The Paltry Hopes of the Libertarian Moment

Justin Amash, perhaps the last best hope of Republican libertarians. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

It’s not big news that Donald Trump’s total conquest of the Republican Party has been shocking to those bearing the stripes of various ideological strands in the GOP that have lost their prior dominance. Some, including both standard-brand Chamber of Commerce Republicans and most “movement conservative” types have simply swallowed, shrugged, and put on their MAGA caps, with or without any reflection on the moral and ideological accommodations involved.

You’d expect more from those in the libertarian wing of the GOP, representing, as they claim to do, an unchanging body of principled beliefs about strictly limited government, the universal efficacy of markets, and the holiness of economic and (for some, at least) personal freedom. But after reading a meditation by Lucy Steigerwald about the greater meaning of Congressman Justin Amash’s libertarianish defection from Trump’s party, I can’t help but wonder about the future of any ideological tradition that depends for its vitality on a single House member in a single very unrepresentative district in Michigan.

Steigerwald carefully documents the false hopes some libertarians originally had about Trump:

“Libertarians for Trump” became a thing, as some key libertarians succumbed to the feverish hope that Trump would be a peace candidate in the 2016 race. After all, he dissed Washington swamp creatures and the architects of the Iraq War. Trump was a bizarre unknown competing against a known hawk commodity named Hillary Clinton — and so maybe he was a libertarian? Once in office, of course, he pushed tariffs, hired war hawks like John Bolton, and cracked down on immigration, joining a long list of Republican presidents who have betrayed the libertarian wing of the GOP.

And she also notes the former libertarians who have defected to Trump’s brand of white-nationalist “populism” or worse. My colleague Jonathan Chait has argued that libertarians generally have been friendlier to Trump than almost any other Republican faction. But for those who have resisted the demagogue’s siren song, the surrender of so many to (using the Catholic Church’s term for the devil’s wares) the “glamour of evil” offers little other than the irrelevance of third-party politics. And thus, hopes of someday redeeming the GOP have come to depend uncomfortably on Amash, whom Trump’s Republicans are seeking to purge in a 2020 primary.

[I]f Amashian libertarianism is to play a role in American politics, it will likely not be in expanding the liberal tent, but in rescuing libertarianism and other worthy political ideologies from being devoured by Trumpism. If he can survive reelection in Michigan’s eclectic Third District in 2020, Amash could be a crucial voice in that effort. 

If this is indeed where “that effort” stands, it represents a steep devolution from the famous “libertarian moment” prophesied by some in 2014 who were enthused about a Rand Paul presidential bid that turned out to be a total nonstarter.

Whatever happens to Amash, libertarianism, of course, will live on. As long as there is adolescence, new Ayn Rand readers will arise in each generation, and as long as there is privilege, privileged people will dream of a world without redistribution of resources. The Libertarian Party isn’t going anywhere, relevant or not. Libertarian thinkers (current or former) such as those working at the Niskanen Center could help shape a post-Trump Republican-policy tool chest. And racial or “populist” temptations aside, the structure of the U.S. Constitution ensures that the right-of-center party in our two-party system will harbor a residual resistance to Trumpian authoritarianism.

But it remains a perilous time for libertarians who think their destiny is found in some sort of Republican renaissance. A recent taxonomy of post-Trump conservatives by Matthew Continetti included Jacksonians, Reformocons, Paleocons, and Post-Liberals — none of whom are as friendly to libertarianism as the old pre-Trump conservatives. Lists of prospective 2024 Republican presidential candidates don’t usually include Paul, Amash, or anyone else identified as libertarians. The creed’s ancient enemies in the Christian right are stronger than ever.

Perhaps as a matter of sheer survival, Amash’s primary is crucial to Republican libertarians. But it’s hardly plausible to say right now they are as significant in party councils as the bigots and the protectionists, the theocrats and the nativists, the rent-seekers and the jingoists. It’s a good thing that the libertarian impulse is eternal. Its moment may be so far over the rainbow that it will never again appear on the horizon.

The Paltry Hopes of the Libertarian Moment