Almost 16 years ago, my first piece for TAC chronicled a bad breakup then unfolding between conservatives and their libertarian allies over the Republican president of the United States.
To a great many libertarians, George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” seemed like anything but: it consisted of the Patriot Act, increased spying on Americans, torture of foreigners, new deficit-funded federal spending on guns and butter alike, and above all a disastrous war in Iraq. Bush’s variant of conservatism exiled budget hawks and elevated national security hawks, threatening the fusionist project linking traditionalists and libertarians under the banner of the American Right. Libertarians saw no place for themselves in the “new fusionism” of neoconservatism and the Religious Right.
Bush’s dominance turned out to be short-lived and so was the crisis of the libertarian-conservative alliance. What came after in the form of the Tea Party brought together fiscal and social conservatives in defense of the Constitution, often aligned against the Bushies who brought us the Iraq war. At its peak, this new movement helped elect two important skeptics of military interventionism, Rand Paul and Justin Amash. With fellow traveler Mike Lee and such later additions as Thomas Massie, they outnumbered more hawkish newcomers like Marco Rubio, even if they remained a minority among congressional Republicans overall.
It looked like a free market populism could take hold of the GOP. Instead populism without the modifier took over via Donald Trump and Amash is now out of the party, declaring his own independence on the Fourth of July. While Amash’s frustration with partisan politics had been growing for years, it was his break with Trump that made this move seem inevitable. To some extent, we’re witnessing a fight between those who want conservative leaders to be good and those who want conservatism itself to be less individualistic and more oriented toward the common good.
This split is more important to the fate of antiwar conservatism than when fusionism nearly came unfused in the Bush era. Then libertarians (with a few liberventionist exceptions) and populists in the Pat Buchanan mold stood almost alone on the Right against the march to war. Here we see the most important conservative voices for foreign policy restraint turning against each other.
Case in point: Amash was a rare Republican willing to critique the welfare and warfare states equally. Trump actually won the party’s presidential nomination condemning the Iraq war and a decade and a half of nation-building in the Middle East. Amash has by far the more consistent philosophy of government, Trump an opportunity to govern if he will take it. And some of Trump’s followers are willing to take his antiwar rhetoric to its logical conclusion, even if (perhaps) the president and (certainly) his current national security team are not.
The real disagreements are not over foreign policy, though they would be more muted if the current administration followed Trump’s 2016 script more closely than John Bolton’s. But even in the 1990s, Murray Rothbard ultimately broke with the more clearly antiwar Buchanan over economic nationalism (though Rothbardian libertarians came to be skeptical of open borders) as a gateway to statism more broadly. Trade and immigration remain important dividing lines, as well as the GOP’s capitulation to excessive federal spending whenever they are in power rather than opposition.
But new issues have also come into play. Religious conservatives have become fearful of corporate power, censoring their views inside the workplace and working against them—when not actively suppressing them—in the political realm. Corporate boycotts greet new state-level pro-life or religious liberty legislation, making them wonder whether corporate tax cuts, even under Trump, are the best way to advance their agenda.
Other conservatives see themselves as applying their critique of concentrated power more broadly than libertarians do. Only the state can kill or imprison you, but that is of little comfort if you cannot earn a living or engage in the public square.
Libertarians rightly roll their eyes when they hear traditionalists claim that they control either the country or the Republican Party. The federal government keeps getting bigger no matter which party holds the pursestrings. There’s a case to be made that fusionism as practiced by the GOP and mainstream conservative movement shortchanged both libertarians and social conservatives.
But tax cuts and deregulation happen more frequently than any real progress on social issues, even though evangelicals and conservative Catholics supply most of the votes for Republican candidates. The most electorally viable economic conservatism is really a form of social conservatism, a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic. Yet even making tax cuts more family-friendly, whether through child tax credits or incentives for parental leave, inspires considerable pushback.
Moreover, atomistic individualism, if not real libertarianism, has played a role in social conservative setbacks on abortion and marriage, among other issues, without producing similar gains for religious liberty. This has led many traditionalists to question at a more fundamental level the concepts of personal autonomy at least partially fueling trends they dislike.
All this has occurred amid shrinking libertarian influence over Republican voters in general. A The Hill/Harris poll conducted in June found Republicans resistant to cutting federal spending in all 19 categories tested. This includes not just traditional GOP priorities like law enforcement or defense, but also education, infrastructure, health care, and unemployment insurance.
Many libertarians have doubled down in the face of this resistance. It would be better to abolish the welfare state than to regulate immigration, they say, without identifying a political constituency for such plans. Populism and affiliation with the Republican Party enhanced Ron Paul’s influence, even if he didn’t like the political compromises involved any better than Amash does. His losing campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination were far more influential than his successful run for the Libertarian Party’s. Even if Bush-era conceits about the “ownership society” or investor class were flawed, they were at least actionable ideas for making the voting blocs for smaller government bigger.
If libertarians have a political problem, populists have a policy one. Their critiques of free market fundamentalism have yet to give way to a workable program of their own. They don’t control Twitter but neither will they often run the FCC. There have been some more innovative proposals, but Trumpism so far resembles conventional Republican policies plus higher tariffs and lower immigration rates—and even that is largely aspirational.
These domestic policy concerns could lead to bigger foreign policy ones. Trump could either ratify his party’s break with the neocons or court still greater disasters. But some of his intraparty foils, like former Representative Mark Sanford before Amash, are more supportive of the president’s stated goal of a smaller military footprint in the Middle East than anyone on his team. And now the GOP establishment has trained its sights on Massie.
In these volatile political times, no one can predict the future. There was far less reason to think the Republican Party could change when Ron Paul first sought its presidential nomination than when Amash left it. It’s easy to see a big-spending Democratic administration and congressional majorities ushering in another “libertarian moment,” as in 1994 or the 2010s, making Trumpism as ephemeral as Bush. Or in a country where, according to one survey, only 4 percent marry economic conservatism to social liberalism, populist nationalism could prove the GOP’s last best hope.
But in sharp contrast with the debates of 2003, the turmoil afflicting conservatism has come home to the antiwar Right—which, though much stronger now, is still not big enough to thrive without both its Buchananite and libertarian wings.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.