The Right Kind of Realignment
Libertarian populism could help create a winning coalition for Republicans.
In January, countless Reddit users collaborated to spike GameStop shares, driving up the company’s value so dramatically that personal investment app Robinhood blocked its users from buying more due to “market volatility.” This allowed hedge funds to buy or unload the short-sell stock at will while private individuals were prevented from buying because too many were making too much money.
It was a case of everyday people figuring out the system to benefit themselves in a way that undermined Wall Street. The action by Robinhood that followed was clearly big business protecting Wall Street at the expense of the little guy. A 21st-century populist uprising was stifled by the financial and political elite.
“This is unacceptable,” Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared. Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace retweeted the far-left Democrat in agreement, adding “Big investment firms are crying to the government b/c a few people used (Reddit) & (Robinhood) to beat them at their own game.”
“They shorted (GameStop) and lost. Period,” the House freshman added. “In a free market, all are free to succeed/fail.”
But apparently some companies are too big to fail. “Any allegation that Robinhood acted to help hedge funds or other special interests to the detriment of our customers is absolutely false and market-distorting rhetoric,” Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev testified in February. “In the face of this unprecedented volatility and volume… Robinhood Securities placed temporary restrictions on certain securities to facilitate compliance with clearinghouse deposit requirements, thereby allowing Robinhood to continue to serve our customers and comply with all trading regulations.”
Tenev’s defense was that his company had to comply with federal regulations. Big government protects hedge funds at the expense of everyday Americans who might also want to play the stock market in the same way rich people do. And they had—until big business and big government put a stop to it that day.
How many Americans collectively lost trillions in the subprime mortgage crisis in the late aughts? But the federal government’s first concern was protecting elites, as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama dutifully handed billions of taxpayer dollars over to Wall Street. The Tea Party movement of that era was a reaction to those bailouts.
How many wealthy people today have benefitted from the trillions in coronavirus relief at the expense of those in actual need? Republican Congressman Thomas Massie said of the first relief package in March 2020, “The tragedy of this bill is it’s a massive wealth transfer from the middle class to the moneyed class.”
Americans have become accustomed to watching the rich and powerful shielded by big government, while the little guy has to accept his financial hardship. Maybe there should be a major American political party that fights for them.
Millions of voters saw Donald Trump as a heroic figure because he seemed to fight against government, corporate, and media forces the average American feels powerless against. Polling shows that a majority of Republicans still support the former president.
Many of those Republican voters are still dealing with or recovering from job-crushing coronavirus lockdowns, and fear that their civil liberties are under assault by the government and Big Tech. Many voters are distrustful and angry at their state and federal governments working in tandem with large corporations to disrupt or suppress daily life.
The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney saw the writing on the wall eight years ago, after “47 percent” Republican candidate Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election.
“The GOP is out of power and it needs to play to the disaffected,” Carney wrote in 2012. “The disaffected are not the wealthy, an obvious point that conservatives can’t seem to understand. The wealthy got wealthier under Obama, and corporations earned record profits while median family earnings fell.”
A January 2020 Gallup poll found that a whopping 70 percent of Americans believe the economy is “rigged” to favor the powerful. Why not make the cronyism favored by political and corporate elites the enemy?
A newer crop of nationalist and “common good” conservatives that emerged during the Trump era will be eager to harness the power of the state in a supposed effort to empower the little guy against an entrenched elite. But Democrat-lite—or Democrat-like—proposals from this faction might prove more difficult than they realize under Biden. A Republican proposal in February by Sens. Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 combined with increased illegal immigrant restrictions on businesses was met with mixed reactions.
Instead, economic collectivists on the left and right should be met by a more radical free market agenda.
“Instead of trying to convince successful people that Democrats will take away their wealth, why not explain to the middle class that big government is keeping them down?” Carney urged eight years ago. “It’s time for free-market populism and a Republican Party that fights against all forms of political privilege.”
Carney’s libertarian populist agenda then included breaking up big banks, cutting or eliminating the highly regressive payroll tax, ending corporate welfare, voting against reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, a cleaner tax code, healthcare reform, abolishing anticompetitive regulations, addressing political privilege, and more.
Today, a libertarian populist agenda could also include opposing bailouts for hedge funds or anyone else. It could include taking on the teachers’ unions and fighting for school choice, an issue popular with a majority of voters and particularly black and Hispanic Americans. Healthcare reform could top such an agenda, as many Americans wonder why their premiums are going up as the insurance and pharmaceutical companies become wealthier.
Such an agenda would be similar to how former Republican congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, who inspired a libertarian populist movement during the 2008 and 2012 elections, described his populist vision in a 2016 column for CNN. “In a free society, there would be no bailouts to the too-big-to-fail banks, artificially low interest rates, crony regulations or coveted government contracts,” Paul wrote. “Cozying up to power would be a thing of the past since such power centers would cease to exist.”
I asked Carney for his thoughts on libertarian populism’s potential success in 2021.
“I think the populist energy on the Right is behind an activist government right now (protectionism/crackdowns on Big Tech/subsidies for families, etc.)” Carney said. But he also believes “libertarian populism is a good compromise position among the Right populists, the more typical Reagan/Ryan conservatives, and any cooperative elements on the Left.”
As for how to deal with an increasingly censorious Twitter, Google, or Facebook, “Take on Big Tech by taking away privileges and subsidies,” Carney said.
On the family-policy front, Carney added that a libertarian populism could also, “Help families by reducing marriage penalties and cutting taxes. Help U.S. manufacturers by getting rid of government distortions.”
The most libertarian example of right-wing populism in the 21st century thus far was the Tea Party movement and its focus on Washington spending. But populist energy can be directed in countless different directions. Many debates about the future of the Republican Party right now are whether to reject or to continue to embrace Trumpism. Why not embrace some good parts, reject bad ones, and add even better parts?
A libertarian populist agenda could woo white working class voters by emphasizing that the powerful are the problem, not historically disenfranchised racial minorities, immigrants, or other often powerless groups who are blamed for America’s social ills.
There is space for a Republican Party that is for border security and against illegal immigration, but that is also more pro-immigrant, or at least less anti-immigrant in tone. A July 2020 Gallup poll showed the number of Americans who want to see more immigration to the U.S. is growing (about one third: 34 percent last year compared to 27 percent in 2019). A June 2020 Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that “69 percent of those who voted for Trump in 2016 — when he vowed to deport Dreamers — say they should be protected.”
Humanizing migrants would be key. In late March, Republican Sens. Mike Braun, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and others inspected the conditions of detainees caught up in President Biden’s growing border crisis. Braun observed, “the humanitarian conditions here, it’s appalling.” Cruz saw in the detention facilities, “multiple mothers who were nursing infant babies… who were being housed in outdoor holding pens where they were sleeping on the floor and nursing their babies.”
Republicans should talk more about what this Democratic president is doing to these poor families.
Ron Paul once lectured his party during a Republican primary debate in 2007, “If we had a truly free-market economy, the illegal immigrants would not be the scapegoat.”
One suggestion Tim Carney had in 2013 was, “Want to reach out to immigrants? Maybe become more explicitly the party of entrepreneurs, and kill regulations that protect the big guys from competition.” Good idea.
A Republican Party that looks more like the coalition that made the First Step Act happen could build broader coalitions than the racially-charged violence in Charlottesville in 2017 that so stained the Trump era. A shift in tone, attitude and focus—a recalibration—from Republicans’ recent past on issues of race could expand the GOP’s base.
A September Gallup 2020 poll showed most Americans believed race relations were at an all-time low. With so many U.S. streets set ablaze in 2020 over racial tension it is not hard to imagine why. Many Americans were traumatized by seeing far-left extremists vandalize businesses and riot in various cities and neighborhoods. While many black Americans might want to send a message about their lives mattering, they also probably do not like seeing their neighborhoods torn down, particularly by leftist radicals, often white, trying to appropriate legitimate black grievance.
In the Washington Post, black journalist Jonathan Capehart quoted a suspect from the September 2020 of the riots in Portland, Oregon, who said, “I am 100% ANTIFA all the way! I am willing to fight for my brothers and sisters!”
“On behalf of Black people, may I say, ‘No thanks,’” Capehart wrote.
There are ways to tackle police and criminal justice reform while fully opposing the “woke” mobs. Libertarian-friendly conservatives have been almost the only faction on the right willing to embrace such reform while simultaneously opposing the violent far-left. When Sen. Rand Paul and his wife Kelley were surrounded by a woke mob on White House grounds after the conclusion of the 2020 GOP convention, protesters screamed at the couple, “say her name, say her name!” referring to Breonna Taylor, an African American woman killed by police who used a no-knock warrant. But Sen. Paul is the sponsor of the Justice for Breonna Taylor Act, which would ban federal no-knock warrants.
The left will not want to hear about practical solutions like this from any Republican, but some portion of 42 million black Americans might. Conservatives should merge black concerns about government overreach of a different kind with the Republican agenda. There are examples. The Senate’s only black Republican, Sen. Tim Scott, gave a tearful and heroic speech after police murdered an unarmed African American, Walter Scott, in his state. He delivered a personal message about the reality of police brutality, a truth coming from a well-respected black leader to a largely white constituency and audience. Scott later introduced a police reform bill that had Trump’s support but failed to pass. Still, more can be done. On March 2, Trump endorsed Scott for his 2022 Senate re-election.
Though many won’t give him credit, Trump really did open the door on a racial realignment front in a big way. When the First Step Act was signed by President Trump in 2018, one poll promoted by the Senate Judiciary Committee showed that three quarters of Americans supported eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing and prison reform. These issues do not threaten the interests of white working class voters. A libertarian populist could emphasize that big government comes in more forms than just taxes and regulation.
Donald Trump declared at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, “The future of the Republican Party is as a party that defends the social, economic, and cultural interests and values of working American families—of every race, every color, and every creed.”
Black and Hispanic voters care about taking care of their families just as much as white working class voters do. There is arguably no greater priority for most Americans. This likely had something to do with more black and Hispanic voters joining white working-class voters in supporting Trump in 2020 than in 2016. This went against everything the left and mainstream media told us about Trump and race.
The New York Times reported in December 2020, “Across the United States, many areas with large populations of Latinos and residents of Asian descent, including ones with the highest numbers of immigrants, had something in common this election: a surge in turnout and a shift to the right, often a sizable one.”
Biden “beat President Trump in almost all of these places en route to his record popular vote victory,” the Times reported. “But the red shifts, along with a wave of blue shifts in Republican and white areas, have scrambled the conventional wisdom of American politics and could presage a new electoral calculus for the parties.”
Days after the election, Geraldo L. Cadava, author of The Hispanic Republican, explained in the Atlantic, “Trump understood what motivated his Latino supporters—economic individualism, religious liberty, and law and order—and he made sure they knew he did.” These are conservative and libertarian values.
Black Entertainment Television (BET) founder Robert Johnson told CNBC the day after the election, “I think black Americans are getting a little bit tired of delivering huge votes for the Democrats, and seeing minimal return in terms of economic wealth and closing the wealth gap, job creation, and job opportunities.”
Perhaps more black Americans and Hispanics are ready for a populist movement that speaks to them. Sam Fulwood III, who conducted the Black Swing Voters Project, told BBC News that African-American voters overwhelmingly believed President Trump was “racist” and “incompetent,” but admired that he “shows strength and defies the establishment.” Fulwood said, “I think that resonates with a great number of, particularly young, African Americans, who already feel that the establishment is weighted against them…they don’t like his policies, but they like the idea that he sticks it to the establishment.”
Reaction to establishment control and censorship suggests the Republican Party could become the liberal party in the United States. That’s right, in the face of Democratic illiberalism: Republicans as the liberals—classically liberal that is. The basic precepts of modern liberal democracy continue to be challenged by the hard left: free speech and expression, constitutional liberties, the Electoral College, racial equality, and America’s historic pluralism.
Reason’s Nick Gillespie observed in February of the rising illiberal left, “Many in the media and the academy are questioning bedrock commitments to free expression and intellectual freedom. As the former head of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, told Reason recently, many activists, academics, and journalists believe that ‘free speech is an antagonist’ to social justice.”
There are some holdout leftist critics of this trend, mostly liberal veterans of the old school, some of whom are now seen as right-wingers by their former audiences simply for defending these values. As progressive writer Matt Taibbi said of his liberal colleague Glenn Greenwald in mid-February, “What people who call (Greenwald) right-wing are actually saying is that his views—opposition to monopoly, surveillance, and censorship, skepticism of secret police agencies, belief in journalistic fairness—are incompatible with current Democratic Party orthodoxy.”
Rising illiberalism has become a growing concern on the right. Greenwald is a regular guest on Tucker Carlson’s popular Fox News show talking about these issues. “If you disagree with their orthodoxies and their consensus, you are a threat and a danger,” Greenwald told Carlson in late January. Regardless of what it is called, liberalism will need its defenders.
There are libertarian Republicans in Congress who have advocated for most or all of the stances mentioned here. Some might run for president. Some might be leaders who make libertarian populist legislation happen through the ability to get Trump’s stamp on it, close to Trump, such as the most high-profile, Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator has connected with Trump at a “gut level” in the past, particularly on libertarian issues.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is already fairly libertarian on at least some issues—particularly opening his red state with success, in contrast to blue states still under lockdowns.
Vanity Fair noted of Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, a DeSantis and Trump ally, in March 2020, “Gaetz rattled off a list of issues on which he breaks with his party: war powers, gay rights, animal rights, climate change, mandatory arbitration, marijuana. ‘I’m a different kind of Republican, and I think we are in a time of political realignment made possible by the Trump presidency,’” he said. “I think I’m a libertarian populist,” Gaetz added.
Any of these figures potentially helping to mold a more libertarian populist Republican Party is no more farfetched than Josh Hawley positioning himself to do the same through his nationalist brand. Libertarians have as much of a claim on aspects of Trumpism as that camp.
Libertarians are already partly there. Criminal justice reform is not only a conservative issue largely thanks to Trump, but his gift of an “America First” foreign policy has revolutionized how many Republicans now talk about war and peace.
Sen. Paul put this paradigm shift into context in August, contrasting today’s GOP to the party’s makeup when his antiwar father, Ron Paul, ran for president 13 years ago, “I think the party that wasn’t ready for my dad in 2008, actually is much more accepting of the positions of less war and military intervention, but, largely because of President Trump expressing similar views.” Parties change, often because leaders effect that change.
What other libertarian stances could become part of the DNA of a populist, working class, multiethnic, classically liberal, and anti-”woke” Republican Party? Let’s find out.