A little over a week ago, in the brief historical entr’acte between the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and our president’s Helsinki rendezvous, I was in Las Vegas for the annual libertarian convention known as FreedomFest.
Like most interesting churches, libertarianism is a diverse and fractious faith, and FreedomFest brings together all its different sects: the think-tankers with their regulatory-reform blueprints, the muckraking journalists taking on government abuses, the charter city backers and Burning Man attendees, the Ayn Rand fans wearing dollar signs on their lapels, the eccentric-genius businessmen and pot legalizers — and the converts eager to tell you how everything changed when I got really into gold.
In principle I am not a libertarian: The teenage nerd enters conservatism through either Atlas Shrugged or Lord of the Rings, and between Tolkienists like myself and the Randians a great gulf is often fixed. But even if libertarianism seems an insufficient philosophy of human flourishing, its defense of individuals and markets can be a crucial practical corrective to all manner of liberal and conservative mistakes.
So it was interesting to be among the libertarians in a time when, like other right-of-center faiths, they have seen their political ideals swallowed up by the rule of Donald Trump (whose own FreedomFest appearance, back in 2015, featured a question for him about Russian sanctions from a certain red-haired Russian spy).
Just a little while ago journalists were talking about a “libertarian moment” in American politics, with Rand Paul as its avatar — an entitlement-cutting, prison-reforming, drug-legalizing, intervention-opposing, drone-strike-filibustering politics that was supposed to build bridges between Republicans and millennials. But then Paul, like other Republicans, was steamrolled by Trumpism in 2016. So what exactly happened to his moment?
One answer is that the libertarian spirit was overextended and vulnerable to a backlash. Confident free-traders underestimated how much outsourcing had cost the Western working class. Entitlement reformers overestimated the political practicality of their proposals. Cultural laissez-faire weakened social solidarity, with opioid-driven disintegration the starkest symptom of decay. And the rise of ISIS transmuted the post-Iraq anti-interventionist impulse into a “raise the drawbridge” style of politics, with the libertarian aspect drained away.
In this account Trumpism, with its tariffs and walls and family-separating cruelties, is simply a rejection of the politics of liberty, an anti-libertarian moment. But there’s also a different story, in which Trump didn’t as much defeat Rand Paul’s worldview as co-opt its more effective messages, while exploiting libertarianism’s tendency to devolve into purely interest-based appeals.
On foreign policy, for instance, Trump ran as hard against the Iraq War and neoconservatism as the Kentucky senator or his father. Trump’s skepticism about international institutions and U.S. intelligence agencies is also in tune with common libertarian assumptions (and paranoias). It says something about the strange congruence between the libertarian moment and the politics of 2018 that the C.I.A. chief Paul filibustered five years ago, John Brennan, is now a furious Trump critic.
Meanwhile, on economic policy, you could argue that Trump has debased libertarianism rather than disavowing it, following many prior Republicans in using the rhetoric of capitalism to champion favored business interests rather than free markets. And where libertarianism has been shadowed by bigotry (as in Ron Paul’s infamous 1990s newsletters), Trump simply adopted the identity politics and left the limited-government principle behind.
Wandering and arguing at FreedomFest offered grist for both understandings of how libertarianism relates, or doesn’t, to Trumpism. Plenty of attendees were fiercely #NeverTrump and regarded him as an enemy of their ideals. But there were also plenty of people, like one of my sparring partners, former Libertarian Party V.P. nominee Wayne Allyn Root, ready to defend Trump with a true believer’s gusto.
You can see this same division among libertarian’s political champions in Washington, D.C. The Michigan Congressman Justin Amash has been a frequent thorn in Trump’s side, and he reacted to the Helsinki business with a tweetstorm criticizing Trump’s servile attitude toward Putin as something that even foreign policy doves should find disturbing.
While that was happening, though, Rand Paul was taking a very different tack in the Senate — running interference for our Putin-besotted president, and defending his weird Russia diplomacy as the best alternative to war.
Amash’s approach is intellectually admirable; Paul’s is probably more in tune with what a lot of self-described libertarian voters currently want. Which leaves libertarianism in much the same difficult position as other forms of conservatism under Trump.
His ascent has a lot to teach ideological purists about the political limits of their theories, the need to temper dogma with more contingent wisdom. But learning those lessons without surrendering to Trumpian whims requires a discipline that even Ayn Rand’s supermen might struggle to maintain. And libertarians, alas, are as fallen as the rest of us.