Burn-It-All-Down Political Antinomianism Is Not Libertarian
The lawless passions fueling the rise of Trump are not likely to bring us a freer society.
"With Donald Trump, you're either going to get something very good or very bad," former Democratic presidential hopeful Jim Webb said back in March. "But with Hillary Clinton were going to get more of the same thing. Do you want the same thing?" Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel had a similar thought in a Washington Post op-ed this month: Supporting Trump, is a way to say "to the incompetent elites who feel entitled to govern: 'You're fired.'" Rifle through the internet and you'll find the sentiment—even among some* frustrated Reason commenters—distilled crudely to "burn it all down."
The burn-it-all-down Trump supporter (or potential supporter, in Webb's case) is engaged in what I call political antinomianism. In Christian theology, an antinomian is a person who believes the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation. In the current electoral context, voters disgusted with how corrupted our political system has become are attracted to the lawlessness at the heart of Trump's personalized theory of governance. "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," declared Trump at the Republican National Convention. Supporters have faith in Trump the Great Man and therefore are political antinomians.
Yet the rule of law is the bulwark of liberty, as Friedrich Hayek argued. The rule of law is embodied in the principles of generality, equality, certainty, and justice. That is, laws must apply to all, including government officials; they should be equally applied, so legal privileges are prohibited; they should be clear and consistent and not arbitrarily changed; and they should aim solely to prevent the infringement of individuals' protected domains.
Trump embodies the spirit of lawlessness. He showed how little respect he has for the First Amendment when he suggested he'd like to "open up" the libel laws to make it easier for aggrieved celebrities and politicians to sue the media. Even more egregiously, Trump threatened to use the IRS to go after Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post, because he disliked what the paper had reported about him. With regard to Fourth Amendment guarantees of privacy, Trump has said that "security is going to rule" and that therefore "we're going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago." Trump has also said he'd be "fine" with restoring the NSA's authority to bulk-collect telecommunications data on to whom every American speaks, when, where, and for how long; back in 2013, he called NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a "traitor" and hinted that he should be executed.
The Fifth Amendment provides that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. Yet Trump is a huge fan of using government eminent domain power to take private property and then turn it over to developers like him. He hailed the infamous Kelo decision, in which a Connecticut woman was forced out of her house so the city could turn her property over to Pfizer to build a business campus for the company. "I happen to agree with it 100%," Trump declared. "If you have a person living in an area that's not even necessarily a good area, and…government wants to build a tremendous economic development, where a lot of people are going to be put to work and…create thousands upon thousands of jobs and beautification and lots of other things, I think it happens to be good." Indeed, he tried to do the same thing to a woman in Atlantic City whose property he wanted for building a limousine parking lot.
And this week he bemoaned the fact that the accused New York City bomber has, like all U.S. citizens, a right to an attorney. Apparently Trump would junk the Sixth Amendment too.
Beyond the Bill of Rights, a parsing of Trump's policy proposals finds that, to the degree that anything he says can be believed, he has no intention of minimizing the role of the state in other areas either. He has promised to spend "at least double" what Clinton has proposed on infrastructure—that is, about $500 billion. Although Social Security is on a fiscally unsustainable path, Trump agrees with Clinton that benefits should not be cut. And who knows when he will revive his support for a single-payer, government-run health system?
Trump's views against legalizing marijuana have hardened somewhat over time. Although the candidate still says it's a state issue, he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2015 that he thinks that recreational marijuana use is "bad" and suggested that "they've got a lot of problems going on right now, in Colorado. Some big problems." With regard to policing, Trump has said that he would restart the program in which the Pentagon hands out military equipment to local police departments.
On trade, Trump is a nightmare for anyone who supports free markets. A new report from the Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that implementing his proposals—a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports, scrapping NAFTA and the WTO, vetoing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement—would result in the loss of 4 million private sector jobs. Pursuing economic nationalism is an infamous recipe for economic disaster.
On military spending, Trump is all over the place, but in his latest pronouncements he says he wants to increase Pentagon spending, perhaps by as much as $500 billion over the next ten years. His solution to ISIS: "I would bomb the shit out of them!" He has further declared that he would order that suspected terrorists be waterboarded (or "worse") and that families of suspected terrorists be bombed. When told that prominent members of the military and intelligence communities declared that they would refuse to obey such illegal orders, Trump sneered, "They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse. Believe me." He added: "If I say do it, they're going to do it. That's what leadership is all about."
His blushing bromance with Russian authoritarian Vladimir Putin is disgusting. Putin, who clearly knows how to stroke the ego of the needy narcissist, said of Trump, "He is a very flamboyant man, very talented, no doubt about that." In response Trump gushed, "It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond." Putin opponents, especially journalists, have a way of ending up dead, including my former Forbes friend and colleague Paul Klebnikov. To which Trump turns all lawyerly and says that he's seen no proof that Putin has journalists killed. Shy of a videotaped confession, he never will.
Trump's appeal to authoritarians extends beyond Putin. For example, a column published in North Korea's government press endorsed Trump, asserting, "It turns out that Trump is not the rough-talking, screwy, ignorant candidate they say he is, but is actually a wise politician and a prescient presidential candidate."
Some libertarian-leaning folk hold out the hope that Trump would be less likely to get our country into another war. Perhaps. But Trump is notoriously thin-skinned and lashes out at the least bit of criticism or opposition. Recall that he is the man who fumed, "What happens is they hit me and I hit them back harder and, usually in all cases, they do it first. But they hit me and I hit them back harder and they disappear. That's what we want to lead the country." And that was what he said about people who just made fun of his hair. Feeling lucky, America?
The lawless passions that are fueling the rise of Trump are not likely to bring us a freer society. If he wins, you should expect the opposite.
*When our readers were asked to come up with new campaign slogans for Trump, this sentiment showed up several times. Hopefully in jest.