Way back in our high school and college days we passionately participated in scholastic debate tournaments, and although it was considered a nerdish pursuit by most of our classmates it had a lasting salutary influence on the way we look at politics. The sport taught to us to consider political questions with a dispassionate objectivity, carefully weighing the logic of the arguments made by both sides and the validity of the evidence presented, then considering the counter-arguments for any fallacies or false facts that had been presented.
Debates aren’t always won according to these gentlemanly and scholarly rules, of course, even in a scholastic debate tournament and especially in the rowdier and more low-brow public arena. We remember winning a match where our partner argued that there was no need to ban supersonic airliners because they’re flying too fast to cause air pollution, and also recall losing several rounds to even more preposterous arguments. During the last Republican presidential debates the failed casino mogul Donald Trump was declared the victor over Princeton University’s former national collegiate debate champion and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with nothing but ad hominem attacks and outright falsehoods, and boasted to the press that Cruz wasn’t so tough when the rules allowed for rude and insulting interruptions of his carefully crafted arguments.
Even so, we’d like to think that questions of the utmost public interest can still be settled by facts and logic and respectfully deliberative debate. Which at long last brings us to the current acrimonious “twitter” debate between President Donald Trump and Republican Michigan Rep. Justin Amash.
Trump is by far the more famous of the two, we must admit, but this Amash fellow strikes us as pretty formidable. He’s in his third term representing Grand Rapids and the rest of western Michigan’s third district, and has earned a reputation as a penny-pinching libertarian who will occasionally defy Republican party leadership on matters of Republican principles, even going so far as to vote against spending bills that continue to ratchet up the national debt and to object to trade policies that burden his district with retaliatory tariffs. That was bad enough for some Republican tastes, but a couple of days ago he so far as to agree some with some of the damned Democrats that Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.
The talking heads on the Trump-friendly networks and radio talk shows and internet “podcasts” all exploded, naturally, but our ears were open to Amash’s arguments, and we found them persuasive. He started off with a succinctly “tweet”-sized statement of “principal conclusions,” which included that: Attorney General William Barr mislead the public about the report by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russian government interference in the last presidential election; the report indicates Trump committed impeachable offenses by attempting to interfere with the investigation; that “Partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances”; and that “Few members of Congress have read the report.”
Having followed all this stuff with a nerdish obsession we find it hard to argue with a single word Amash wrote, and at this point in the “twitter” wars are glad to see anyone laying out plausible arguments rather than misspelled screeds, and even more heartened to see that Amash correctly wrote “principal” rather “principle,” which even we had to confirm was correct.
Trump had no problem formulating a response, however, quickly “tweeting” that Amash was “a total lightweight who opposes me and some of our great Republican ideas and policies just for the sake of getting his name out there through controversy. If he actually read the biased Mueller Report, ‘composed’ by 18 angry Democrats who hated Trump … he would say that it was nevertheless strong on NO COLLUSION and, ultimately, NO OBSTRUCTION … Anyway, how do you Obstruct when there is no crime and, in fact, the crimes were committed by the other side? Justin is a loser who sadly plays right into our opponents hands!”
Trump’s die fans will surely find it convincing, and gloat that “at least he fights,” but by ingrained habit we glumly note that Trump never seems to fight back except with ad hominem fallacies and unsubstantiated claims. Amash might seem a “lightweight” and “loser” compared to the far more famous and wealthy Trump, but that does’t mean he’s wrong, and he seems to have the better argument. In subsequent “tweets,” all written in “tweet-sized” but according to the Queen’s pristine English and old-fashioned rules of rhetoric, he correctly noted that the Mueller reported cited several lied-about-under oath contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives, at least 10 instances where Trump unsuccessfully tried to quash any further investigation into those contacts. The report then made clear it was constrained by Justice Department guidelines from seeking indictments, and plainly left it up to the damned Democrats and the rare maverick Republican in Congress to decide if any of that constitutes the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution considers impeachable offenses. So far, so far as we can tell, Trump and his die-hard fans have no answer but schoolyard taunts and substantiated claims that his critics should be hanged for treason.
We don’t find it convincing, and although Amash is taking the sucker’s route along the high road in the debate we’ll say on his behalf that neither is any of the rest of Trump’s typically illiterate “tweet.”
For one thing, Amash seems admirably on board with what we’ve long considered the great Republican ideas and policies. He’s voted more often than not with what Trump wants, and more impressively has a 99 percent rating with the Club for Growth, a 94 percent rating from Americans for Prosperity, 87 percent with the American Conservative Union, and 85 percent with Heritage Action for America, and there’s no denying he’s better on budget deficits than Trump ever pretended to be. If Trump wants to call him a publicity seeker, which is pretty much the perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black, Amash can convincingly claim he’s chosen a principled way of getting attention.
Amash’s “tweets” have already provoked a primary challenge from a Michigan legislator who describes himself as a “pro-Trump, pro-life, pro-jobs, pro-Second Amendment, pro-family values Republican.” Trump very narrowly won Michigan’s electoral votes in the last election, and is behind in the state polls against all the leading Democratic candidates at the moment, but his inevitable endorsement of Amash’s challenger will surely have some weight in a 2020 Republican primary. Amash is by no means anti-life or anti-jobs or anti-Second Amendment or anti-family values, and especially in that last category we have doubts about how committed Trump is to any of these causes, but these days being anti-Trump is a problem for almost any Republican anywhere, and after winning three elections we’re sure Amash knows that.
The 2020 primary is still more than a year away, though, and there’s always a chance that by that point Amash will be able to proudly campaign as one of the few Republicans who was willing to stand up to Trump. Maybe not, and probably not, but at some point in the further future we expect that principled Republicanism will make a comeback, either before or after the country goes as bankrupt as a Trump casino, and that Amash will have standing to make the arguments. None of Amash’s Republican colleagues have endorsed his views, but for the most part they’ve declined to condemn them, and on both sides of the aisle most of these weather-watching politicians seem to be hedging their bets.
— Bud Norman