The obliteration of the Republican-libertarian alliance

In the midst of denying the reality of his 2016 loss of the popular vote in an interview segment that aired Tuesday night, President Trump declared himself “somewhat libertarian.”

“They always talk about [2016 Green Party candidate] Jill Stein,” he told Fox News host Laura Ingraham, referring to claims that Stein sapped votes from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. “Jill Stein took, what? Half a percent?” Trump continued (wrongly). “Well, I have a Libertarian [candidate Gary Johnson] — I’m somewhat libertarian; I have to be honest with you; [Kentucky GOP Sen.] Rand Paul will tell you that — I have a Libertarian candidate on last time that got, what? Four and a half or so percent? [Also wrong.] Those are all Republican voters. They’re wasting their vote, because — they have to vote for us.”

As a libertarian, no. No to all of this. No, in fact, to the self-serving claims of “libertarianism” by Republicans who just want to use weed or get our votes. No to the assumption that the Republican Party is automatically the lesser of two evils from the libertarian perspective. Whatever case there used to be for that alliance rested on the GOP at least pretending to share libertarians’ fiscal conservatism. With Trump, that pretense is gone. We do not “have to” vote for Republican candidates generally, and we certainly don’t have to vote for this Republican.

“If you analyze it,” then-GOP candidate Ronald Reagan told the libertarian Reason magazine in 1975, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” The “basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom,” Reagan continued, “and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.” He went on to reject the anarchist wing of the libertarian movement to explain his lack of affiliation with the Libertarian Party, making a Hobbesian argument for the necessity of government. Still, Reagan concluded, “libertarianism and conservatism are traveling the same path.”

The “heart and soul” line became a well-worn slogan of conservative-libertarian fusionism, Reagan’s three-legged stool of traditionalist social conservatives, defense hawks, and limited government types (some libertarians included) who sought a free market, fiscal discipline, low taxes, and a minimal regulatory bureaucracy. Libertarians quoted Reagan to try to hold the GOP to small-government principles; Republicans quoted him to try to keep libertarian votes in-house.

Actual libertarians weren’t deluded enough to ignore the distance between them and their GOP allies on social issues and foreign policy. (Read that Reagan interview and the divergence is obvious when subjects are raised like gambling, prostitution, the Vietnam War, and the draft.) But the common libertarian thinking was that if you must choose between working with the Democrats or the Republicans, the GOP was closer to the libertarian perspective on the meta-issue of the size and scope of government. The Democratic Party might be a better ally on many specific issues, but it lacked the fundamental skepticism of the state — the “desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom” Reagan had expressed.

Thus did many libertarians consent to be grafted, however uncomfortably, into the third leg of the stool. That relationship is why libertarians are widely considered part of the American right despite our insistence we’re nothing of the kind. It’s why what we might call “pop libertarianism” or “folk libertarianism” in America tends to be whatever the Republican Party is currently doing plus a few vague ideas about government overreach being bad when it inhibits what you, personally, would like to do.

Once there were libertarians in the GOP fold, the GOP fold realized it could claim the libertarian label. The joke that a libertarian is just a “Republican who likes to smoke pot” is not without basis — there are plenty of Republicans who like to smoke pot and believe that makes them libertarians. Your Republican uncle might say he’s “somewhat libertarian” because he’s mad on Tax Day or irked with his city’s housing code, but he doesn’t subscribe to any cogent libertarian conception of government and rejects large portions of the Libertarian Party platform.

Trump’s comment to Ingraham is exactly this behavior. He is not libertarian by any measure. He is a nationalist, militarist, and protectionist perfectly happy to meddle in our personal lives — in libertarian parlance, a statist through and through. The occasional policy overlap between Trump and libertarianism is often a product of his self-protection (as in his sudden interest in privacy when he thought his own was invaded) or his utter incoherence (as in parts of his foreign policy, and there more the rhetoric than the policy itself).

Unfounded Republican claims of libertarianism were incorrect in the heyday of fusionism, but they’re downright absurd now. “Today, many leaders of the Republican Party have coalesced around a desire to purge libertarians, with our pesky commitments to economic liberty and international trade, from their midst,” Reason‘s Stephanie Slade recently wrote at The New York Times. They hope the free market, limited government leg of Reagan’s stool “can be reduced to sawdust and scattered to the winds,” she said, warning that “Republicans may be tearing out their movement’s heart and soul.”

I’m unconvinced Reagan’s assessment was ever an accurate description of the GOP. The Republican Party of 1980 to 2015 often let fall its limited government ideas outside the economic realm; the drug war, mass surveillance, and the Pentagon playing world police are all big government, too. But even if Reagan was right then, libertarianism is emphatically not the heart and soul of the Republican Party today. The tear is complete. If the alliance ever made sense, it does not anymore.

Some individual Republicans may still practice a conservatism of which Reagan’s characterization is apt, but if we’re speaking of the GOP as a whole — the GOP that just spent four days at its national convention backing Trump to the hilt, lying about his foreign policy record and protesting that he is very nice in private and has lots of Black friends — then I repeat: no.

Libertarians are not properly part of the GOP coalition, if indeed we ever were. There is no libertarianism in the soul of the Trumpian Republican Party, and Republican partisans today are not libertarians. The limited government leg of the stool is broken. If libertarians accede Trump’s demand of our permanent loyalty at the polls, the best we can expect is splinters.


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