says he will not seek reelection to his current House seat, spoke with TIME via Skype from his home in Michigan on May 3, where he discussed the state of the current Republican party, how he believes campaigning virtually levels the playing field, and why he thinks he has a pathway to the nomination.

Below is a lightly edited, condensed transcript of the interview.

As a presidential candidate, what would the core idea of your campaign be?

The core idea is liberty and representative government. And what we have right now in Washington is a very broken system. What happens right now too often is a few leaders in Congress negotiate with the White House, and they decide everything for everyone. And this leads to a lot of frustration and a lot of partisanship because when Congress can’t deliberate actual policies, when you have most members of Congress left out of the process, then they start to debate personalities.

Why are you dipping your toes into this with an exploratory committee instead of just outright running?

I’m new to the Libertarian Party, and I’m seeking the nomination of the Libertarian Party. I want to be respectful of all the delegates, I want to be respectful of the people who have been a part of that party for a long time. And I’m starting it as an exploratory committee so that I can try to earn the nomination, and if I’m able to get further along and obtain the nomination, then we can talk about changing it to a full committee.

Do you have a deadline then when it comes to deciding whether you will actually run versus exploratory?

I don’t have a specific deadline in mind. I think as this goes on, we’ll have a better idea of where we stand with the delegates. And there may come a point where I feel more comfortable moving forward concretely and saying, yes, I’m in 100%, I’m going all the way. But right now I want to make sure I’m being respectful of the delegates and working to earn their trust. And I’m going to continue to work to do that over the next few weeks.

Why now, when it’s so late in the election cycle, and in the middle of a pandemic?

Well for one thing, I think it’s important to think about the fact that the election cycles have been getting longer. They’re starting early in the year before the election, and we don’t need that much campaigning going on for a presidency, otherwise these things are just nonstop, around-the-clock, and people get really tired of it. But actually, at the beginning of this year, in February, I started to look at it very carefully, and wanted to consider whether I would be a candidate, and I would have made a decision earlier, but then we had the coronavirus pandemic come up, and I had to make the decision, the right decision, I believe, to delay the final judgement of whether I’m going to jump in or not, because I want to be able to represent my constituents during this time, I wanted to make sure I’m in top of what was going on in Congress, and I wanted to reassess how a pandemic situation where we’re all stuck at home would affect the campaign.

Is it still possible to advance the things you want to talk about as a third-party candidate?

It is possible to do that, and the way I’m going to do that is by getting my message out there. And if I do that, I feel confident that people will see that among the three candidates, the one running as a Libertarian Party nominee right now, or seeking the Libertarian Party nomination, is the one who will be the most compelling and qualified candidate of the three.

Do you think your presence in the race will help or hurt either candidate?

I think it hurts both candidates. The goal is to win, so you obviously want to take votes from both candidates. There’s a huge pool of voters who aren’t represented by either of the parties, and a lot of times, they just stay home or they settle for one of the two parties, but they would be happy to vote for someone else if they felt there was another candidate that was compelling.

Have you thought about whether you’d vote for Biden or Trump?

I would not vote for Biden or Trump. Getting rid of Donald Trump does not fix the problems because Donald Trump is just a symptom of the problems. The problems will still exist with Joe Biden in the White House.

Is there anything that your friends in the Republican Party could do to redeem themselves now in your eyes?

I don’t think that there’s any way to pull them back from where they are. The culture of Donald Trump that has become dominant in the Republican Party is not going away anytime soon. It’s probably here for at least a decade. It’s a very different tone; it’s a very different style. There’s not much focus on principles anymore, it’s a focus on personality.

What makes you think that there’s a viable path for you?

When you think about whether Republicans are firmly behind Trump, yes, they’re firmly behind Trump because they don’t see an alternative. And they view the alternative right now as Joe Biden, and that’s not a viable alternative for most Republicans. So there is a path for a third candidate to receive votes from Republicans.

Michigan has been in the news recently for the protests against the governor’s coronavirus policies. Can I ask what you made of them?

I support people protesting. I support their right to protest. I think people are very upset in Michigan about much of the overreach. I do condemn and denounce things like using Nazi flags or Nazi symbols at protests. Or coming into the state capitol holding weapons in a way that might be intimidating to many people.

What about the protests where folks haven’t been adhering to social–distancing practices?

It shouldn’t happen where people don’t keep away from each other by at least 6 ft. I mean, we’re hearing from doctors and epidemiologists and others. We should adhere to those guidelines.

What was the decision not to run for reelection like?

It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I think it’s important to focus on one race at a time, and this is the race I’m focused on. Ultimately I decided that even though I can win reelection as an independent, I wasn’t sure it would make the same kind of difference to our system as running a presidential campaign and winning that campaign. If you win as an independent, some people might just write it off to some oddity of the third district of Michigan, saying, well in that district, an independent can win, but it won’t work anywhere else. If you win the presidency as a Libertarian, you have a chance to really upset the system in a way that can restore our constitutional process and our representative government, and to me that is the more important thing.

What’s it like being home and deciding whether you want to run for President under these circumstances?

It’s a different kind of campaign, but it’s one that actually may work to my benefit. If we were running a normal campaign, I obviously don’t have the name ID yet to go out and hold massive rallies or any of those kinds of things, like the President might, or maybe Joe Biden might. So we’re at a point where we can compete with the other candidates through video and through technology, and I have an advantage in that, maybe, as a younger candidate, going out there and getting my message out on social media and elsewhere.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com