‘The Only Institution Some Folks Trust’: Peter Meijer Reflects on Trump’s Hold on the GOP after Primary Loss

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Among the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot last year, four are 2022-cycle retirees, two have been renominated as Republicans in “jungle” primary contests, one (Liz Cheney) is expected to lose her primary, and three already have.

Representative Peter Meijer (R., Mich.) counts himself among that last, unfortunate, group after being defeated by his  Trump-endorsed challenger, John Gibbs, last week.

Meijer’s loss was made all the more painful because of its proximate cause: cynical attacks from both his right and left flanks. While Trump supporters in the former group sought vengeance for Meijer’s impeachment vote, Democrats, hoping for an easier pickup opportunity in the House — redistricting had turned Meijer’s formerly Republican-leaning district into the opposite — ran ads to boost Gibbs, who insists that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

In an interview with National Review, Meijer reflected on the political headwinds that limited him to one term representing Michigan’s third congressional district and their broader implications.

According to Meijer, it’s “impossible to know” if Democrats’ meddling in his race — their ads portrayed Gibbs as a rock-ribbed conservative and made no mention of his conspiracy-mongering — was decisive, but it’s also “inarguable that it had some impact.” Going into election night, Meijer’s internal polling had him up by single digits, with the number of undecided voters in double digits.

“You put on 1,200 points of TV and a half-million dollars in one week, that’s gonna move the needle in one direction or the other, especially considering it was more than my challenger raised and spent over the course of his campaign,” he said. (Gibbs was unable to raise enough money to get on TV before the late-stage Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee cash infusion.)

Dirty tricks aside, however, it’s self-evident that Meijer’s loss can ultimately be traced back to his vote to impeach the former president. Meijer described that vote as not just a political, but a personal affront in the minds of many Michigan Republicans.

“I think what Donald Trump is in the party right now is he’s kind of — to a large constituency — he is the only institution that some folks trust,” observed Meijer. “There are some people who like the personality of Trump — like the brashness. There’s others who like the policies of Trump and like the successes that were achieved during the administration. But then there’s also a group who view him as somebody who is standing in opposition to a corrupt establishment or in opposition to a corrupt and deceptive media environment.”

“That is a very easy, and kind of natural, shorthand. I think the challenge, though, is when that gets merged with political outcomes. It’s a lot murkier, it’s a lot less clear what some of the people who he has supported, what they actually stand for, what they actually believe,” Meijer said.

That phenomenon can be observed in the different archetypes Trump has endorsed during the 2022 cycle. From Peter Thiel-funded national conservatives (J. D. Vance and Blake Masters) to celebrities (Dr. Oz) to business conservatives willing to parrot his lies about 2020 (David Perdue), the only prerequisite for Trump’s support has been support for him.

Election integrity, when defined as support for Trump’s conspiracy theories, is not only “a hard baby to split — either the election was stolen, or it wasn’t,” according to Meijer, but provides “an incredible plank for opportunists to stand on.”

While the initial allegations brought to the forefront by Trump in 2020 were so far-fetched that they involved the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, other politicians and commentators have since tried to find more plausible ways of justifying the former president’s post-election behavior, settling on “rigged” as a more socially acceptable stand-in for “stolen.”

“We absolutely need voters to have confidence in the elections, but it’s a very big difference between instilling confidence, and kind of holding that confidence hostage off of your kind of wild allegations and trying to backfill rationale and justifications,” Meijer said.

The outgoing congressman readily admitted that Trump injected some much-needed excitement into the party, but he and his followers also “forcibly ejected a lot of people that you need to keep in the coalition.”

The question of coalition-building is not just a long-term one for the party to answer, but a shorter-term one Meijer is faced with. The day after his loss, he introduced Gibbs at an event in the district in a show of party unity. He has also said, however, that he has no plans to endorse Gibbs at this time.

Questioned whether he plans to vote for Gibbs, or perhaps his Democratic opponent, Meijer said he has never and will not discuss his intentions at the ballot box. “My focus is going to be on closing out our legislative and constituent-relations services, and also ensuring that whoever succeeds me in this position, that they’re set up for success,” he said.

It’s unclear what success — for a congressman in the year 2022 — looks like, though.

“I think one of the biggest challenges of any office is, frankly, just difficulty in communicating to your constituents,” said Meijer. “You’re competing against, especially on the right, an information ecosystem that pretty much resembles the Wild West.”

Americans are busy with their day-to-day lives, acknowledged Meijer, “and where that becomes a problem is if you diverge from the orthodoxy, if you don’t seek safety in numbers, the burden is on you to communicate and explain.”

Meijer told National Review that he almost invariably had success explaining his votes to initially frustrated constituents, but “it’s impossible to spend 20 minutes on the phone with each constituent you’re dealing with.”

“The issue isn’t the substance; the issue is how it will be framed, and then the burden to overcome that framing,” he said. “I’ve seen colleagues have this discussion, and I think it’s not a cynical approach but realistic, when they look at it and say, ‘You know what, I could vote for this. It’s a good bill, but I’m probably gonna have to raise another quarter-million dollars to offset the negative damage it will do.'”

Meijer, in spite of the stand he took on impeachment and the price he paid for it, has been the subject of criticism from the left even after he was defeated last week. At the Bulwark, Jonathan Last lambasted Meijer for “crying” about his predicament, as well as for not blaming the voters directly for it.

The congressman called the hostility from some Never Trumpers “very bizarre,” and he refused to do as Last urged and turn on his constituents.

“At the end of the day, I lost my race, and that is on me and me alone. I think the challenge is if you’re going to choose any approach other than safety in numbers, the burden becomes on that member, or on that politician to articulate and explain and justify,” Meijer said.

About his future, the 34-year-old Meijer remains optimistic, promising to “stay engaged.”

“Over 48 percent of the electorate, despite everything, still voted to send me to Congress, and we won the parts of the district that I currently represent,” noted Meijer.

“I view this, obviously, as a setback, and not the way I would have wished this to go, but we learned a tremendous amount along the way in terms of you know how to be effective but also how many problems exist that the government, and the government alone, [is] not capable of solving,” he continued. “Showing what can be done by blending nonprofit, private, and governmental efforts — that’s where I hope to be able to, again, support and chart the way forward for west Michigan.”

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