This Presidential Cycle is a Reminder That Anti-Establishment Doesn’t Mean Pro-Liberty

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Thu, Dec 3 - 2:54 pm EDT | 3 years ago by
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Corridors of Power - Anti-Establishment Doesn't Mean Pro-Liberty

Approximately nine years ago, I could often be found standing atop various northbound Massachusetts overpasses, waving a homemade sign at people I hoped were New Hampshire voters. My teenage years had concluded with an almost immediate foray into the world of early grassroots-led Ron Paul Meetup groups, an admittedly odd activity for a 20-year-old girl halfway through her junior year of college.

I had just moved back to my home state of Massachusetts from New York City, new boyfriend who would go on to become my husband in tow, when I heard something that would end up drastically changing the course of my life. I was listening to then talk radio host Jay Severin while driving from Boston to my hometown twenty miles west, when he explained that there was a dark-horse candidate for president, a congressman from Texas.

Jay didn’t very much care for this particular contender, but there was one thing he respected: Ron Paul said that his political platform was the U.S. Constitution. As a history lover and budding libertarian, this piqued my interest. Like many others in early 2007, I eagerly Googled Ron Paul. I was drawn at the time to his ideological consistency, and the fact that he was a thorn in the side of an unsavory Washington establishment.

Disappointed in both political parties, but especially Republicans for the extent to which they grew government under Bush’s watch, I jumped headlong into the Ron Paul movement. I quickly learned the essential activist lesson that politics makes for strange bedfellows, running into some less-than-rational actors in both the Boston Ron Paul Meetup group that I quickly rose to become a co-organizer of, and the New Hampshire groups with which we collaborated closely.

Nevertheless, I looked past many of these differences at the time, and for many years later, because we shared a common cause: limiting government and furthering liberty. Or so I thought. I’ve noticed in the months since this presidential cycle has unfolded that a surprising amount of people from the liberty and tea party networks I’ve built up are sympathetic toward Donald Trump; a man that Ron Paul has in my opinion correctly labeled a “dangerous authoritarian.”

Statistically speaking, it’s true that Trump is popular among independents and moderates while he doesn’t perform as well among committed conservatives. However, there are factors that often resonate more strongly with people than ideology, and one appears to be, among a certain subset of voters, the perception that a candidate is “anti-establishment” and “against Washington,” his actual policy positions, apparently, be damned.

In my relatively few years of activism amid the broader scheme of time, I’ve been tied to the “anti-establishment” crowd, because it just so happened that on the Right in the past decade, this has generally meant support of free markets and an opposition to big government corporatism. I recognize this has not always been so, and that historically speaking, populism is often ugly and void of anything valuable to those interested in liberty. But in the era of Obama, I was – and still am to a degree, mostly in a generational context – optimistic about the rise of libertarian populism as an answer to the President’s desire for centralization. But there are good reasons to be pessimistic in the near-term.

The tea party movement, which ushered libertarian-leaning politicians like Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, Raul Labrador, and Mick Mulvaney into the halls of Congress, was in my view a resounding success. It was a political force that I was elated to have been a part of since its inception, and it’s still my belief that these particular men represent the best of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

What has come as a less than pleasant revelation however, is the fact that a sizable chunk of the group that helped to empower these honorable individuals is not made up of people who are meaningfully pro-liberty. Thanks to Trump-mania, it’s become clear that a contingent of the coalition responsible for these elections was simply “anti-establishment,” in perhaps the most vapid way imaginable.

As Congressman Thomas Massie said recently to a group of young professionals in his district, “I’m thinking, wow, the American public really seems to like these libertarian ideas. And then Donald Trump runs and he gets all of their (Rand Paul and Ron Paul) voters, he gets all of my voters. I’m thinking, no, they’re just voting for the craziest guy in the race. It was very sobering for me. I’m that guy.”

Massie’s realization has hit many liberty activists equally as hard. It’s difficult to quantify anecdotal evidence, particularly via social media, but there’s nonetheless been enough circulating to raise eyebrows. Massie however, had some hard data to share. He cited a poll from October that showed Trump with over 30% of the vote in Kentucky’s fourth district, noting that he apparently has to tread carefully as his supporters are Trump’s voters. At the very least, even if these people don’t ultimately support Trump, they’ve been sympathetic to him; a concerning sign for a libertarian-conservative given Trump’s diametrically opposed views.

But Trump is, in a lot of ways given his bombastic style, seemingly “anti-establishment,” insofar as you define that by his present behavior rather than his record of donating to figures like Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. To those who were interested in Ron Paul because he poked the establishment in the eye, it’s plausible, as Massie said, that Trump is an equally appealing “middle finger to Washington.” To those who were interested in Ron Paul because he espouses small government positions however, the thought of Trump as president is nothing short of terrifying.

This is the dichotomy I recently brought to light as the moderator of a panel on the tea party movement at the Republican Liberty Caucus’ national convention. I noted that many libertarian-leaning conservatives had for years conflated anti-establishment sentiments with support for free markets. There may have been a convenient intersection of the two that culminated in positive election results during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. But it now seems as though that coalition isn’t an especially enduring one; particularly as many self-described tea partiers or anti-establishment types elevate nativist fear-mongering that leads to economically restrictionist policies closer to what Bernie Sanders supports than anything even remotely described as free market or pro-liberty.

Of course, it shouldn’t come as a particular shock that blind anger at “the establishment” is often rooted in nothing more than frustration absent a substantive aim. What’s disappointing to many of us who have been organizing for liberty within that sphere for the past decade however, is that we perhaps over-estimated the extent to which that anger could be channeled toward what we had reason to believe was an emergent libertarian populism.

Though I have seen similar diatribes throughout my Facebook feed this presidential cycle, it hit me particularly hard this week when I saw a post advocating for Trump from what just months ago would have struck me as an unlikely source: The man who started the Boston Ron Paul Meetup group. In May of 2007, I had walked into a meeting in the basement of a restaurant in Harvard Square organized by him, knowing absolutely nobody and having not the faintest clue as to what I should anticipate.

My subsequent years of activism have yielded much that was unexpected, but nothing has shocked me more than the fact that many people seem to be equally satisfied with libertarianism or authoritarianism – two diametrically opposed ideologies – insofar as they’re both packaged as sufficiently “anti-establishment.” Today, I find myself learning the lessons of history I’ve always known to be true the way we all eventually do; through cold, hard experience. If a dangerous authoritarian like Donald Trump is the anti-establishment answer to a leftist demagogue like Barack Obama, count me out entirely.

This revelation has led to an uncomfortable confrontation with my political worldview that I’m admittedly working through at present. I suppose in some ways, it brings me full-circle: I’m the same constitutionalist I was when I was first seduced by Ron Paul’s elevation of our nation’s government-limiting charter. Mob rule – known in a friendlier context as direct democracy – isn’t an answer; even when it seems for a time that the pitchforks are conveniently aimed at your enemy.

Photo by Michael Flippo/Getty Images

Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.

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  • Amy

    This is actually something I’ve been saying for a while — Trump is NO friend of liberty. He uses government to abuse his fellow citizens (for example, suing a NJ widow to try and take her home via Eminent Domain for a PARKING LOT) and yet his followers don’t seem to care. The other end of the spectrum are RINOs like Rubio, who has become the establishment GOP poster boy now that it’s apparent Bush is a non-starter.

    I’m glad to see more and more people taking a hard look at Ted Cruz’s resume and body of work, a true Constitutional conservative who has stuck to his principles and voted like he promised his constituents would. Rand Paul has a similar record, but I don’t feel he’s as much a conservative as he is a libertarian. Just MHO, but I feel like we have the best conservative candidate in DECADES in Cruz and I hope we don’t screw this up — as a country, we can’t afford to.

    • Robert

      Trump’s taking advantage of eminent domain doesn’t establish that he’s no friend of liberty. It just establishes that he’s a friend of himself. Don’t you think he’d be perceived just as much ANTI-eminent domain if someone were to try to use it against him? You might as well conclude that people who take any gov’t benefits are pro-big gov’t; in my experience, that’s not the case. You cant judge someone’s behavior in hir own cause as indicative of their opinions on public policy; that’s why we have such phenomena as recusal, blind trusts, etc.: the assumption that people will tend to favor their own interests.

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    • nicmart

      The logic of this is poor. Trump made a strong effort to have eminent domain used to deprive a woman of her property. That is not analogous to a hypothetical situation in which he becomes the victim of an eminent domain attempt. In the former he is morally active; in the latter he might be morally passive. Your view relieves almost anyone of moral responsibility for engaging in immoral acts in his own cause. Your view is amoral and deplorable.

      If your view is embraced, there is no moral difference between the robber and robbed; between the rapist and raped.

    • Robert

      Then let’s take a more extreme case & suppose he’s a burglar in his spare time. Can you generalize from that to the idea that he opposes property as a policy? No, because thieves are still against other people’s stealing from them. So his use of eminent domain in his own case in no way predicts what he thinks about property in cases in which he has no stake.

    • nicmart

      Why an act less immoral because its perpetrator directly profits from it? You employ a very peculiar form of exculpation.

    • Robert

      I’m not interested in exculpation or judging morality in this case. I’m interested in predicting what opinions the person has. I don’t care if he’s guilty as sin, the question is, what’s he going to do in office? Even if he’s totally corrupt, the amount of self-dealing he’s likely to do would be minuscule compared to the totality of policy decisions (and their effect on the rest of us) he’d have to make. Suppose he skims a lot, but the total of spending he signs is still a substantial reduction; it’s worth it!

    • BlackRoughRider

      His near principled support of eminent domain as pointed out by numerous conservatives including the National Review, and Breibart has long been established:

      And in truth outside of immigration I can’t really think of a single issue that you could say he’s been consistently conservative or libertarian on. So yes he is a friend to himself and it appears it may be just to himself.

      Also I see no reason why conservatives should take a risk on Trump whose support of Big Government is a matter of record when you have far better alternatives like Ted Cruz. Who not only goes after the Left, but has a record to back it up.

    • nicmart

      If I’d known you were amoral, I wouldn’t have ignored your hypotheticals. That explains why you can stomach Trump.

    • Robert

      Who said I was amoral? I’m just trying to predict what someone would do in office.

    • Meticulous MalCom MurgaTroyd

      Ok, take a look at Trump’s support of the Unconstitutional & evil “No-Fly List” and his apparent support of use of it to take away guns!!….see below:

    • Guest

      Cruz’s history prevents me from supporting him over Rand. His supporters try to talk around it to explain it away but the facts remain.

    • Harry_the_Horrible

      And the establisment candidates are friends of Liberty?
      Cruz is my first choice, but I’ll take Trump over most of the GOP-E candidates like Bush, Christie, Kasich, etc.

    • nicmart

      Then again, there is no obligation to support any of these criminals.

    • BlackRoughRider

      “And the establishment candidates are friends of Liberty?”
      No. You don’t have to support the establishment to oppose Trump. Paul and Cruz work well enough for me. Everyone one else I’ll either hold my nose and vote for (Fiorina, and Huckabee) or vote third party (Christie, Rubio, Bush, Kasich, Trump, Carson, Graham, etc.)

    • Meticulous MalCom MurgaTroyd

      The lesser of 2 evils is still evil!!

  • nicmart

    Why is Ron Paul’s long-time alter ego, Lew Rockwell, founder of the Mises Institute and libertarian of repute, using his web site to promote Trump? And why has no public libertarian called him out for doing so? Not only is it a slap in the face to libertarians, it brings the Mises Institute into disrepute. Some of the Austrian stalwarts seem to be falling in line behind Rockwell, as if they are pliable members of a cult rather than principled lovers of liberty.

    To justify supporting Trump, Rockwell recently reprinted a essay by Murray Rothbard lauding demagogues. Rothbard was not a wise or successful political strategist, and this was not his best moment.

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    • nicmart

      Did over recent months. Interestingly, Rockwell seems to have backed off this in just the past few days.

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