The strange death of GOP libertarianism: Rand Paul's collapse and the fading of a political moment

Consumed by the Trump wave, Rand Paul is all but finished. His failure exposes the truth about the modern right

Published October 6, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)


In a recent article, Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, Washington's newest libertarian think-tank, discusses the collapsing presidential campaign of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and what it means for the larger libertarian movement in the United States. As I pointed out last month, Taylor concludes that the sudden rise of Donald Trump, who may just be the least libertarian of all GOP front-runners, is not a good sign for the libertarian movement, which not too long ago seemed poised to take over a large segment of the Republican Party. Today, this optimism had been shattered. Taylor writes:

If there were any significant support for Libertarian ideas in the GOP—any at all—Rand Paul would be near the top of an otherwise crowded, fragmented field that is fighting over every non-libertarian voter in the party. Yet he’s polling at a mere 1 percent among Republican voters nationwide and has a higher unfavorability rating than anyone else in the GOP race.

The news gets worse for Paul. Last week, it emerged that he was taking a break from his presidential campaign to fundraise for his simultaneous Senate reelection bid, although one person with close ties to Kentucky politics warned that he was not giving up on his presidential run just yet. (Paul has repeatedly stated that he will not be dropping out any time soon, and that his message is necessary at the debates.) Meanwhile, Trump has been bragging as usual that he alone has destroyed the senator’s chances, tweeting last week:

While Trump is simply being his arrogant self, he is not wrong. In fact, some of Trump’s biggest supporters are self-described Tea Partyers; the same people who are supposed to be small government conservatives supporting Rand Paul. Supposed to be, that is, but not in reality. I take the same view as Michael Lind, who last month described in Politico what many of us on the left have always felt about the Tea Party.

“The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party for what it really is,” writes Lind. “Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years: that the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism.”

In other words, Trump has vindicated the left’s suspicion that the Tea Party is not a small government libertarian movement, but a kind of white-identity populism akin to the 1960s reactionary movement led by politicians like George Wallace. Right-wing populists have long been dubious of foreigners, immigrants, minorities and elitists -- both in the intellectual and monied sense. Sound familiar?

Trump has taken advantage of the fears and insecurities of a significant portion of white Americans, who see the influx of non-white immigrants -- Hispanic, Asian, Muslim -- as a threat to their way of life. In their view, Muslims are terrorists (i.e., Syrian refugees are members of ISIS -- even though half are children), Mexicans are rapists and job-stealers, foreigners are cheaters, black people are lazy, and so on. They also distrust intellectuals and experts. Consider, for example, the denial of scientific realities like climate change and evolution. Even though the vast majority of scientists agree that human beings are warming the planet with their carbon output, most Republican supporters simply refuse to believe. Overall, the Tea Party movement appears to be a combination of white-identity politics and anti-intellectualism. Even Glenn Beck, the former patron saint of the Tea Party, has called Trump's Tea Party supporters racists. (I guess he never interacted with supporters at those rallies of his.)

What does all this say about a great percentage of Republican voters? First of all, it reveals that many are ideologically inconsistent (except when it comes to their social views) and politically ignorant. After all, Trump is no small government conservative, and as former congressman Ron Paul said recently, he sounds increasingly authoritarian. It also reveals that most GOP voters are not libertarian like Rand Paul, and that his honesty on certain issues, especially when he speaks out against war, advocates diplomacy, and criticizes the government spying on its own citizens, hurts his standing in the Grand Old Party.

In closing, Jerry Taylor writes about issues that libertarians have been successful with over the past few years:

Libertarians... can take heart from the fact that political sentiment is moving their way in some areas. Gay rights, drug decriminalization, increasing outrage over heavy-handed police tactics, growing concern over an unjust legal system, disgust over crony capitalism, and opposition to military deployments abroad all suggest that libertarian arguments can have political force.

The thing is, these issues are all areas where libertarians and those on the left agree. Indeed, liberals and libertarians tend to see eye to eye on somewhere around half of the issues (typically relating to civil rights), while they disagree on other things like the free market and income inequality. These issues -- war, civil rights, criminal justice reform -- are what make Paul an outsider in the Republican Party.

Whether you agreed with him or not during the last two debates, Paul did bring substance to otherwise fruitless events. But it seems that most GOP voters do not care about substance, and prefer entertaining and pompous loudmouths who embrace their irrational fears, insecurities and prejudices. One can disagree with a political opponent and still have great respect for him or her, but only when real substance and debate is involved. How can one have respect for an opponent like Trump, who makes outlandish claims without any evidence and popularizes untrue and dangerous generalizations about entire segments of the population? How can one respect someone who operates in fear-mongering and embraces some of the darkest qualities of human beings, like racism, to get ahead in the polls?

Unfortunately, the GOP is headed in this ugly direction, and the fall of Rand Paul, who is one of the few Republicans with a consistent and discernible philosophy -- wrong as it may be -- reveals this crude drift towards a political movement that will inevitably leave many victims in its wake.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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2016 Elections Donald Trump Libertarianism Rand Paul The Right