WASHINGTON — When Republican Rep. Justin Amash accused Sen. John McCain last week of making a “racist” joke on Twitter, it “wasn’t a big part” of his day.
On the contrary, when McCain compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the country’s faux space monkey, Amash did not think twice about calling the senator out:
Maybe you should wisen up & not make racist jokes. “@senjohnmccain: Re: Iran space tweet - lighten up folks, can’t everyone take a joke?”— Justin Amash (@repjustinamash) February 4, 2013
“It wasn’t a big part of my day,” Amash recounted nonchalantly Wednesday in an interview with BuzzFeed. “It was just a response.”
“He made a tweet, I made a tweet, and that’s that,” he added with a laugh.
In a political culture that has become increasingly strict about message control and wary of how candor can quickly go viral, Amash is an anomaly: a member of Congress who has not only resisted handing over his social media accounts to staffers, but who has maintained a jarringly honest tone in his posts.
Amash’s rise to congressional social-media prominence has come to the chagrin of some of the House Republican leadership, who would rather keep their conference members on message. It is perhaps ironic, then, that Amash might not have embraced Twitter at all if not for their urging.
Last year, the House Republican conference posed to its members to a “New Media Challenge,” and the members who gained the most followers across social media would win.
“Once I joined, I couldn’t help but try to win,” Amash said. “And I did win.”
He added, smiling, “I don’t think they wanted me to win the competition.”
Since that competition, Amash has accrued thousands of followers and is now pushing 19,000. That audience has multiplied his public influence — one which might otherwise have been limited for a green congressman from Michigan — and has meanwhile opened up his unfiltered posts to private criticism from House Republican leaders, he says.
“I have the impression that my social media messages concern them,” Amash said. “I explain every vote I take on Facebook, and I think that sometimes rubs them the wrong way. Not because I’m saying anything in particular about leadership or any person in our party, but because if they are pushing something and I vote the other way and I have an explanation that makes sense to the public, it can put leadership on the defensive.”
“Sometimes I hear rumblings from other members, or I’ve had leadership staff members approach me about the things I put on Facebook or Twitter,” he added. “Often, it’s some kind of misunderstanding on their part about what’s actually being written.”
To Amash, still relatively new to the Capitol Hill scene as a lawmaker who rode the Republican wave to office in 2010, it’s all a part of the surreal, nonsensical experience of being a lawmaker.
In his Capitol Hill office on the first floor of the Cannon building, Amash has decorated the walls with faces of dead economists, former presidents — and a painting of Alice from the Disney cartoon Alice in Wonderland.
“That’s Alice looking at the madness in front of her,” Amash explained, craning his neck toward the canvas hung atop one of his office’s high-ceilinged walls, depicting Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. “I sometimes feel that way around here. That’s why I got it. I sometimes feel that way, in the [state] legislature and in Congress, that you almost can’t believe what’s happening in front of you.”
To temper the occasional lack of logic on the Hill, he draws inspiration from of the prominent historical faces framed on the walls of his office, including the classical liberalist economist F.A. Hayek, who inspired one of Amash’s favorite tweets he’s written:
I remain committed to developing & marketing an F.A. Hayek-inspired cologne called “Spontaneous Odor.”— Justin Amash (@repjustinamash) February 4, 2013
“F.A. Hayek often spoke about ‘spontaneous order,’ that order would develop out of spontaneous interactions, and so I’ve tweeted about developing an F.A. Hayek-themed cologne called ‘Spontaneous Odor,’” Amash explained. “There’s a group that loves that, that really understands the joke, because it’s an inside joke, but most people I think don’t get it.”
Another of Amash’s favorite tweets had a lower barrier to entry:
Whenever I go on Twitter, I get this strange feeling I’m being followed.— Justin Amash (@justinamash) December 29, 2012
That tweet “was a good one,” Amash said, “but it didn’t get as many retweets as I would have liked.”
As a lawmaker, being candid or funny — or trying to be — comes with its hazards. The website Polititwoops, run by the Sunlight Foundation, exists solely to chronicle lawmakers’ deleted tweets, which are often innocuous but, on occasion, embarrassing.
During the Super Bowl, Republican Rep. Raul Labrador’s account tweeted the message, “Me likey Broke Girls” for a few short seconds. Even once it had been deleted, it was too late — and, a few days later, Labrador fired his spokesperson, who erroneously sent the tweet.
Amash, who voted for Labrador to be speaker of the house and is close with the congressman, did not want to comment on that decision because he didn’t “know the circumstances, so it’s up to each member to make that determination.” But, he added, in general, “It’s always a risk when you have other people doing your tweeting that accidents happen. And accidents can happen if you’re doing your own tweeting too.”
It’s part of why Amash chooses to tweet without his staff’s help: He’s able to walk closer to the line between edgy and conservative.
“I am who I am,” Amash explained. “I think it’s helpful that I do all of my own tweeting, because members of Congress who have their staff run their Twitter run into this situation where their staff has to be really cautious, because if they do anything even slightly edgy, they’re worried that they might get in trouble. If it’s the member himself doing the tweeting, then it’s easier to know where the line is.”
For Amash, that line is deliciously undefined.
Wednesday, he criticized his own party for the manner in which it addressed the mandatory spending cuts known as the “sequester.”
And, after our interview, the congressman and Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, engaged in a back-and-forth on Twitter rarely seen between an elected official and a White House representative.
In the crush of the serious, Amash still had time to reply to a follower with a joke.
When the follower snidely asked with a “;)” about Amash’s criticism of hashtags as “kind of 2008,” Amash replied, “The ;) is so 2003. :p”