Just Not Fringe Enough
Many prominent libertarians have been scratching their heads at the utter failure of Rand Paul to gain traction in the 2016 Republican primary. Just two years ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Robert Draper detailing the rise of the libertarian movement. In it, he observed:
Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it. For decades their ideas have had serious backing financially (most prominently by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David H., ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket), intellectually (by way of policy shops like the Cato Institute and C.E.I.) and in the media (through platforms like Reason and, as of last year, “The Independents”). But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side.
Hence the excitement about Rand Paul. It’s hardly surprising that Paul, in Ekins’s recent survey of millennial voters, came out ahead of all other potential Republican presidential candidates; on issues including same-sex marriage, surveillance and military intervention, his positions more closely mirror those of young voters than those of the G.O.P. establishment.
So where did the excitement (and support) for Rand Paul evaporate to? If the political demographics and cultural shifts mentioned by Draper exist, why is the most libertarian candidate from the movement’s only family dynasty failing to gather even a fraction of his father’s support?
The answer is that Rand is another casualty of Donald Trump, but, unlike Scott Walker, who simply wanted to be the straight talking outsider and was outflanked by Trump, Paul’s failure says much about political movements beyond the mainstream.
A common argument is that Rand Paul simply isn’t libertarian enough. Sarah McCammon, writing for NPR, interviewed a former staffer for Ron Paul named Kesley Kurtinis. The activist argued that Rand was too cozy with Mitch McConnell, and had rubbed conservatives the wrong way by opposing military spending. But isn’t that what made his father popular in the first place?
In the Washington Examiner, James Antle III notes that Rand is competing with many libertarian-lite candidates and has had difficulty with the movement’s base since his 2010 campaign:
Insufficient libertarian activist enthusiasm may be a bigger factor in the lack of fundraising success, though the jury it still out on what Ed Crane and Matt Kibbe will be able to do for Paul. But there were libertarians, especially anarcho-capitalists, not sold on Paul as far back as when I wrote my 2010 Reason profile of him before he won Kentucky’s Republican senatorial primary.
The argument that Paul is failing to capitalize on the “libertarian moment” because he is not sufficiently libertarian ideologically feels like the lies my old commie comrades told themselves at each political and organizational failure. If we only had a real socialist candidate, our aims would have been realized! Mainstream politicians are just sell-outs, and we need someone who can come in and speak the truth!
While politicians are almost always compromisers and deceivers by design, seeing idealism and ideological purity as the ticket to success fails to explain just why a candidate like Trump has come and taken longstanding Paul supporters.
Trump says things the party establishment does not want to hear, and produces a conversation not befitting an establishment political candidate. Ron Paul did the same thing in his previous two presidential campaigns, forcing the largely neoconservative stage to defend military intervention, surveillance, and pentagon budgets.
The two men have played similar roles in the primary debates, but the logic behind Trump’s usurping of Paul’s supporters is more visceral. I wrote a number of pieces a few years back detailing the reasons why Ron Paul’s popularity with segments of the population are a result of his fringe views and willingness to play with grand conspiracies, not in spite of them. It isn’t that Rand Paul has lost his father’s supporters because he is less libertarian, but that he is less likely to play with marginal political figures and concepts. Indeed, Trump’s most ardent defenders are figures on the neo-reactionary right that were once in Ron Paul’s camp.
A couple of the folks at The Right Stuff (the originators of the “cuckservative” meme), have mentioned their previous alignment with Ron Paul before red pilling and coming out as Trump supporters. Matt Parrott at Alternative Right made the following comments:
All of the other candidates, including Rand Paul, are stand-ins for the interests of the oligarchs who operate American politics. Even when they have their own ideas, as the Paul Dynasty surely does, the American political system runs on big money, money that the Paul family simply doesn’t have. The Ron Paul Revolution has soared all the way up from its humble beginnings in the backwaters of American fringe politics, only to finally slam into a ceiling on libertarian ideology in America; the fact that actual rich people don’t subscribe to richpeopleism.
While the Paul dynasty may be the ultimate standard-bearers of the theory that the people with the gold should make the rules, Donald Trump stands before America in practice as that man with the gold who makes the rules. The libertarian vision of lowering taxes, regulations, and restrictions in the pursuit of wealth arrives at its apex in the personage of Donald Trump. Shred your silly Constitution and set aside your abstract ideologies. Behold the messianic arrival of America in human form: shamelessly greedy, beholden to no man, lacking in self-restraint, bursting with animal vitality, and invading and conquering you as an act of love. Vote Trump!
The “libertarian moment” appears to be ending, in other words, with libertarians, or at least some of them, endorsing the closest thing to a fascist American politics has had for some time.
Assuming Trump doesn’t win the nomination (I still find it unlikely), he will likely fade into memory and his current supporters will look for another standard-bearer to carry their cause forward in the next election. But if pundits wish to make broad pronouncements about these voter’s ideological bearing, they should look no further than the defections from Paul to Trump. Sometimes, just sticking a finger in the eye of the establishment is enough.
(Image: “Trumpinati,” Composited by the Author from Wikicommons Images)