Libertarians' scary, new guru: Why Dave Brat is no populist hero

Some on the left may see a kindred spirit -- but here's why the man who beat Eric Cantor is anything but

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 12, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

David Brat                 (AP/Steve Helber)
David Brat (AP/Steve Helber)

Both the left and the right have found reasons to celebrate the upset of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday's Virginia primary. The right sees it as a victory for the local grass roots that's fed up with Washington and a vindication of principled conservative values, particularly on the issue of immigration. (They were also very upset with Cantor for facilitating the eventual raising of the debt ceiling and failing to repeal Obamacare.) None of that is all that surprising.

But the reaction on the left is more interesting. There was some gloating over the vanquishing of a hated rival, to be sure.  And the Democratic Party, having staked its future on the inevitable non-white majority, sees his full-throated criticism of Eric Cantor over immigration to be an advantage, at least in the long term.  But on the populist left, there is a sense that Brat signals a sign of an emerging consensus on the left and right on economic issues. This piece by Lee Fang outlines all the areas in which Brat's anti-corporate welfare rhetoric intersects with left-wing critiques of the power elite and it's quite interesting. There is little doubt that all these years of economic torpor, high unemployment and rising poverty and debt have opened up some potential paths to bipartisan agreement on these issues around corporate welfare and big money influence in politics.

But a closer look at Brat's rhetoric reveals a man who is not very populist beyond that one issue.  He's a typical libertarian (albeit with a theological twist).  And so along with his commitment to end corporate welfare, one would presumably need to take the bitter with the sweet.  He thinks it's unfair that people pay less into Medicare and Social Security than they take out so these programs have to be slashed or eliminated. He believes that Obamacare should be scrapped along with employer-based insurance so that people will buy their own health policies, which will (he doesn't say how) eliminate the problem of preexisting condition exclusions. He thinks education funding should be drastically cut. He believes that if the country is rich enough it will solve the climate crisis --- because rich countries always solve their problems.

His rhetoric indicates that he fully embraces the principles of the libertarian party agenda, which, yes, says it will abolish corporate welfare:

Abolish corporate welfare and bailouts: Adopt federal legislation prohibiting any federal spending program that provides payments or unique benefits and advantages to specific companies or industries, terminating programs that provide direct grants to businesses, eliminating programs that provide research and other services for industries and ending programs that provide subsidized loans or insurance to businesses.

Unfortunately, that goes hand in hand with this:

Repeal the income tax: Adopt legislation repealing the income tax and abolishing the Internal Revenue Service. Until the income tax is repealed, adopt legislation preserving the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and enacting across-the-board income tax cuts.

Adopt the Balanced Budget Amendment: Adopt a constitutional amendment requiring the federal budget be balanced, and balanced exclusively by cutting expenditures, not by raising taxes.

And how does this ensure greater freedom, security and prosperity? This piece by a Lew Rockwell contributor describes the coming libertarian utopia. In a nutshell, he explains that by cutting corporate welfare and repealing the income tax along with allowing totally free trade, libertarians will also help the poor because this free economy will liberate them and allow everyone to pursue their economic dreams unfettered by taxes and oppressive government regulations. Millions will start businesses and because the economy will be growing at such a fevered pace, even those losers who have to work for wages will have many more choices. Poverty will virtually disappear because the big problem for poor people is that Wal-Mart is gouging them with high prices due to trade barriers. And if there remain a few unfortunates who are unable to take advantage of the freedom to buy cheap cases of tainted canned cat food (and I'm talking about food made from cats not for cats) directly from China, everyone else will be so rich and feeling so generous that they might throw a few coins their way if they ask very nicely.

So, the upshot is that David Brat is against corporate welfare and that is an issue on which progressive populists can find common ground. Perhaps they can work with him and the handful of others in the GOP who feel similarly to craft some reforms to make that happen. But I wouldn't count on him to be a  populist who sees the government as a necessary counterbalance to wealth and power. He's a fairly doctrinaire libertarian who thinks that wealth and power in the hands of individuals is the best of all possible worlds. If he's as starry-eyed as many of his fellow true-believers, he also believes everyone can be rich and powerful if only they aren't burdened with taxes and regulations. If you believe that too, there are undoubtedly some libertarian entrepreneurs ready to sell you some cat food.

Interestingly, the one area where Brat diverges from a standard libertarian POV is the big flagship issue of his campaign: immigration. Libertarians traditionally believe in a loose, if not open, border policy and tend not to be hardcore immigrant bashers. It's hard to know if Brat has a visceral objection to immigration as so many of his big-name supporters do or whether he genuinely objects simply because Big Business likes it. But he certainly knows how to talk the Tea Party talk:

Laura Ingraham: Are you a man who would separate a child from her mother or father and isn't that a hard-hearted approach and a way that you'll never grow the Republican Party or the conservative base. I mean it's so mean. 

Brat: You hit it on the head, that is the crux of the issue and Eric Cantor is acting exactly like Obama and the Democrats basing public policy on emotion rather than reason. Just for starters, "making life work?" I mean the day you think the federal government and Caesar should make your life work, you've got a fundamental problem on your hands and you need to go re-read history books.  Whenever you trust the federal government, federal governments do not love, they are incapable of love, so this emotional pitch that Caesar is going to take care of children is just completely irrational.  Our founders knew much better. They wanted a contest of 50 states. And on the point you make about the passage of this great founding principle that children should not be punished, does that apply to all children across the globe that they somehow receive a right to be US citizens?  And if that were true, that would mean all future DREAMers have a right to amnesty as every immigration law is bypassed and permanently void if you follow Eric's logic.

I think you referred to it in the news, I know Mark Levin did last night, the Washington Times reported 60,000 kids are expected to cross the border at 225.00 a day per child., and big business gets the cheap labor that's what they want, Eric Cantor's their guy, but who has to pay the 225.00 a day per kids who are coming over the border in what some are calling a humanitarian crisis because Eric Cantor is sending all the wrong signals? ... He wanted to put illegal immigrants into our military, which makes no sense. You'll have non-citizens in one of the most key positions in our society, serving in the most honored spot.

He dog-whistled the Christian right with all that "Caesar" talk, winked at the anti-corporate populists, complained about costs to the taxpayers, genuflected to the military and blamed Eric Cantor for all of it. No wonder he won. He's good. In fact, he ran a pretty textbook right-wing populist campaign, featuring an attack on "elites" (whom everyone hates these days) with a thinly veiled nativist appeal to national purity. But underneath it all, he's more libertarian than anything else.

There's no way of telling which way he's going to go if he wins the seat in November. He sounds like he's all things to all people from the populist left to the immigrant-bashing right and everything in between. And that means somebody's going to be disappointed. Anyone want to take bets on who that's likely to be?

5 Things To Know About The Tea Party’s Golden Boy David Brat

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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