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