Hey, Libertarians, Maybe Republicans Just Aren't That Into You
June 12 was not a good day for free-market constitutionalism in the modern GOP.
Libertarian-leaning Republican congressman Mark Sanford got primaried in South Carolina last night by immigration hawk and late-breaking Donald Trump endorsee Katie Harrington, whose main line of attack on Sanford was that he was disloyal to Trump. But that was just one event in a day unusually swollen with reminders that the modern GOP at the national level is not welcoming to libertarian ideas.
Take two issues that we've been banging on about at Reason for years: tariffs, and Congress's paralytic fear of doing even its minimal constitutional duty. In a remarkable speech yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of his term this year, combined the two issues in a damning indictment of his colleagues' cowardice. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Corker charged, blocks all amendments—including one Corker introduced last week requiring congressional approval for "national security" tariffs—because "Well gosh, we might poke the bear" (meaning the president). Watch:
Not to be overly tautological, but it's difficult for even the most libertarian-leaning legislators to get meaningful stuff done if they are prevented from legislating.
Then there was the defeat last night of liberty-movement Republican Nick Freitas in the Virginia GOP primary for U.S. Senate at the hands of Confederate monument enthusiast and recent Paul Nehlen fan Corey Stewart, who is fond of saying stuff like "I was Trump before Trump was Trump" and tweeting jibber-jabber like this:
Corey Stewart's 72 GOTV plan.
— Jim Swift (@JSwiftTWS) June 12, 2018
All of the above was enough for Daniel McCarthy to write the latest version of "How Donald Trump eclipsed the 'libertarian moment.'" McCarthy's grim conclusion: "The revolution begun by Trump in 2016 is continuing at the state and congressional levels. And the Ron Paul revolution begun by Senator Paul's father now seems marginal, if not utterly defeated—a remarkable reversal of fortune from just four years ago."
Politicians respond to incentives, and right now the imperative Republican incentive is to kiss Donald Trump's ring. Less than 15 months ago, Trump was warning that "The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!" Last night, as one Freedom Caucus incumbent lost to a Trump-backed challenger and a Rand Paul–backed Senate candidate lost to a #MAGA nationalist, Freedom Caucus stalwarts Reps. Mark Meadows (R–N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) went on Laura Ingraham's Fox News program not to sulk but to talk about possibly impeaching Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for his role in overseeing the Mueller investigation. They have gotten on the team.
Libertarian policy goals will still sometimes be met under Trump, some of them intentionally, some not. He will continue deregulating and appointing some good judges, may yet contribute to genuine peace on the Korean peninsula, and has proven surprisingly malleable on marijuana enforcement and prison reform. But as an organizing body, particularly anywhere near the levers of federal power, the GOP is an increasingly unreliable ally to libertarians.
Your daily reminder that Republicans hate libertarians, no matter what party they're in. https://t.co/Cq1qY93mjg
— Nicholas Sarwark (@nsarwark) June 13, 2018
Daniel McCarthy, in his essay, provides some interesting food for thought about the unsatisfying-to-many penchant among libertarians for calling balls and strikes in a more emotional age of with-us-or-against-us polarization:
The other great issue at the libertarians' disposal, smaller government, simply never mattered in the ways they thought it did. Anti-government sentiment was most powerful with Republican voters as an expression of anti-elitism and resistance to a government run by a liberal Democrat like Barack Obama. Emphasizing cutting government on principle, as libertarians did, would never be as effective as emphasizing fighting the liberals, with or without shrinking the state. Trump was not the most anti-government candidate, but he was the most anti-left. The libertarian position, by contrast with Trump, seemed like just a more thoroughgoing version of what every other supposedly conservative Republican believed about cutting government….
Urgency matters in politics, and Trump is a master of creating a sense of urgency in both his supporters and his opponents—as Michael Anton's "Flight 93" essay and the left's continual cries of "authoritarianism!" have shown. Ron Paul did create a sense of urgency in his campaigns, largely by capitalizing on powerful issues that had been ignored by the establishment in both parties, such as disastrous wars with bipartisan support and the mysteries of the Federal Reserve. The elder Paul said a further financial meltdown was imminent. But Trump outflanked the libertarian line in this respect as well. And today the most urgent question in American politics, the one that quickens pulses the most, is simply whether you are for or against Trump. Mark Sanford has said he's not really anti-Trump, but that he simply applies to Trump the standards that derive from his libertarian-ish principles. If those standards lead to a good grade for Trump, Sanford is happy to apply it. If not, then not. But his kind of abstraction and fixity, whatever its merits in other respects, cannot convey a sense of urgency. The libertarian way proves over time to be oblivious to circumstances and psychological conditions, which are in fact the essence of real politics….
Those who look to the likely rout of Republicans like Corey Stewart in November as the shock that will turn the Republican Party against Trump are profoundly misunderstanding what the GOP has been going through for a decade, which is a search—whether through libertarians or nationalists or whomever else might arise—for the perfect anti-establishment vessel.
Or as Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) put it to me last year, "How could these people let us down? How could they go from being libertarian ideologues to voting for Donald Trump? And then I realized what it was: They weren't voting for the libertarian in the race, they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race when they voted for me and Rand and Ron earlier. So Trump just won, you know, that category, but dumped the ideological baggage."
Bonus blast from the past: In March 2015, I attempted to sketch out the three strains of GOP anti-establishmentarianism.