The End of the Libertarian Dream?
Long on the fringes of American politics, small-government conservatives were closer than ever to mainstream acceptance. Then two things happened: Donald Trump and Jihadi John.
By TIM ALBERTA March/April 2017
Justin Amash can’t seem to concentrate. His eyes keep drifting toward the TV behind me, mounted on the wall inside his congressional office. The 36-year-old representative from Michigan, who arrived in Washington six years ago as a self-described libertarian Republican, is rattling off a list of concerns about the newly inaugurated president, but he is distracted by C-SPAN’s programming: Mick Mulvaney, his close friend and colleague from South Carolina—and a similarly libertarian-minded Republican—is getting grilled during his confirmation hearing to become director of the Office of Management and Budget. Arizona Senator John McCain had just finished his inquisition and was particularly harsh, scolding Mulvaney for voting to slash military spending and withdraw American troops from Europe and Afghanistan. It was a tense exchange, and Amash savored every moment of it. The ascent of Mulvaney to such a powerful position in the federal government, libertarians believe, proves that their ideology has invaded and influenced the Republican mainstream in a manner unimaginable a decade ago.
There is, however, a complicating factor: Mulvaney’s new boss is President Donald Trump.
In campaigning for the presidency, Trump frequently sang from the same hymnal as libertarian primary rival Senator Rand Paul, warning against regime change and nation-building abroad, decrying the allied invasions of Iraq and Libya (never mind that Trump initially supported both), and promising to disengage from a self-immolating Middle East while re-evaluating American involvement in NATO. The election of an ideologically unmoored reality-TV star was startling to many libertarians, but at least it suggested some progress in their struggle with the GOP’s interventionist wing. “The silver lining is that Trump proved you can win the Republican nomination, and the presidency, by criticizing neoconservative foreign policy,” says David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.
“I think the McCain-Graham wing of the party is withering,” Amash tells me in his office, referring to South Carolina’s hawkish senator. “It was dominant 10 or 15 years ago on foreign policy matters and surveillance and other things. But today, it’s a rather weak force compared to a decade ago in D.C. And it’s almost nonexistent at home.”
And yet, Trump also pledged to oversee a massive military buildup. He threatened to “bomb the $#@! out of” the Islamic State; suggested killing the families of terrorists; expressed an interest in seizing Iraq’s sovereign oil; advocated the return of torture; and, in his inaugural address, declared he would eradicate Islamist terrorism “from the face of the Earth.” When I mention all this, Amash bursts out laughing. “Not exactly a libertarian philosophy,” I say. “No,” he shakes his head. “It’s not.”
There are areas, certainly, in which Trumpism and libertarianism will peacefully co-exist; school choice, as evidenced by Trump’s selection of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is one example. Deregulation is another. But by and large, they cannot be reconciled. Where libertarians champion the flow of people and capital across international borders, Trump aims to slow, or even stop, both. Where libertarians advocate drug legalization and criminal justice reform, Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, seek a return to law-and-order policies. Where libertarians push to protect the First and Fourth Amendments, Trump pushes back with threats of banning Muslims and expanding the surveillance state. And where Mulvaney has dedicated his career to the argument that dramatic fiscal measures are needed to prevent the United States from going bankrupt, Trump campaigned unambiguously on accumulating debt, increasing spending and not laying a finger on the entitlement programs that make up an ever-growing share of the federal budget.
Sooner or later, something has to give. “Mick knows the numbers. And he’s going to get to, at some point, a soul-testing moment,” Mark Sanford, his fellow South Carolina representative and a self-identified, lifelong libertarian, tells me. “Do I go with, you know, what Donald is saying? Or do I go with what I know to be mathematic reality?”
This disconnect captures the sense of uncertainty and conflict that libertarians—whether they are Republicans, Democrats or adherents of the eponymous third party—feel in the age of Trump. After generations of being relegated to the periphery of American politics, they are seeing some of their most precious ideals accepted and advocated for at the highest levels of government. But in many policy areas, there has never been a president who poses a greater threat to what they hold dear—one who is poised, potentially, to reorient the GOP electorate toward a strong, active, centralized and protectionist federal government. The Trump presidency, then, is shaping up to be a defining moment for the libertarian movement.
But it won’t come down to intraparty disputes over marijuana, or sentencing reform, or government data collection. Rather, the viability of libertarianism—for the next four or eight years, and potentially much longer—will be determined to an overwhelming extent by the relative stability of international affairs and the level of security Americans feel as a result.
Not long ago, libertarians were having their long-awaited moment, with Rand Paul—supposedly the candidate who could rebrand their once-fringe ideology for a new generation of Americans—gracing magazine covers and converting Republicans to a philosophy of laissez-faire at home and restraint abroad. But the reason he isn’t president today, his allies say, owes equally to the rise of Trump and that of another disruptive phenomenon.
“Two people were Senator Paul’s undoing in the presidential race,” Chip Englander, his campaign manager, tells me. “Donald Trump and Jihadi John.”
Libertarians call it “the Giuliani moment.” It was May 15, 2007, and the former New York mayor stood across from Ron Paul on a debate stage in Columbia, South Carolina. They had nothing in common—personalities and ideologies aside, Rudy Giuliani was comfortably leading the GOP presidential field, while Paul was polling in the low single digits—but they would soon produce an inflection point in the party’s modern history, one that triggered a decade of unprecedented progress for libertarians.
As a panel of Fox News moderators mocked his opposition to the Iraq War, Paul argued that American intervention in the Middle East was “a major contributing factor” to the September 11 attacks. “Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us?” he asked. “They attack us because we’ve been over there.” Giuliani, whose candidacy arose from his heroic handling of 9/11, pounced, calling it “an extraordinary statement” and asking Paul to withdraw it. The crowd roared with approval, but Paul didn’t budge. “I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback,” he responded.