There’s something amusing about the essays on the apparently elusive “libertarian moment” (from Robert Draper’s 2014 New York Times conversation starter to Kevin D. Williamson’s latest obituary in The Atlantic this week): each draws upon Senator Rand Paul. Paul, after all, still maintains a high profile, helps direct national conversations, and even occasionally affects policy.
Most traditionalist conservatives have long insisted that the Old Right’s “moment” in the mid-20th century was largely centered on the impact of Senator Robert Taft. Libertarians are now living through a similar event. With the arguable exception of his father Ron Paul, the United States has never seen an explicitly libertarian politician with the visibility and influence Rand Paul continues to have, however great or small that might be.
This is by no means everything (Taft, who was even part of GOP leadership, didn’t ultimately redefine his party in the end). A single elected figure falls far short of the sweeping phenomenon that Draper analyzed in his original Times piece.
Yet it’s still a unique moment in American politics. A libertarian one, even.
But not according to Williamson, of whom I am a fan and who claims to be a self-identified libertarian. “Senator Rand Paul is a man out of time,” begins his essay “The Passing of the Libertarian Moment.”
It was only a few years ago that the editors of Reason magazine held him up as the personification of what they imagined to be a “libertarian moment,” a term that enjoyed some momentary cachet in the pages of The New York Times, The Atlantic, Politico (where I offered a skeptical assessment), and elsewhere. But rather than embodying the future of the Republican Party, Paul embodies its past…
After noting Ronald Reagan’s and William F. Buckley’s classical liberal leanings (now in the dustbin of history Williamson consigns libertarianism to), he surveys the current landscape.
“The view from 2018 is rather different,” Williamson writes. “The GOP finds itself in the throes of a populist convulsion, an ironic product of the fact that the party that long banqueted on resentment of the media now is utterly dominated by the alternative media constructed by its own most dedicated partisans.”
“It is Sean Hannity’s party now,” he moans.
But the GOP was Sean Hannity’s party when George W. Bush was president, too. If Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio—or even Rand Paul—had prevailed in 2016 instead of Donald Trump, it would have also been Hannity’s party, whatever that might have looked like. Hannity’s party is whatever the Republican Party happens to be doing at any given moment: the war on terror, the Tea Party, Trump, and whatever might follow Trump.
And something different almost always follows.
In 2008, the Democratic base was united against Bush’s Iraq War and championing Barack Obama as the anti-war candidate. By 2016, the Democratic base was stagnating under Hillary Clinton, who in so many ways was alike to Dick Cheney, the left’s arch-villain just a decade prior.
Politics constantly change and the party faithful rallies around whomever sits at the top. Presidents and even presidential nominees, for a time, almost always have a trickle-down affect on their parties. Of course, this isn’t logical ideologically. But it is how the mindless partisanship that Williamson rightly deplores works.
It didn’t start with Trump and nor will it end with him. Williamson sees an America and world permanently cemented in Trump’s moment, in which nothing good for libertarians is happening or can ever happen—on economic policy, foreign policy, the drug war, criminal justice reform, you name it. “(T)he United States is for the moment left with two authoritarian populist parties and no political home for classical liberalism at all,” Williamson laments.
No home at all? There are actually classically liberal aspects of the current administration for those willing to look (coupled with so many other anti-liberty aspects, as Williamson correctly details). Reason’s Nick Gillespie does a noteworthy job of finding much libertarian good in the Trump agenda in his response to Williamson:
Williamson, a doctrinaire #NeverTrumper, ignores any possible positives coming out of the current moment, such as the deregulatory regime that is taking place at, among other agencies, the FCC… At places such as the FDA, the EPA, and the Department of Education, a similar if partial dismantling of the administrative state is under way. Despite his obscene increases in Pentagon budgets, Trump has been less bellicose in foreign policy than his two immediate predecessors; indeed, he’s being attacked these days for planning to pull out of Syria, a country with whom we’re not technically at war (but never mind). He has also managed to oversee the reduction and elimination of various tax expenditures (mortgage-interest and state-and-local tax deductions) and a thoroughgoing reform of the corporate tax system. During the 2016 campaign, Trump was clearly better on the drug war than Hillary Clinton, believing that pot laws should be dealt with at the state level. Despite his attorney general’s recent assertions that he’d be going after legalized marijuana, there’s no sign that’s going to happen… he is downsizing the stature and ultimately the power of presidency and the government more generally.
“Williamson’s relentlessly dour assessment should serve mostly as a reminder that Trump Derangement Syndrome exists on the right as well as the left,” Gillespie adds.
Gillespie is no Trump cheerleader, but he’s still able to find positive aspects of Trump from a libertarian perspective. I’m not particularly pro- or anti-Trump, but Gillespie’s observations stand. The chances for libertarian progress should be soberly considered outside of one’s love or antipathy for the president.
Even before the rise of Trump, Williamson saw little hope for any libertarian political influence, whether in the form of Rand Paul or his father Ron Paul. In fact, the last time I responded to Williamson on libertarianism’s prospects was over his negative 2011 cover story for National Review, “Ron Paul’s Last Crusade,” which portrayed Paul and his supporters as a bunch of kooks unworthy of the libertarian mantle, much less the Republican Party’s.
As I said in my response to Williamson: “any genuine bottom-up grassroots movement—like the Tea Party or the Ron Paul movement—is going to be filled with everyday people, some of whom might not say the right things or present the right temperament for many in the political class.”
This is an unfortunate but unavoidable element of populism. It was true of Paul’s movement. It was true of the Tea Party. Hell, it’s been true on the right going all the way back to Barry Goldwater. It is certainly true of Trump and his supporters, as Williamson has observed.
If a critique of Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign is that he failed to reach voters in the visceral way Trump did, Williamson’s retort to the pain of the struggling working class communities Trump did reach was that they “deserve to die.”
That’s probably not a good campaign slogan. It’s also the left’s stereotype of a libertarian—and no one is going to support that model.
To advance any political philosophy, you have to reach actual people, however imperfect that might look in practice to some ideologues.
The most popular libertarian movement in American politics is one that Williamson has largely rejected from the beginning. Now, under Trump, he’s erecting a headstone for libertarianism itself.
Whether the libertarian moment has passed will continue to be debated. That Kevin D. Williamson ruled it out years ago should not be.
Jack Hunter is the former political editor of Rare.us and co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Senator Rand Paul.