If you think Theresa May has made life difficult for ‘right-wing libertarians’ in the UK, spare a thought for the poor schmucks across the pond. I was in Washington DC for a few days either side of the presidential election and the overwhelming impression I got from various think tank wonks I spoke to was one of utter despair.
When ‘liberty’ is branded on your currency and is supposed to be the whole reason your country exists, you expect to be thrown a bone every now and then – even the odd square meal under Reagan. But a contest between a warmongering progressive and protectionist nationalist was always going to be a choice between a rock and a hard place for libertarians.
I found a gaggle of them huddled together at the Union Pub in Massachusetts Avenue the Friday before the election. At that point, they seemed to be in the first of Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief: denial. One staffer from the Cato Institute told me many of his colleagues had simply disengaged from the election altogether. Another from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) didn’t think much of my theory that Trump could win with the Brexit effect: by appealing to folks who don’t usually vote.
Two weeks on and Will Wilkinson, Vice-President of Policy at the Niskanen Institute, is at stage two: anger. He says: ‘It’s exasperating to see some of my libertarian friends saying ‘let’s just wait and see, it might not be so bad, you can’t retaliate before anyone does something’ but it communicates a lack of worry or alarm at what ought to be objectively alarming. Trump shows every indication of being an authoritarian despot. That alone, for people who profess to care about liberty, should rally you to the barricades. The whole reason you read political history is so you know what a tyrant looks like when he shows up.’
Strong words. But the curious thing is, despite the ‘basket of deplorables’ steadily filling the top brass of Trump’s transition team, the lower rungs are reasonably peppered with libertarian think tankers. Most notably, CEI’s founder Myron Ebell is heading up the environment team, and the Reason Foundation’s Shirley Ybarra is being talked about for Transport. Which takes us neatly to stage three: bargaining.
David Boaz, Cato’s Executive Vice-President, has the same word for Hillary, Trump, and most of the top transition appointees so far: appalling. ‘They are not friends of liberty and they are certainly not friends of individual liberty, limited government, and peace,’ he says. But he’s holding out that a ‘Prime Minister’ Pence or Ryan – a necessity for Trump’s poor attention span and weakness on policy – will keep them in check.
‘Mike Pence is a policy wonk and came out of the free-market policy movement so, if Trump doesn’t have the patience for long meetings about policy, that could fall to him,’ he says. ‘It’s partly to fill a policy gap but it’s also wishful thinking as the last hope of people who didn’t want to believe Trump would actually govern – that he just wants to go out and make speeches and fly in Air Force One and let Mike Pence run the government.’
Stages four and five – depression and acceptance – will most likely play out post-inauguration, though there are already suspicions among some libertarians that Trump may have been a monster of their own creation – specifically the presidential campaigns of libertarian stalwart and former Republican Congressman Ron Paul.
‘Some of the straight-up racist Alt-Right has roots in part of the libertarian movement, which is really distressing,’ Wilkinson adds. ‘Ron Paul’s campaigns appealed to a kind of nativist American identity that fused it together with libertarian politics. Ron Paul voters became Trump voters, so part of the libertarian movement is in a way responsible for some of the most distasteful elements of Trump’s support. That requires some type of reflection on the role of the movement.’
Easier said than done. It’s often said that, if you have two libertarians in a room, the only thing they’ll agree on is that there’s one libertarian in the room. It’s going to be a long four years.
Paul Nizinskyj is the creative director for Conservatives for Liberty