The GOP freshman congressman who purchased a flak jacket following his “aye” vote for President Donald Trump’s impeachment walked into what was once Grand Rapids’ largest funeral home on a crystalline, blue-sky West Michigan day earlier this month — unnoticed and unaccosted.
Depending on your viewpoint, all this could be a good or bad omen for Peter Meijer, the scion of an uberwealthy Michigan family. Meijer, within days of being sworn into President Gerald Ford’s old House seat, had earned the vitriol of Trumpland as one of the 10 Republican members of Congress to condemn the president of the United States for his role in fomenting the tragic events of January 6. Of course, this being 21st-century America, the funeral home was now a chic Belgian and French brewpub called Brewery Vivant. And Meijer’s family is worth $12.6 billion, according to Forbes, so he is better-inoculated from Trumpist ire than the average GOP freshman.
Still, all that made the funeral home turned brewery as good a place as any to discuss the death of a certain brand of Republicanism that this city has, like craft beer, churned out in recent years. Meijer represents Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, Ford’s district before a twist of fate propelled him into the White House. Amid a post-Trump, MAGA-fied GOP, Ford’s brand of genteel small-C conservatism seems all but dead. Meijer, in his own more brash way, has challenged his party’s darkest tendencies — as equally daunting as converting a funeral home to a brewery in the Calvinist region of Michigan. But the Michigan Republican Party that produced Ford and Sen. Mitt Romney’s independent-minded father, the late-George Romney, has tilted rightward in recent years, and Meijer is among the state’s last Republican moderates in Congress.
These are surreal times to be Meijer. At 33, he is the eighth-youngest member of Congress and quick with references to the classic “Oregon Trail” video game. About a week before we met, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser suggested assassination as a way to remove Meijer.
“Ma’am, other than assassination, I have no other way … other than voting out,” Weiser told a woman at a North Oakland Republican Club inquiring about how to defeat the “witches in our own party.” “OK? You people have to go out there and support their opponents.”
Asked about the remarks, Meijer smiled and shrugged but declined to say anything. A spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party did not respond to Insider messages seeking an interview with Weiser.
Weiser’s remarks only underscored the frayed civic fabric Meijer fretted about in January after the Capitol insurrection. “It’s sad that we have to get to that point, but, you know, our expectation is that someone may try to kill us,” Meijer, an Army veteran and former nongovernmental organization worker in Afghanistan, told MSNBC. After his vote, Meijer conceded it might have been an act of “political suicide.” But in his district, Meijer has received a more mixed reaction to his vote. Two county parties — Calhoun and Barry — censured him in February. He has, of course, already picked up at least two GOP challengers, including Audra Johnson, a woman who calls herself the “MAGA bride” after photos of her Trump-bedecked wedding went viral, and Tom Norton, a veteran of the Afghanistan War. At the local grocery store and elsewhere, people alternately heckle and praise him.
It has always been surreal to be a West Michigan Meijer. Consider this: In the Midwest, people often add a plural possessive S to establishment names: “Meijer,” for example, becomes “Meijer’s.” In February, when President Joe Biden visited a vaccination facility in nearby Kalamazoo, he noted that his brand-new administration was already sending vaccines to local pharmacies, adding: “In Michigan, that’s already more than 220 pharmacies like Rite Aid and Meijers.” The moment caused a minor kerfuffle on Twitter, with even Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer weighing in: “If there were only vaccines at one Meijer, he would have been incorrect. However, many Meijer stores have vaccines — many MEIJERS.” Meijer himself has received more than one late-night text from friends trying to settle bar bets about whether his family’s supermarket chain takes a plural. (“I don’t have a hard and fast opinion on it,” he told me. “I think I’ve been in the middle of enough civil wars, and I let folks choose whatever makes them happy.”)
And then there are episodes like this one: The night before we met at the brewery, Meijer Frederik Meijer Gardens, a 158-acre botanical garden, art museum, and outdoor sculpture park named after his great–grandfather. Some constituents were content to fangirl from a distance. “Peak West Michigander is seeing @RepMeijer at @MeijerGardens while wearing a shirt I bought at @meijer,” Susie Finkbeiner, an author who lives just outside Meijer’s district, tweeted. Finkbeiner, an independent, later told me the congressman had caught her attention of late. “I’m impressed with the integrity he’s shown even in his brief time representing Grand Rapids,” she said.
On this April afternoon, back at the brewery, Meijer drew little notice when he trundled in off a tree-lined street, having just stepped out of his wife’s late-model electric Ford Mustang, which he borrows frequently. A few paces from a stained-glass window inside an old funeral chapel, he sat down at a picnic table alongside his communications director, district director, and chief of staff. He parted his reddish-blond hair and wore a tan checked sports coat.
If you give me two paths, and one has a very expected predictable outcome and the other just kind of says, ‘there be dragons,’ I’m probably going to choose that one.Peter Meijer
Despite being well-traveled, Meijer — who left his hometown to serve in Iraq as an intelligence officer and then later earned his MBA at New York University — comes off as Midwestern through and through. He wanted me to know he got a good deal on the white Theory dress shirt he wore beneath his sport coat. He purchased them in a pack of five from an outlet mall. “I think the shirt retails for probably $120, but I pay for them when they go for 75% off. So I think I pay like $35 a shirt,” said the congressman, who is, according to his personal financial disclosure, worth well north of $50 million.
Meijer doesn’t need the headaches of being one of 435 members of Congress. After only three months in Washington, where he rents an apartment and lives with his wife, the go-it-alone Meijer has established himself as something of a maverick. He rails against the QAnon conspiracy theory and has called it an “existential threat” to the GOP. He lamented fellow congressional Republicans who fundraised off of “‘stop the steal’ grift.” He does not get along well with embattled Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and openly antagonizes Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on Twitter. Ford would blush at some of his remarks. “I am sorry some of my colleagues are being assholes,” he told Capitol Police officers who were being heckled by some Republican members of Congress who chafed at select post-January 6 security measures.
“He doesn’t have deep roots in the party,” Jeff Timmer, the former chairman of the Michigan GOP and a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project, told me. “He didn’t come up through the ranks, like a lot of folks do. And one of his first big visible things pissed off most of the party.”
Indeed, Meijer speaks like someone who has zero — shall we say — “Frederik Meijers” left to give.
“There’s probably a certain freedom to knowing that if I am voted out of office, life probably becomes a lot easier rather than harder,” he told me between sips of the brewery’s popular Grand Lager. “I think for many, this is the most salary and the highest prestige they’ll ever receive. If you give me two paths, and one has a very expected predictable outcome and the other just kind of says, ‘there be dragons,’ I’m probably going to choose that one.”
In 1934, in the throes of the Great Depression, a Dutch immigrant barber in Greenville, Michigan, wanted to help out the hurting customers at his shop. On credit, Hendrik Meijer and his 14-year-old son, Frederik, bought $338.76 worth of groceries on credit, the story goes. That became Meijer’s Grocery. Four years later, they had acquired their first shopping carts, and by 1941, they had a second store in nearby Cedar Springs.
Fifty-seven years later, Fred Meijer’s son Hank welcomed his own son, Peter, into the world. By then, the Meijer family was among the most prominent in West Michigan, alongside the likes of the DeVoses and the Van Andels, of Amway fame. If their friend Gerald thought of himself as a “Ford, not a Lincoln” — as the president once said as wordplay — they were Meijers, not DeVoses or Van Andels. The Meijer clan kept its politics closer to its vest.
Meijer recalls being tuned in from an early age. “I was very politically active, especially in the run-up to the Iraq War, and very much a hawk,” he told me. “Even before 9/11, I was weirdly into international relations. And in eighth grade, I remember, I would kind of go down these caffeinated internet rabbit holes as a kid, and I was really into the Vietnam War and prisoners of war and missing-in–action issues.”
After 9/11, he remembers thinking, “Oh, we’re going to go after bin Laden.” “A normal eighth-grader should not have had that response, but I was very into defense and intelligence issues. And then, obviously, after 9/11, I mean, that just kind of went into overdrive.” Ever cerebral, Meijer gives off the distinct impression of a guy who likes the board game Risk. (“I enjoy Risk,” Meijer told me, “but I would say from time to time. I probably haven’t played it in 15 years or just over.”) During high school, he stocked shelves at a local Meijer but would never enter the family business, charting his own course.
All the while, Ford lingered in the background of Meijer’s life. His grandfather and father were involved with the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. Sometimes, as a kid, Meijer would accompany them to Washington for Ford Foundation gatherings. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn his grandfather golfed with the former president at one point.
On a few occasions, Meijer interacted with Ford. “I think he signed my Disney World signature book,” Meijer said. “You got Mickey Mouse and Minnie and all of that, and then there’s Gerald Ford.” It was one of the larger-than-life moments that came with being a Meijer growing up in West Michigan.
Asked about what it was like to grow up as a Meijer in West Michigan, Meijer told me a story I haven’t seen reported anywhere else. When he was maybe 5 or so, Peter Meijer became “Peter Meyer.” He can’t remember the exact reasons — perhaps the family dog was kidnapped and held for ransom money, he wondered aloud — but what he does know is that the family changed the spelling of its last name for more than a decade. Mostly, it was one of the things that gave a Meijer kid a semblance of a normal childhood in West Michigan. “I’m not confident enough in the veracity of the dog kidnapping,” he said. “It’s sort of quasi family lore. It’s sufficiently salacious, and I’m sufficiently sketchy on the details.”
What is clear, according to Kent County probate records: On May 18, 2006, Peter James Frederik Meyer became, once again, Peter James Frederik Meijer. It was just in time for graduation from East Grand Rapids High School and a new professional life and education that lied beyond West Michigan.
Meijer did a year at West Point and then transferred to Columbia University in 2008, studying cultural anthropology. He also joined ROTC and enlisted in the US Army Reserve in 2008. He served as a military escort for former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, at Ford’s funeral. He was deployed to Iraq from 2010 to 2011. From 2013 to 2015, he worked as a conflict analyst for an NGO in Afghanistan. There, Meijer collected security incidences, analyzed them, and produced reports that would inform aid workers and help keep them safe. He learned how to listen: to the differences between celebratory and attacking gunfire and to the differences between fireworks and rocket-propelled grenades. “I think I calculated the annual mortality rate for people in my field, and it was one in 50 per year,” he told me.
I think that, to me, the operative distinction there was that Ford pardoned Nixon after Nixon resigned and accepted responsibility. And there was no such acceptance of responsibility in any way, shape, or form by the president for the events leading up to January 6 and the failure to respond on the sixth.Peter Meijer
He was honorably discharged from the Army in 2016. Next, Meijer earned his MBA at New York University. After landing his MBA, he worked back in Michigan at Olympia Development of Michigan of Ilitch Holdings, the real-estate company behind a diverse variety of interests, such as the Little Caesars pizza chain, the Detroit Red Wings, and Detroit’s Fox Theatre. In July 2019, Meijer announced a primary challenge against Rep. Justin Amash, the libertarian-minded Grand Rapids Republican who frequently tweaked Trump. Interestingly, at the time, Meijer was sharply critical of Amash for being the first Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment earlier that May. “Looking at the issue of impeachment today, the people who are advancing it aren’t doing it because they think it’s right for the country,” Meijer told The Grand Rapids Press at the time. “It’s become a politically advantageous thing, and I think the American people deserve better than political theater in the House of Representatives.”
Meijer handily won a five-person primary, dispatching a state lawmaker and a local attorney, among other candidates. In November, he beat Hillary Scholten, a Democratic Michigan Immigrant Rights Center staff attorney, by 23,880 votes.
Before his political career, Meijer had joined Team Rubicon, a veteran-led organization where he responded to disasters all over the world, including New York’s Superstorm Sandy, the South Sudan refugee crisis, and the Philippines’ Super Typhoon Yolanda. Given his work responding to epic disasters, coming to Congress in 2021 was a seamless transition. But then January 6 came. And seven days later was impeachment. The same congressional seat that produced Ford — the pardoner of Nixon, healer of a divided nation — produced one of the handful of Republicans willing to dole out punishment for presidential wrongs he deemed unforgivable.
“It’s something that very much weighed on me,” Meijer told me. “I mean, I think that, to me, the operative distinction there was that Ford pardoned Nixon after Nixon resigned and accepted responsibility. And there was no such acceptance of responsibility in any way, shape, or form by the president for the events leading up to January 6 and the failure to respond on the sixth.”
Meijer has never owned a team jersey — not from the Detroit Lions, not from the Detroit Tigers, not even from minor-league baseball’s West Michigan Whitecaps. Aside from running high-school cross-country — he once peeled off a 16:17 5K — he never got into team sports. “I feel like that says something that I haven’t fully processed,” he told me.
In Michigan politics, Meijer has an R next to his name, but he is willing to hew his own course. He follows in the footsteps of other independent-minded Grand Rapids Republicans. There was Amash, who proved himself a thorn in Trump’s side and briefly flirted with seeking the Libertarian Party presidential nomination in 2020. And before him, Rep. Vern Ehlers, the first research physicist elected to Congress and a Republican who found himself at odds with his party on issues like oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Ehlers announced his retirement in February 2010, saying he wanted to spend more time with family and friends in Grand Rapids.
“There’ve been some very good mainstream Republicans who were — they could be fierce partisans — yet they were people who recognized that public service in government could be used for good,” Timmer, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, told me. “They weren’t ideologues, as much as they were idealists, I guess would be a way to put it. That’s what the district had produced.”
How will Meijer’s own impeachment vote affect his political future? Back in the district, almost three months out from impeachment proceedings, constituents still approach him about it. A person, he told me, came up to him recently and said, “‘I’m an independent, my husband’s a Republican, and we’re both so proud of the stance you took. And you stood up for principle, even though it was hard, so thank you so much.’ And then the next guy stops me and goes, ‘When are you going to apologize for impeaching Donald Trump?'”
Johnson, the so-called MAGA bride and a mother of four, is planning a May fundraiser in DC for her primary bid against Meijer. A big name will be there, she told me, but didn’t feel comfortable saying who, exactly. Johnson styles herself as a grassroots activist, and told me she felt particularly galled by Meijer’s stance on impeachment after urging friends and neighbors to vote for him last year. She was among those who also rallied for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” cause in DC on January 6, though told Insider she didn’t participate in the storming of the Capitol. “I feel like he’s very naive to the current political climate,” Johnson told me.
When I asked Johnson whether she thought she could secure a Trump endorsement, she said she wasn’t certain, but later emailed me me a collage of her wedding photos that the president sent her back in 2019. “Looking good,” the former president scrawled.
Meijer’s vote turned heads in Michigan GOP circles. “When his first vote, or one of his first votes, was for impeachment, that is a big revelation in my book that the people who said he was the real deal we’re right,” Timmer told me.
Presented with Meijer’s 2019 remarks about impeachment, a top Michigan Democrat, granted anonymity to speak freely about Meijer’s political maneuvers, told Insider: “So either Meijer has always thought impeachment was political bullshit and made the cynical play to play 4D chess with it the second time around (in the hopes that he’d look like a man of reason in the long run), or he grew a spine and legitimately couldn’t keep shilling for Trump any longer.”
To be certain, Meijer doesn’t even know what district he’d represent should he run and win a second term in November 2022 (Michigan adopted a citizens redistricting commission in 2018 — so party leaders can’t intentionally draw him out as retribution for his impeachment vote). But there are signs the vote may have helped him: He raised north of $500,000 in the first quarter of the year, banking more than any other Michigan member of Congress and landing just ahead of Rep. Fred Upton, who also voted for impeachment and raised $360,392.
I just want to get shit done.Peter Meijer
There was a certain calculus to his vote, according to a top Michigan GOPer, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity to discuss freely the internal party dynamics. “I’d say a little over half of the statewide GOP base is forever Trump supporters, but in Grand Rapids, they don’t represent the cumulative GOP base — maybe 30% or slightly more,” this person said. “Kent County, the most populous county in the region, is far more moderate. I think Peter understands that a targeted battle with Trump will actually appeal to a larger moderate base. He’s looking to broaden the typical conservative coalition.
Michigan Democrats haven’t yet trained their resources on him, though one top Democrat told me: “That Meijer is more concerned with his career trajectory than his own well-being after his own party chair basically put out a soft hit on him is indicative of how exactly Republicans got to this point,” this person said. “Lockstep partisanship at every possible cost.”
So what’s next for Meijer? “I just want to get shit done,” he told me. “I didn’t run for office to be building or burnishing some national brand or only secure reelection and a cozy perch. My goal is to make as much impact and drive as much positive change as I possibly can.”
To accomplish that, he’s taken an unusual approach to select a chief of staff. After the election, he direct-messaged Kenneth Monahan, a former financier whom he met while living in New York City’s West Village and attending Columbia. Monahan, who had never had a job in professional politics, had worked in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for Deutsche Bank. The two bonded over their experience in the Middle East. “How do you carve out ways to be substantive and productive? That requires a lot of finesse,” Meijer said. “It requires a lot of understanding of institutional incentives, individual incentives, organizational incentives. And that’s where it’s like, he would be perfect for this.” Monahan saw Meijer as a serious, thoughtful principal to work for and wanted to work in Washington at a fraught moment for the country. He got his wish. Monahan’s initiation was personally fielding hundreds of calls surrounding January 6 and the subsequent impeachment battle. The calls to Meijer’s office totaled deep into the thousands, including 2,000 voicemails.
Meijer has also joined the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of House moderates — made up of 28 Democrats and 28 Republicans — focused on issues such as infrastructure and immigration.
“I’m still not sure what the congressional form of YOLO is. But I think from a live-every-term-as-if-it-might-be-your-last because I do think it’s really easy, and I’ve felt this temptation myself, and I see it in a lot of others, that they start to say, ‘Well, I know I should do X. I know I should vote this way, but it may preclude my chances of being reelected so I can accomplish Y.’ I totally understand and empathize with that rationalization, but, I think, it becomes a very dangerous path because it’s one thing and then it’s another, and then it’s another, and then I tend to think people have midlife crises because they wake up and all of a sudden they’re reminded of their mortality and say, ‘How did I get here?’ And, I think, plenty of members probably arrive at that same thing.”
YOLO — which, in Meijer’s case, might stand for “you only legislate once” — extends to his social-media strategy. He has derided his Republican colleague Greene, saying: “If the GOP becomes the party of QAnon and plays to the darkest fringes of the online fever swamp, we will never earn the trust of the voters to govern.” But he also voted against the Democratic-led effort to successfully strip her of her committee assignments, saying the “responsibility for Rep. Taylor Greene’s committee assignments rests solely with House GOP leadership.” When news broke of Greene’s support for an America First Caucus, Meijer posted a brushback tweet: “Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal-‘”
Then, Meijer interjected a “Real Housewives of Miami” gif, the one with Lea Black speaking the words: “LET ME STOP YOU RIGHT THERE.”
What does a freshman congressman who has nothing left to lose have left to win? Meijer is focusing on what he hopes will be some bipartisan foreign-policy victories. “I would say very much at the top of the list is war-powers reform and AUMF reform,” Meijer told me in a phone interview a few weeks after our meeting in Grand Rapids, citing the Authorization for Use of Military Force that past presidents have used as a blank check for foreign-policy adventurism in conflicts around the world.
Meijer points to an appetite on both sides of the aisle for such reforms. In March, he joined a bipartisan effort to introduce legislation that would end President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1957 Middle East force authorization to deal with communism, Congress’ 1991 green light that kick-started the Gulf War, and a 2002 authorization of military force for the Iraq War. “Removing these outdated laws is a necessary first step towards reclaiming Congress’s constitutional war powers and ending America’s forever wars,” he said in a statement at the time.
When asked whether he could really make a difference in a divided Washington, Meijer compared his time in Congress to his time in the military and as an NGO worker. “I should hope so, or else why am I here? My formative years were spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I’m no stranger to trying to take on seemingly insurmountable tasks. So I certainly hope that this endeavor works out better than those.” As they say here in the Midwest: ope.
Back at the funeral home turned lively brewery, 2 1/2 miles from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, I asked Meijer whether he thought he could undertake a renovation project for his own party.
“I don’t think that the party has enough cohesion to have a building analogy. It’s kind of like some wild horses are leading it, bumbling over the desert,” Meijer said. “Here’s the millennial ‘Oregon Trail’ parallel coming in: If you feel it’s going to go off a cliff, you have the moral responsibility to pull on the reins and try to get the wild horses to not go off a cliff.”
Hannah Beckler contributed to this report.
This story was first published on April 24, 2021.