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Libertarians can’t afford to be fussy about Donald Trump

Donald Trump addresses the Libertarian National Convention in Washington, DC on Saturday. Credit: Getty

May 26, 2024 - 8:00pm

Reflecting broader changes in Republican politics, Donald Trump faced jeers at the National Libertarian Convention in Washington, DC on Saturday, just a few days after he won cheers at a spirited rally with working-class voters in the South Bronx.

The presumptive Republican nominee addressed third-party supporters in the nation’s capital partly to box out independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who has hoped to bring registered Libertarians into his coalition of outsiders. Trump himself has made appealing to the politically disaffected a core theme of his campaigns, so his overture yesterday included a pledge to commute the life sentence of Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the online marketplace Silk Road, and grant a Libertarian a cabinet slot.

It’s not surprising that there should be some friction between Trump and the Libertarian delegates. A quintessentially transactional politician, Trump seems singularly uninterested in ideology — libertarian or otherwise. What’s more, his populist policies are at odds with the doctrines of many professional libertarians. For instance, while libertarians are famously sceptical about federal entitlements, Trump has pledged to preserve Social Security and Medicare. Many libertarians are more sympathetic to open borders and free trade, but the former president has instead based his political brand on opposing illegal immigration and imposing tariffs.

Registered Libertarians (especially those who sojourn to the party’s national convention) are true believers. Unlike many online influencers, they have not forgotten the excesses of the Covid-19 era and still hold Trump’s pandemic policies against him. Some attendees even wore satirical t-shirts proclaiming, “TRUMP/FAUCI 2024: Give Us Another Shot”. For many such Libertarians, “leave us alone” is both an ideology of non-intervention and an ethos of rowdiness. Boos were perhaps inevitable. After all, a Libertarian presidential debate in 2016 dissolved into audience derision when former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson said he believed in the need for driver’s licences.

This ideological purity is the opposite of Trump’s “let’s make a deal” approach to governing. At one point, Trump goaded the restive crowd, saying that — if they refused to back him — Libertarians could just go back to “what you’ve been doing for the last long decades and get your 3% and meet again and get another 3%”. For Trump, the point of electoral politics is to win — not to maintain any purity of principle.

For a long time, registered Libertarians have been on the periphery of Republican politics. Former elected Republicans won Libertarian presidential nominations multiple times over the past 20 years, and the Libertarian and Republican talent networks often overlapped. Libertarians had sometimes been foes of social conservatives and were critical of the national-security policies of the GOP, but they also felt sympathetic to many Republican policies on deregulation and decentralisation. The rise of populism has arguably strained that relationship.

However, even if Trump may be at odds with professional Libertarians, many rank-and-file Republican voters have a combination of populist and folk-libertarian sentiments. While they might not be dogmatic believers in government non-intervention, they also remain sceptical about the exertion of centralised government power. Polling of early primary voters in the summer of 2023 confirmed this — they overwhelmingly backed tax cuts and deregulation as ways of addressing economic challenges.

Further, many grassroots voters are deeply worried about being steamrolled by the progressive cultural vanguard. These Americans might not have read Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich Hayek, but they have seen the politics of identity that has captured the commanding heights — and they don’t like it. As part of his project of coalition management, Joe Biden has given this vanguard a blank cheque on many issues, so these folk-libertarian voters might see Trump as the most plausible bulwark against the triumph of “woke” policy-making. If Trump is not a dogmatic ideologue, neither are most voters.


Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.

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Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
28 days ago

Will libertarians humiliate and debase themselves in the way Republicans have?

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
28 days ago

Well, they’re certainly not going to adopt any socialist policies, so no.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
28 days ago

Identity politics turns very ugly, very quickly.
No one likes it when powerful bureaucracies put a thumb on the scale against one race or gender or religion or sexual preference in order to win the support of another.
And the most cataclysmic political movements in history, from the gory conquests of Tamarlane to the Spanish Inquisition to the French Revolution to the Nazis and the Stalinists, have all been stoked by the fuel of identity politics.
Either we are all equal before the law, or we are not. Apparently, many Democrats are determined to say we are not, and that the state should treat people differently, based on their race or gender or (name your group) birth identity.
Hard left identitarians (who’ve largely taken over the DNC) would bristle at being compared to Jim Crow Dixiecrats, or to National Socialists, but at bottom they are all very similar.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
27 days ago

Oh, CS! You’re nothing if not consistent


Geoff W
Geoff W
27 days ago

Will UnHerd humiliate and debase itself by printing more drivel like this? Trump has no principles, but he will protect you from some undefined “woke” lobby?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
27 days ago

Probably – and so will millions of democrats by the looks of it. You should ask yourself why nobody anywhere seems to want your style of busybody politics. Could it be because champagne socialism has been such a catastrophe for the world? I wonder.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
27 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Someone seems to have forgotten that Trump lost in a landslide in 2020!

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
27 days ago

Well, don’t you wish we had non-ideological politicians dedicated to finding common sense solutions to practical problems instead of the utopian globalists who’ve (mis)ruled here and in Europe for so long? I do.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
27 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I doubt the author intended it, but he did make Trump seem like the Great Unitor Biden was supposed to be.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Even if the answer to that is “Yes”, the next word isn’t “Trump”.

simon lamb
simon lamb
27 days ago

If MAGA poses a threat to democracy on the far right, they are countered by a bizarrely incongruous and deeply disturbing mix of empathetic woke and rabid antisemitism on the far left. Both wings are authoritarian and an embarrassment to the center. But the center has become torpid and leaderless, unwilling to call out the extremes in their parties for electoral reasons. They are ruled by career-fear rather than the eloquent, inspirational conviction that great leaders must possess. Senile, folksy, slogan-touting has-beens have taken control, and at the same time lost control. When rabid lunatics like MTG can command the digital news-space you’ve got to know something is deeply wrong because it means there is no more intellectual and interesting political dialog to be found. America desperately needs strong, more youthful, moderate leadership but seems completely unable to find even one individual of the necessary stature and conviction to take the role. As a result the political atmosphere is now febrile; battle lines are (literally in some cases) being drawn. Unless the centers can call out the wings and collude to reassert consensual center politics, the future looks grim.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
27 days ago
Reply to  simon lamb

Consensual center politics? What is that? Blairism?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
27 days ago
Reply to  simon lamb

You need to separate the personalities and the rhetoric from the reality of American politics. What matters in the US is not who the candidate is, but who is paying for the campaign. By a large margin the biggest donors to the Democrats in 2020 were George Soros and Sam Bankman-Fried – hence the stupidity and destructiveness of Biden’s border and social policies. The money always comes with strings.
At least a large proportion of Trump’s funding comes from his voters – which gives him, unlike his opponents, an incentive to pursue policies that are in their interests and not solely those of the hedge funds, banks, tech bros and arms manufacturers.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I recall Bankman-Fried claiming that gave equal amounts to the Democrats and the Republicans, but he had to keep the Republican donations secret, because he would have been pilloried on the press if they had become public knowledge.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
27 days ago
Reply to  simon lamb

I rather like MTG. Not a phony bone in her body.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Not a sane brain cell in her head either.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
27 days ago

There are some good libertarian intellectuals (eg Murray Rothbard, Tom Woods, Jeff Deist, Sean Gabb etc). But most libertarians are just insufferable.

Terry M
Terry M
27 days ago

Many libertarians are more sympathetic to open borders 
They would be idiots who do not believe in property rights, not libertarians.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
27 days ago
Reply to  Terry M

No that’s simply not correct. What on Earth have property rights got to do with it? You’re coming into another “country”, defined by essentially artificial borders created by “the state”, to sell your labour. Perhaps then you can earn enough to buy some property. I’m not saying that this IS what is primarily happening on the US / Mexico border today, but it is a perfectly reasonable libertarian case to make.

It is only the state and its coercive power that prevents people (if it wishes) crossing borders at will. Passports and visas are a fairly modern phenomenon. Libertarians are essentially opposed to these. Why shouldn’t – in their terms – people pay others to get them across a border? Of course that doesn’t mean to see the state should then afford those people benefits etc – but that’s a different argument. If, on the other hand, you support such major aspects of a coercive state, you can’t possibly describe yourself as a libertarian. Perhaps you are some kind of right wing national liberal. Surely it aids our understanding that political ideologies in terms be carefully defined, not just merged into a mishmash based on primarily who your enemies are (maybe today the progressive identitarian Left).

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
27 days ago
Reply to  Terry M

The open borders stuff is the main sin of most libertarians. The ones I listed above as being interesting are against open borders, but they seem a minority. The usual semi-autist libertarian thinks any border control is racist. Basically leftists who happen to love corporations.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
27 days ago

The role of the Libertarian Party is to throw close elections to the Democrats. That and talking, talking, talking.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
27 days ago

It is sometimes amusing to see how people deny that are any fundamental differences within the Right (ok, let’s say the non-Left). Conservatism is the same as Libertarianism. No, it is not!. We briefly had the absurd spectacle in the United Kingdom of Liz Truss somehow being championed as a national conservative “saviour” figure. She was and is fundamentally an economic liberal.

A major political force that perhaps is too rarely gets separately analysed, is the strong desire for charismatic saviour figures. This often transcends almost any bounds of logic or consistency as voters, fed up with how things are, project onto these figures (sometimes almost arbitrarily selected) all their wishes and fears.

The case of Hitler: he had famously written explicitly of his support for a very extreme racist and expansionist ideology – which was precisely what he later tried to implement. This was almost the entire purpose of his political existence. However millions of people – who perhaps wanted a conservative stability, prosperity, the political defeat of the Communists and a strong respected German state voted for him. They did NOT want the extermination of disabled people, a World War, and most certainly not the later consequential GötterdĂ€mmerung. They conveniently put his well recorded fundamental political ideas out of their minds. And Hitler was extremely canny at cultivating a statesmanlike image and championed such popular issues that he championed during his successful election tours.

Donald Trump was – and is – a pretty good example of a “saviour” figure on the modern Right (no, I’m not saying he’s like Hitler…!), and Jeremy Corbyn on the Left. Let’s recall that many of the young very anti-Brexit leftists were perfectly happy to have Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, as their leader.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
25 days ago

Libertarians are appropriate to settler societies. Less so for cultures with a somewhat longer, mixed history (Europe).
However, it was not necessary for the US Democrats to move in a Maoist direction. Although it may be though logical, as the transformation of their party aligns with the CCP’s movement towards a Fascist corporatism.