Yesterday was another bad day for the “libertarian moment” and for Sen. Rand Paul in particular. The candidate Paul endorsed and campaigned for in Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial primary, state delegate Nick Freitas, lost to Corey Stewart, a pro-Trump candidate controversial for his defense of Confederate monuments, among other things. Further south, a Republican congressman of longstanding affinity to the Paul family and libertarianism, Mark Sanford, also lost his primary in South Carolina to an opponent who accused him of disloyalty to President Trump. A Paul-endorsed candidate, Eric Brakey, did win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Maine, in an uncontested primary, but his odds of defeating Sen. Angus King in November are long.
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.
For seven years, libertarians were on the cutting edge of the Republican Party; from 2007 to 2014, they were the insurgents. First came Rep. Ron Paul’s campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, an effort that raised records amounts of money in online donations from small donors and built a veritable grassroots army, albeit one smaller than those of the Christian Right or the regular GOP. One of the campaign’s biggest fundraising days in 2007, a “money bomb,” was the December anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, and a year later, after the general election in which Barack Obama beat John McCain, a new Tea Party movement arose. In the 2010 congressional midterm elections, that movement—which was not entirely libertarian or primarily about the Paul family, to be sure—helped elect Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate, as well as a few sympathetic new faces such as Justin Amash to the House of Representatives. Ron Paul ran again in the 2012 presidential primaries and did better than before, and in 2014 a libertarian-leaning economics professor named David Brat pulled off a political miracle in Virginia by defeating the Republican majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, in a primary challenge. With Rand Paul gearing up for a 2016 presidential campaign, the New York Times Magazine had good reason to ask whether “the libertarian moment” had arrived.
What went wrong? In part, the libertarian insurgency wasn’t bold enough. Cognoscenti perceived the stark differences between a Rand Paul and, say, a Ted Cruz, not to mention a Marco Rubio, but ordinary voters could hardly see a difference—and Senator Paul prepared for his presidential bid by working to make himself more acceptable to other factions in the party. This was sensible conventional politics, which unfortunately for Senator Paul proved to be hopelessly out of date once Donald Trump burst on the scene. The libertarian moment had been born when Ron Paul challenged Rudy Giuliani’s hawkish foreign policy at the 2007 South Carolina presidential debate. But in the 2016 debates, it was Trump who objected the most loudly, if not the most consistently, to the foreign policy of the Bush years, even taking Jeb Bush to task for his brother’s wars. Trump took command of the issue that had made the libertarians an insurgent force in the first place.
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.
These are lessons for libertarians to learn. They succeeded for seven years in Republican politics because they dared speak truths that others wished to ignore, truths about the futility of our foreign wars and the precariousness of our economy. But when another insurgent came along to speak those truths, and others, in even plainer and more urgent terms, the libertarian moment was past. The moment was not really libertarian, but anti-establishment, and in that sense it is still with us. 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. And if that sounds un-conservative, you don’t understand the radicalism of what an irresponsible establishment has wrought.