Peter Meijer (R-MI), heir to the Michigan supermarket chain that bears his name, is the freshman who won the Grand Rapids-based seat Justin Amash gave up. He kicked in about a million bucks from his own purse and won the crowded primary by fully embracing Trump. He's since moved back towards a more mainstream posture and was one of the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment. An Afghan War vet, he was deeply affected by the 1/6 insurrection and wrote in a Detroit News OpEd: "The mob then rushed the barricaded doors to the chamber, trying to break them down. The illusion of security, of the sanctity of our constitutional order, collapsed. With guns drawn, police ordered us to evacuate, leading to chaos as we fled down corridors and into the tunnels beneath Capitol Hill. Several times our group of lawmakers found ourselves alone, with no police escort, fearful of what threats might lie around the next corner... Before the assault, Trump had addressed the crowd and urged his loyalists to march on the Capitol, 'to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones … give them the pride and boldness they need to take back our country.'... [W]hile a dead woman’s blood dried mere feet from our chamber, other Republican colleagues doubled down, repeating lies of a stolen election, baselessly deflecting blame for the Capitol assault from Trump loyalists to Antifa, doing whatever they could to justify, equivocate, rationalize or otherwise avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Blood has been spilled, and those who encouraged this insurrection are in too deep. Those of us who refused to cower, who have told the truth, have suffered the consequences. Republican colleagues who have spoken out have been accosted on the street, received death threats, and even assigned armed security. I have been called a traitor more times than I can count. I regret not bringing my gun to D.C."
When he voted to impeach, Meijer said, sensibly, "Trump betrayed his oath of office by seeking to undermine our constitutional process, and he bears responsibility for inciting the insurrection we suffered last week." When he joined 35 other House Republicans to support the creation of a sedition commission to investigate the insurrection. Meijer, on the House floor: "There has been an active effort to whitewash and rewrite the shameful events of that day to avoid accountability and turn away from difficult truths. If we avoid confronting what happened here just a few short months ago, we can be sure that intimidation, coercion, and violence will become a defining feature of our politics for generations to come.
In the new issue of The Atlantic, Tim Alberta wrote when Meijer was making his decision on impeachment, he called some of the top dogs in his district to sound them out. "The conversations," wrote Alberta, "did not go well. Meijer remembers one man, 'a prominent business leader in Grand Rapids,' arguing that the election had been stolen, that Trump was entitled to a second term, that Meijer was a pawn of the 'deep state.' The man went 'full QAnon,' spouting conspiracy theories and threatening him with vague but menacing consequences if he voted to impeach. Meijer was well acquainted with that kind of talk; one of his own siblings was fully in the grip of right-wing conspiracies. Even so, the conversation 'shook me to my core,' Meijer says, 'because the facade had been stripped away. It showed me just how bad this had gotten.' ... The next morning, January 13, Meijer received an encrypted message just as he was arriving at the Capitol. It was from a senior White House official, someone who’d heard he was on the fence, urging the new congressman to vote for impeachment. Meijer was stunned... On the House floor, moments before the vote, Meijer approached a member who appeared on the verge of a breakdown. He asked his new colleague if he was okay. The member responded that he was not; that no matter his belief in the legitimacy of the election, he could no longer vote to certify the results, because he feared for his family’s safety. 'Remember, this wasn’t a hypothetical. You were casting that vote after seeing with your own two eyes what some of these people are capable of,' Meijer says. 'If they’re willing to come after you inside the U.S. Capitol, what will they do when you’re at home with your kids?'
Months later, Meijer told Alberta that "The fundamental problem is that Republicans are offering no plans for improving lives and making the future a more promising place. Instead, the party continues to rely on grievance and fear-- and misinformation-- to scare voters into their ranks."
Meijer glanced down at his phone. It was crackling with messages from people in his district-- some checking on his well-being; others warning him not to blow the insurrection out of proportion, arguing that it was little more than a spontaneous tour of the Capitol. He swiped past most of the missives. But one, from a longtime activist he’d gotten to know, caught his eye. “You better not buckle and wimp out to the liberals,” the man wrote. “Those who stormed the Capital today are True American Heroes. This election was a fraud and you know that’s true. Peter, don’t sell us out!!!”
“Those who stormed the Capitol attacked our republic today,” Meijer replied. “They trampled on the Constitution. We have a rule of law, courts, and peaceful means of resolving disputes.”
“No Sir. They are showing their God Given America Right,” the man texted back. “When the truth is being hidden, the Second Amendment gives every one of those people the right to do what they did today.”
Meijer silenced his phone and cast his vote to certify the election.
For all the negatives that defined Meijer’s first weeks on the job—the incompetence and the cravenness, the violence and the threats—he emerged from the gantlet relieved that at least now he was liberated to speak his mind about the GOP’s decay.
Meijer had never been a Trump guy. Like so many Republican candidates seeking to pass muster with the president’s base, he had been careful to say the right things. He’d touted Trump’s economic record. He’d ignored, or downplayed, much of his extreme rhetoric. But all the while, Meijer had studied Trump with trepidation. He viewed the 45th president as a manifestation of America’s psychological imbalance, someone who reflected our anger and insecurities instead of our confidence and aspirations. He feared Trump’s authoritarian instincts, but clung to a belief that the president’s grip on the American right would soon loosen.
After the impeachment vote, Meijer felt he was positioned to advocate for what he believed would be an imminent, sweeping overhaul of the party. He threw himself into the public debate surrounding January 6. He became a fixture on national news programs. He accepted every invitation-- especially those that seemed hostile-- to address local party chapters. At every stop, in every setting, Meijer forced the issue, believing that he was on the right side of history, and that an awakening was at hand.
“As of late January,” he says, “I thought there was the opportunity to have a harsh confrontation with reality. It was going to be a very unpleasant 18 months, 24 months, but maybe we would do the necessary soul-searching and reconstruction.”
His optimism didn’t last long. In February, two of the county-level Republican Parties in Meijer’s district-- Calhoun and Barry-- voted to formally censure him. (Calhoun’s leaders accused Meijer of having “betrayed the trust of so many who supported you and violate[d] our faith in our most basic constitutional values and protections.”) The next month, as other local parties across Michigan were debating similar reprimands of both Meijer and Fred Upton, the state GOP chair joked with party activists that “assassination” was one remedy for dealing with the two of them.
By April, Meijer had a primary challenger. The criticism back home was unceasing; the only praise he received was whispered. National polls showed that tens of millions of Republican voters still believed the election had been stolen. Looking around, Meijer saw that he was a leader without any following and realized how Pollyannaish he’d been. “It’s like, ‘All right, this is going to be a longer, deeper project than I thought,’ ” he says.
Meijer’s sense of urgency gradually gave way to self-doubt. He began to wonder whether his appeals to decency and democracy came across as “pearl clutching.” He could tell he was rubbing some of his constituents the wrong way-- they could stomach a disagreement with their congressman; what they couldn’t tolerate was the lecturing and the finger-wagging. He sensed that he might be doing more harm than good with his high-minded rhetoric. “I’ve come to realize the limitations of performative outrage,” he says.
So he backed off. He took voters’ earfuls in stride. He says he decided that “by actively trying to correct them, I may have been inadvertently postponing the self-correction” that would come with some distance from Trump’s presidency.
Over time, the threats ebbed, the antagonistic encounters subsided, and Meijer got some semblance of his life back. He was able to spend more time on the policy issues he cared about. For most of his constituents, discussions of election integrity and January 6 and Meijer’s vote for impeachment had become redundant-- and boring... [But] some people have not let it go. Large pluralities of Republican voters-- depending on the poll, sometimes outright majorities of them-- believe that the election was stolen. Thousands of demonstrators have protested at state-capitol buildings, demanding forensic audits of the 2020 results. Scores of local election officials nationwide have been run out of office, many of them replaced by people who insist that the system they’re now charged with overseeing is rigged.
...In the days after January 6, Meijer believed he was part of a mission to rescue the Republican Party from itself. Now he laughs at his own naïveté. Ten people isn’t a popular movement. And in truth, only two of them-- Cheney and Kinzinger-- have shown the stomach for the sort of sustained offensive that would be required to rehabilitate the GOP. The other eight, having glanced over their shoulders and seen no reinforcements on the way, chose varying degrees of retreat.
“I don’t blame them. They did their tour in Vietnam; why would they want to go back?” Kinzinger told me in mid-October. “The responsibility for fixing the party isn’t on the 10 of us; it’s on the 180 who didn’t do anything. It’s kind of like Flight 93: If only a few people fight back, that plane hits the Capitol. But because everyone fought back, it didn’t.”
Two weeks after we spoke, Kinzinger announced his retirement from Congress.
In light of his side’s attrition-- Cheney kicked out of the GOP leadership, Gonzalez and Kinzinger quitting Congress-- I asked Meijer how he now thinks about the divisions in his party. “There are people who are part of the problem,” he said. “There are people who are actively trying to fight the problem. And then there are people who have become acutely aware of the problem, but don’t know how to fight it.”
Meijer wants to believe that he’s in the second group. But more and more, he belongs in the third. He can see the foundational threats facing American self-government-- but he can’t decide how best to counteract them. If he now views the struggle to rebuild his party as a long-term proposition, then part of his job is “just surviving,” he says, sticking around long enough to recruit allies and gain momentum to take back control of the GOP. It’s a common instinct, and a dangerous one, because the party is playing its own long game.
In the fall, a bundled donation of $25,000 was deposited into Meijer’s campaign account, courtesy of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which named him to its “Patriot Program.” It was an honor not bestowed upon some of the others who’d voted for impeachment. Maybe this was Kevin McCarthy and the party leadership mending fences, signaling to Meijer that they value him despite his breaking rank. Or maybe it was the party rewarding his recent good behavior-- and reminding him of the benefits of being a team player.
Meijer will face multiple primary challengers in 2022, including a Trump-administration official, John Gibbs, who already has the former president’s endorsement against “RINO Congressman Peter Meijer.” Because of the district’s moderate makeup and his ample finances, Meijer is favored to win reelection. What comes next is murkier. It’s already rumored in Michigan Republican circles that Meijer will run for U.S. Senate in 2024. Rising that quickly in today’s GOP-- from unknown Millennial to statewide nominee in the space of four years-- will demand playing to the party base. That won’t necessarily require the overt delegitimization of American democracy. A blind eye here, some radio silence there, will do the trick.
This is the essence of Meijer’s struggle. He still wants to do the right thing; this fall, he was one of just nine House Republicans to vote to hold Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena issued by the committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. But Meijer also wants a future in a party that is controlled by the president he voted to exile. GOP elders have told Meijer that because he barely overlapped with Trump, he may not be on Mar-a-Lago’s radar like some of the Republican stalwarts who voted to impeach. It’s better not to poke the bear, they tell him; better to let Trump and his loyalists forget the name Peter Meijer altogether.
In this sense, the Republican Party is embracing that old definition of insanity. Its leaders believed they could wait out Trump’s candidacy in 2016. Then they believed they could wait out his presidency. Now they believe they can wait him out yet again-- even as the former president readies a campaign to reclaim his old job and makes clear his intent to run not just against a Democratic opponent but against democracy itself.
Meijer says he’s “pretty much” resigned to Trump winning his party’s nomination in 2024, and worries that the odds of Trump returning to the White House are growing stronger as Biden’s presidency loses steam. Meijer knows the strain Trump’s candidacy might place on a system that nearly buckled during the last election cycle. What’s worse: Meijer sees Trump inspiring copycats, some of them far smarter and more sophisticated, enemies of the American ideal who might succeed where Trump failed.
“The real threat isn’t Donald Trump; it’s somebody who watched Donald Trump and can do this a lot better than he did,” Meijer says.
The powerlessness in his voice when he says this is unnerving. In the space of a year, he transformed from a political romantic to an emboldened survivor to a daunted skeptic. He tried to force a reckoning on his party; now the reckoning is coming for Republicans like him.
At one point, Meijer described to me the psychological forces at work in his party, the reasons so many Republicans have refused to confront the tragedy of January 6 and the nature of the ongoing threat. Some people are motivated by raw power, he said. Others have acted out of partisan spite, or ignorance, or warped perceptions of truth and lies. But the chief explanation, he said, is fear. People are afraid for their safety. They are afraid for their careers. Above all, they are afraid of fighting a losing battle in an empty foxhole.
Meijer can’t blame them. “I just feel lonely,” he told me, sighing with exasperation.
Most of his colleagues, Meijer believes, want to be with him. They pat him on the back and whisper encouragement into his ear. They say they’re rooting for his side. But they don’t think his side can win. So they do nothing, convincing themselves that the problem will take care of itself, while guaranteeing that it will only get worse.
There's still no declared Democratic candidate in this race, despite Trump only taking 50.6% of the vote last year. And even the completely worthless conservative Democrat, Hillary Scholten, who ran last year with nothing to offer whatsoever, managed to take 47% of the vote. The primary is going to rip the GOP to shreds and no matter who wins, the district-- barring a huge red wave-- will be ripe for a red to blue flip... unless the DCCC and EMILY's List shove Scholten in again, which I'm hearing is likely.