It wasn’t long ago that the chattering class was enamored with the idea of a libertarian moment. There was good reason, as libertarian ideas were finding not only growing public support, but also greater mainstream political acceptance and momentum. Issues such as marijuana decriminalization, criminal justice reform, police militarization and privacy rights in the age of mass surveillance have seen growing public and political support – the last notably marking a reversal from the age of the Patriot Act. These trends are not necessarily abating but a counter trend has emerged and at its head is Donald Trump.
There’s no doubt that much of the Trump phenomenon is due to the widespread distrust and disgust felt toward the political class, particularly within the Republican party. But there are many candidates that could satisfy this impulse. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are also outsiders, while none of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul have been in office long – and the latter two have done much to maintain their distance from party leadership and potential insider status.
All of these other candidates hold positions much closer to that historically sought by the conservative base – namely adherence to the principles of limited government and free markets – than does Trump, whose long documented flirtation with leftism should by this point be well known. Nor has Trump exactly renounced his past and adopted movement conservatism, as even during the current campaign he has praised eminent domain, advocated single payer healthcare, and demanded debilitating tariffs and other anti-trade protectionism.
There are, in other words, many other ways to rage against the machine during the Republican primary than to support Donald Trump. Thus, to explain his fervent following and continued lead in the polls despite repeated betrayals of traditional Republican values, we must consider that Trump’s supporters actually endorse his ideology and not merely his anti-establishment positioning.
Defining Trumpism is no easy task, as Trump himself often seems to have little idea of the basis for his own beliefs beyond what is most convenient at the time. Insofar as a singular characteristic can be teased out from his often simplistic policy declarations, it is his consistent embrace of authoritarianism.
Submission to authority – namely Trump’s own – is the unifying force behind almost all of Trump’s political positions. In the short period since he announced his candidacy, Donald Trump has suggested restricting internet access to those he chooses, deporting even natural born citizens to illegal parents, restricting Second Amendment rights to those on the terror watch list without due process and implementing (again) speech-limiting campaign finance restrictions. He also praised left-wing authoritarian Franklin Roosevelt’s unconstitutional internment of American citizens during WWII and flirted with a registry of Americans based on religious affiliation, among many other awful ideas.
Whenever he is confronted with an issue for which he does not yet have a proposal or any policy details (which is often), he still asserts his superiority for the simple reason that he is Donald Trump and will command the right outcomes be so. Textbook authoritarianism.
Further highlighting the contrast between Donald Trump and the libertarian moment, he has said he “feels strongly” about opposing Colorado’s marijuana policy, and wants tougher policing and harsher sentences at a time when the public is growing increasingly aware of both the high fiscal and social costs of mandatory minimum prison terms – and the widespread problem of excessive use of force by police. He even went so far as to hilariously declare in the most recent debate that “police are the most mistreated people in this country.”
Supporting this hypothesis, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams has found a preference for authoritarianism to be the single statistically significant predictor of whether a voter supports Trump. He is also the only candidate for whom this measure provided any predictive value. Other scholars of authoritarianism have provided similar insights:
“What most fundamentally distinguishes authoritarians, as we explained in detail in our book, are three inter-related sets of attitudes about which they are, collectively, adamant: 1) an especially strong propensity to divide the world into us vs. them and a concomitant intolerance of outgroups perceived as threats to America’s existing social fabric; 2) projecting strength in the most straightforward, uncompromising way possible; and 3) the related perils following from the breakdown of law and order.
That, in a nutshell, is Trump’s campaign.”
Authoritarians see chaos erupting in the world and want to impose order. They are often driven by fear – of terrorism or of immigration, for instance – and seek candidates promising to assuage their anxieties. But as other strongmen like Vladimir Putin have consistently demonstrated, order and liberty typically stand in conflict.
It would be easy here to highlight the weakness to date of libertarian Rand Paul’s campaign as further evidence of the fragile state of the libertarian moment, but it was never dependent on one candidate’s fortunes. His absence from the most recent debate, however, did provide a sad portrait of how monolithically statist the Republican primary looks to be without him. It confirmed, if nothing else, that the trend of recent libertarian gains is unlikely to continue if other impulses within the Republican party become dominant.
A party that fully embraces the authoritarian impulse can not credibly stand for individual liberty or limited government. And since the Republican Party is the only one to even pay lip service to either of those two principles, Trump and the emergence of the authoritarian moment provides a serious threat to the prospect of continued libertarian gains. Along with Trump’s political fortunes, 2016 will determine whether the authoritarian moment ascends or fizzles, and with it the ultimate fate of its counterpart libertarian moment.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Brian Garst is an advocate for economic and individual liberty. He works as Director of Policy and Communications at the Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a free market think-tank dedicated to preserving tax competition. His writings have been published in major domestic and international papers, and he is a regular contributor for Cayman Financial Review. He also blogs at BrianGarst.com and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.
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