Who’s the Libertarian Now?
Where are libertarians going? What is clear is where they are not going. The much-touted “libertarian moment,” as a New York Times Magazine article phrased it two years ago, never materialized. The story hailed the presidential aspirations of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as the harbinger of a political sea change that would usher in a new era for the GOP and the country. It never happened. What happened instead was Donald Trump.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Senator Paul spent much of his energy backtracking and distancing himself from the strict libertarian positions of his father, former congressman Ron Paul, particularly on foreign policy. Team Rand thought they had only to trim their sails and he would enter the GOP mainstream: instead, the ship capsized and sank.
As the senator caviled and maneuvered in a bid to look respectable, Trump did precisely the opposite: defying the political class, he launched a frontal assault on the GOP establishment—and succeeded in overthrowing it, to the cheers of the Republican grassroots.
Paul reiterated his opposition to the Iraq War, but Trump went several steps beyond that, accusing the neoconservatives who surrounded George W. Bush of lying us into war: “They said there were weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were none,” he said at the South Carolina GOP presidential debate. “They lied.” As the lobbyists and party mandarins booed him, Trump reveled in their catcalls, serenely defiant in the knowledge that he had the country behind him.
On domestic issues, too, Trump’s boldness overshadowed Paul’s caution. While the Kentucky senator introduced legislation that would make it difficult for visitors from countries rife with terrorism to enter the United States, Trump leapfrogged his Republican rivals by saying he would temporarily ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States. In a year in which half-measures and nuances weren’t selling, Trump understood the zeitgeist and went with it, while the rest of the Republican pack fell by the wayside—Paul being one of the earliest casualties.
The senator had started out by being dubbed “the most interesting man in Washington,” but by the end of his presidential campaign he was surely among the least inspiring. His campaign was supposed to have been a less intransigent version of his father’s quixotic yet impressively enthusiastic White House bids in 2008 and 2012, mobilizing the young people drawn to the elder Paul’s angular libertarian message yet tempering its rough edges so as to neutralize neoconservative critics like Bill Kristol. What happened instead was that Paul’s cautious tightrope walk between these two poles wound up pleasing no one. Paul went from a high of 15 percent or so in the early polls down to 2 percent and fading fast. He dropped out after polling less than 5 percent in Iowa—not even a quarter of his father’s vote total four years before.
It looked like the libertarian moment would never arrive. But there was still a glimmer of hope embodied by that leftover remnant of the early days of the libertarian movement: the Libertarian Party.
After all, Trump’s economic program of tariffs and maintaining the basic infrastructure of the welfare state represents a reversal of longstanding GOP orthodoxy. Ever since 1964, when Barry Goldwater ousted the Rockefeller wing of the party, Republicans had limned libertarian rhetoric on economic issues—a trend that continued through the Reagan years and beyond—albeit without putting theory into practice. Trump has negated all of that, appealing to working-class voters with a pledge to preserve entitlements and sweep away the “free trade” agreements so dear to the hearts of libertarian economists. And while Trump is roundly condemned by the political class for his supposedly “isolationist” foreign policy—he questions the utility and cost of NATO, and wants to dump Japan and Korea from our Pacific defense perimeter—the real estate mogul always accompanies this kind of talk with almost comically bellicose rhetoric, declaring that we’re going to “wipe out” ISIS “fast,” denouncing the “bad deal” with Iran, and refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons.
With the Trumpification of the GOP all but an accomplished fact, would the Libertarian Party learn the lesson of the Rand Paul campaign—don’t trim your sails, unfurl them!—and nominate a candidate with the clarity and consistency that made Ron Paul into a political phenomenon? With a Clintonian corporatist on the left and a populist nationalist on the right, the Libertarians clearly had an unusual opportunity.
Yet they chose not to take it. Instead, they nominated Gary Johnson again, a former Republican governor of New Mexico and erstwhile marijuana entrepreneur. Johnson’s ideological compass is erratic, at best: he supports the “Fair Tax,” which is a consumption tax piled atop a monthly “stipend” from the federal government for all Americans. Asked about global warming, he put a “libertarian” spin on Hillary’s vow to drive the coal miners into the unemployment line by claiming coal is simply being run out of business by the free market. This will come as a surprise to those coal miners driven out of work by the Obama administration’s environmentalist edicts.
Johnson started his campaign for the LP nomination by announcing that Muslim women should be prohibited by law from wearing the burqa. He later backtracked, saying this flagrantly unconstitutional idea was “well-intentioned” and just a “knee-jerk response,” albeit “impossible to enforce.” Perhaps he realized out-Trumping Trump wasn’t going to get him the Libertarian nomination.
Other Trumpian tropes that intruded into the Johnson campaign: opposition to the Iran deal, which he said he initially favored, until he discovered that Tehran is “the number one financier of terror around the world” and that the lifting of sanctions would release monies that would supposedly go to terrorism. Johnson is on record as supporting U.S. military intervention in Uganda. Asked if U.S. military intervention in both World War I and World War II was justified, he threw up his hands and said “I don’t know.” But his ambiguity disappeared when it came to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With Obama making his trip to Hiroshima in May, Johnson was asked if an American apology would be appropriate. His answer: the bombing was justified because “so many lives were lost” and “we were at war, and this brought an end, I certainly don’t want to engage in second-guessing and, no apology. Given the time that this occurred, I would not be apologizing.”
You don’t have to be a libertarian to conclude, along with Dwight Eisenhower and Paul Nitze, that the incineration of over 200,000 people was unnecessary to end the war, but one would think a libertarian, of all people, would be the last to justify this mass murder.
These historical questions, which are unlikely to be asked of the major party candidates, may seem arcane, yet they do give us insight into Johnson’s worldview and its application to more current issues. As Brian Doherty put it in Reason, during the LP presidential debates Johnson “more or less openly called for war against North Korea, in alliance with China.” One wonders: would he nuke Pyongyang because “we’re at war and this brought an end”?
Even more problematic is Johnson’s handpicked vice presidential candidate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, also an ex-Republican. Johnson dubbed him “the original libertarian,” an odd formulation given Weld’s political history: Iraq War supporter, gun-control advocate, former supporter of John Kasich, and Bush consigliere during the 2004 presidential contest. Bill Clinton wanted Weld as his ambassador to Mexico, a nomination scotched in the Senate by Jesse Helms. Weld is, in short, the archetypal moderate Republican, just as former congressman Bob Barr—another Republican retread, nominated for president by the LP in 2008—was the incarnation of the sort of ultra-conservative Republican the Libertarians hoped to attract in that year. Indeed, the LP has often functioned as a halfway house for Republicans out to exact revenge on a party insufficiently appreciative of their virtues. Before moving over to the Libertarian Party, Johnson first ran for the GOP nomination in 2012, competing against Ron Paul for the small-l libertarian Republican vote, but dropped out after going nowhere fast.
Key to understanding what makes Johnson run is this seemingly inexplicable decision to take on Ron Paul: why in the world would a self-described libertarian challenge the former Texas congressman whose name is a byword for principled devotion to the credo of individual freedom?
The answer lies in the storied history of the libertarian movement, which has really been two competing movements ever since the Libertarian Party underwent a debilitating split at its 1983 convention. That conclave showcased a bitter struggle between two factions, which superficially represented the old pragmatist-principled divide, yet the differences really went much deeper.
On one side were those aligned with Edward H. Crane III, then the head of the Cato Institute. Their candidate for the presidential nod was Earl Ravenal, a foreign-policy analyst and academic who served in the Defense Department under presidents Johnson and Carter. This was quite in line with what might be called the Crane faction’s “Fabian” strategy, which was to appeal to the political class in a bid for credibility.
On the other side of the barricades was the “Coalition for a Party of Principle,” which cared not one whit for “credibility” and sought to mount a populist challenge to the political class rather than court it.
The factional warfare started in 1980, when the Libertarian candidate was Ed Clark, a corporate lawyer who had garnered over 5 percent of the general-election vote as the party’s candidate for governor of California in 1978. To the consternation of Murray Rothbard, the LP’s unofficial ideologue-in-chief, the Clark campaign in 1980 refused to advocate abolishing the income tax, instead coming out for a mere reduction, and seemed more interested in generating favorable coverage in the liberal media than in actually building the LP. The internecine battle came to a head when Clark, interviewed by Ted Koppel on national television, described libertarianism as “low-tax liberalism.”
This enraged Rothbard, not only because it reduced libertarianism to an empty catchphrase but also because it embodied an approach to building the movement that was culturally as well as ideologically opposed to his own populist orientation. The irascible libertarian philosopher saw clearly that the elites, whether liberal or conservative, were unalterably opposed to the radical libertarian ideology he had spent years elaborating in dozens of books and hundreds of articles. To see his radical vision co-opted and effectively neutered in a misguided attempt to appeal to the Georgetown cocktail party circuit was an outrage he vowed would not stand.
Rothbard and his allies succeeded in defeating Crane at the 1983 convention, and for a while the Libertarian Party managed to keep its ideological bearings. Ron Paul’s 1988 bid for the White House under the party’s banner was a high point, one that prefigured his later success in generating a broader libertarian movement while sticking to libertarian principle. Over these years, the LP pursued Rothbard’s populist strategy, seeking to build a grassroots movement that would sprout in flyover country and lay siege to the Beltway.
Rothbard and his allies eventually tired of the LP, however: the party’s countercultural penumbra and the end of the Cold War propelled them out of the LP and into the nascent paleoconservative movement, where they rallied to Pat Buchanan’s 1992 challenge to “King George,” Bush I. In a 1992 speech to the John Randolph Club, a paleoconservative gathering, Rothbard gave full vent to his view that a “right-wing populist” upsurge would be the vessel of a libertarian victory:
the proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call ‘right-wing populism’: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.
Rothbard, who died in 1995, would’ve loved Donald Trump, and he seems to have foreseen his rise as if in a dream. Yet the Libertarian Party, which under Johnson and Weld appears to have reverted to a version of Ed Clark’s “low-tax liberalism,” is today the vanguard of the Never Trump movement—this in spite of Trump’s libertarian-friendly “America First” anti-interventionism. Indeed, the liberal media has given the Johnson-Weld team unprecedented coverage, with over 250 reporters hovering about the LP convention on Memorial Day weekend and reporting directly from the floor. They lapped up Weld’s words as he likened Trump’s plan to control the U.S. border with Mexico to the Nazi Kristallnacht and avidly recounted Johnson’s charging Trump with “fascism.”
Yet grassroots libertarians have a different perspective: a poll taken by the South Carolina Republican House Caucus of over 3,500 likely GOP primary voters showed that 51 percent of self-identified libertarians supported Trump. While the Libertarian ticket plays up to the elite media and wins kudos from neoconservatives like Jennifer Rubin and the Never Trump crowd—GOP consultant Mary Matalin has recently announced her decision to join the Libertarians—the libertarian grassroots is more interested in supporting an outsider than in cozying up to the Washington Post.
One has to ask: what exactly is the point of a Libertarian Party that puts two moderate Republicans at the head of its presidential ticket and aims to win over Mary Matalin rather than Joe Sixpack? The LP is enacting, on a smaller scale, the very strategy that turned the bright promise of the Rand Paul campaign into a disaster. Or to go farther back, it’s a replication of Ed Clark’s “low-tax liberalism,” now transformed into pot-friendly conservatism
The media is pushing the Libertarians this year because they think they’ll split the Republican vote and deliver the White House to the Clintons. Yet the same cluelessness that prevented the pundits from taking Trump seriously in the first place is leading them astray in this calculation. With Johnson-Weld defining libertarianism down to “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” they’ll take more votes from Clinton and the anti-Trump camp—and conceivably put a man they call a fascist into the Oval Office.
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.