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Libertarian Populism is Still Relevant in the Age of Trump

As the midterms showed, it offers a workable way forward.
Justin Amash Thomas Massie

The conventional wisdom says that libertarian politics is irrelevant in the age of Donald Trump. Liberty-minded ideas have been rejected, this line of thinking goes, both in the Republican Party and on the national scene.

The result of the midterm elections would seem to back this up. The Libertarian Party’s three state legislators were defeated in their reelection bids in Nebraska and New Hampshire. The libertarian-leaning Republican Congressman Rod Blum was defeated for reelection in his swing seat. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, once one of the few Republicans who supported marijuana legalization, was also defeated in his reelection bid. Congressman Dave Brat, the former economics professor who beat then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary bid back in 2014, was also sent packing.

Yet while there was some bad news for libertarians in the midterms, there was also plenty of good news. Those positive glimmers show that libertarian populism still has a place in both the Republican Party and national politics.

Congressmen Justin Amash and Thomas Massie were easily reelected. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who columnist George Will called “an oasis of liberty,” was also returned to office. The libertarian-leaning House Freedom Caucus is still expected to be a powerful force within the congressional GOP.

And even the bad news has an asterisk by it in some cases. Dana Rohrabacher was likely defeated because of his questionable ties to the Russian government. Dave Brat was known for his hardline immigration stances, which may have helped make him unpopular among Eric Cantor’s old supporters.

Libertarian populism also has a progressive component. And on Tuesday, the House Liberty Caucus’s only Democratic member, Jared Polis, was elected governor of Colorado.

But it is the unexpectedly strong victory of Denver Riggleman of “Bigfoot erotica” fame in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District that shows how libertarian populism can still be a force in American politics. Riggleman is described by National Review’s Jibran Khan as “a libertarian outsider with a knack for free-market populism.” Riggleman, who owns a whiskey distillery, ran a positive, policy-focused race against crony capitalism and for reforms in the H2A guest worker program in order help farmers get the labor they need.

Riggleman’s path to Congress was unique. He ran briefly for Virginia governor in 2017 before dropping out to focus on his business. The incumbent, Republican Congressman Tom Garrett, was forced to abandon his reelection bid as a result of his battle with alcoholism. Riggleman, with the support of younger voters, won a contentious nominating convention against a leading social conservative. His victory shows that a libertarian populist message can still resonate, even in a battleground district.

Why is libertarian populism still relevant? The latest answer is Amazon’s decision to place its HQ2 facility in Arlington, Virginia, and New York City (along with another project in Nashville). Amazon collected over $2.2 billion in government subsidies from the three states. The only congressional opposition to this act of blatant cronyism came from libertarians and self-described socialist Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Libertarian populists are in a unique position to exploit the political divide in today’s America. They are skeptical of both big business and big government. They are strong supporters of free speech whether the threat comes from the state or from private industry. They are unapologetically anti-globalist while at the same championing free trade and a realist foreign policy. They champion both environmental conservation and limited government. They understand that a limited social safety net is necessary. They support both streamlined legal immigration and border security.

Do they have a chance in Trump’s Republican Party? Yes, because the efforts to build a Trumpism without Trump took a beating in the midterms. Corey Stewart was soundly defeated in his bid for Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat by Senator Tim Kaine. Lou Barletta, another Trumpian immigration restrictionist candidate, was defeated for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat. Kris Kobach was beaten in his bid to become Kansas’s governor. There is little love for Trumpism among suburbanites and young people, two demographics that the Republican Party must do better among if it hopes to win in the future.

Trump himself seems to understand this to a point. He recently endorsed criminal justice reform legislation that is working its way through the U.S. Senate. He has hinted at supporting the legalization of marijuana at the federal level. One of his most important unofficial advisors is none other than Senator Rand Paul.

Far from dead, libertarian populism offers the way forward for the right. The political movement of the foreseeable future is going to be populist, not centrist. Why shouldn’t the championing of human liberty be one of the causes that the people take up?

Kevin Boyd is a freelance writer. He has been published at The Federalist, IJ Review, the New York Observer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @TheKevinBoyd.