Rand Paul's sad final days: Donald Trump, the Koch brothers and the slow fizzle of the GOP's libertarian/millennial dream

He was poised to lead a small government wave to the White House, uniting libertarians and Gen Y. What went wrong?

Published December 7, 2015 6:15PM (EST)

Rand Paul   (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Rand Paul (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Less than two years ago, Rand Paul and the Koch brothers were poised to take libertarianism to the next level. Today, they’re even further back than where they started.

Back in the summer of 2014, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Sen. Rand Paul, asking in the title, “Has the libertarian moment finally arrived?” In it, writer Robert Draper catalogued the many ways in which Paul and libertarian activists were strategizing to broaden the political appeal of libertarian ideas throughout the country. The article teased at a future where the Republican Party didn’t just talk a big game about making government smaller and increasing freedom, but actually made it the fundamental objective of the party.

For a little while, it looked like that dream might come true. From early 2014 to mid-2015, Rand Paul was the ascendant outsider Republican. In July of 2014, he was leading the presidential polls in Iowa (albeit with just 11 percent support) and even led in the national polls as recently as June of this year (again with just 11 percent support). Paul was by no means the sole front-runner, but pundits of all political stripes were lauding his chances of building a sizable coalition of young independents and Tea Party-affiliated voters to make a credible run at the presidency.

But today, just six months after those highs, Rand Paul’s bid to bring libertarianism into the political mainstream looks like it has failed completely. Today, Rand Paul routinely garners just 2 percent in the polls, and when compared to the relative success of his father, Ron Paul—who finished second place in the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary—it looks like American libertarianism has receded to a level of political power not seen since George W. Bush was president.

What went wrong for Rand Paul and for libertarians in general? And why is it that the Republican Party—which seems like such a natural fit for libertarian beliefs—never seems to follow through on its promises of smaller government and greater liberty?

To answer that question, we need to start by giving libertarianism some credit. It’s a political philosophy with deep and long-standing roots in American political culture, and it’s not going away any time soon. Americans love freedom, and libertarians advocate for the most of it. It’s just that when it comes to Social Security, healthcare for the poor, or universal access to military-grade assault rifles, most people start thinking of freedom in a slightly different way.

But the rise of the Tea Party following Barack Obama’s election in 2008 made it seem like libertarianism was on the verge of something bigger. Rand Paul himself swept into office in the Republican wave of 2010, and the Edward Snowden revelations, the passage of Obamacare, and a new torrent of federal regulation brought renewed vigor to the libertarian movement. Even in the elections in 2012 and 2013, you got the sense something was afoot. Libertarian candidates across the country were getting 6 percent-7 percent of the vote and throwing statewide contests (for example, a Senate race in Montana and the governor’s race in Virginia) largely to the Democrats.

If the political grass roots were primed for the rise of Rand Paul, the money and organization were even better. With hundreds of millions of dollars pledged to support libertarian causes, the Koch brothers continue to provide unprecedented amounts of cash and logistical support to bring the ideology of minimal government to the forefront of political action. Their organizations—Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and countless others—have employed an array of carrots and sticks to move the Republican Party toward a more libertarian agenda.

And even if you weren’t high on Rand Paul or the Koch brothers, there was still one more major development that should have propelled libertarians to greater political power: the continued success of “disruptive” Silicon Valley companies like Uber and Airbnb. These companies have clearly displayed at a national level the manifest benefits of deregulation and less central planning. Not only have these companies inspired an entire generation of young entrepreneurs, but these businesses have become political players in their own right, with countless successful campaigns that leveraged their popularity among their consumer base to pressure politicians to reduce government regulation.

Add it all together, and it looked like the libertarian movement had everything it needed for a winning agenda: a strong national candidate, lots of money and political infrastructure, and plenty of business and activist support to draw on. What went so horribly wrong?

The short-term answer clearly involves the rise of Donald Trump. If you’re Rand Paul, it would be difficult to draw any other conclusion. The 10 percent to 20 percent of the Republican primary base that might normally turn out for a Ron or Rand Paul has shifted to the populist, xenophobic camp of Donald Trump. Libertarians come in all shapes and sizes, and if the polls are to be believed, many prefer at this moment to support a candidate who gives voice to their frustrations rather than their hopes for reducing the scale and size of government. As Michael Lind at Politico put it back in September:

“...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. Think William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long, not Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government overall than they are that so much of it is going to other people, especially immigrants and nonwhites. They are for government for them and against government for Not-Them.”

But the rise of Donald Trump doesn’t explain why libertarians have gotten so little out of Congress and the legislative process as a whole. This is where the hundreds of millions of dollars from the Koch brothers were supposed to yield tangible results. But if Congress is any measure, the Kochs haven’t gotten a lot for their money, insofar as you believe that their goals are ultimately libertarian. The only real attempt to flex libertarian muscle was the failed repeal of the Export-Import Bank, and the Kochs lost that battle entirely. After all those hundreds of millions of dollars from the Kochs, this Republican Congress has been much more motivated to attack Planned Parenthood and oust its own speaker than to cut entitlements, replace Obamacare, reduce federal regulation, or otherwise pursue a libertarian agenda. The Koch brothers have seen more legislative success on the state and local level, but just as in Congress, it’s usually been the standard anti-liberal, pro-corporate agenda that establishment Republicans never objected to in the first place.

The real roots of this collapse should be no surprise: establishment Republicans have every reason to “cheat” on their libertarian leanings. Ronald Reagan deserves a lot of credit for bringing the smaller government ethos to the Republican Party, but most Republican politicians since then have found it much more useful to simply pay lip service to the libertarian movement while quietly taking the side of incumbent businesses whenever those two interests conflict. Establishment Democrats have a similar response to their pro-consumer supporters who want to see the big banks, the cable companies and the healthcare industries subject to greater market forces, but never seem to pull the trigger when real reform is on the table.

For establishment Republicans in particular, the temptation to cheat and pick winners and losers is often too hard to resist. Sure, they may talk a big game about believing in the free market, but once they become aware of who the winners or losers of a legislative change will be, that belief in the free market gets tossed by the wayside. It becomes about rewarding your side or punishing the other team, not about reducing the size of government. A Republican congressman may not like big government, but when it comes to cutting the generous agricultural subsidies that go to his hardworking constituents, his stated ideology often has a funny way of bending.

One could point to the success of companies like Uber as a counterexample to the collapse of American libertarianism, but even the rise of disruptive Silicon Valley powerhouses reveals the limits of enacting a true libertarian agenda. If their success has shown anything, it’s that people want a very particular kind of libertarianism. It’s a libertarianism that largely circumvents the political process and never imposes real tradeoffs on voters. With Uber, consumers got all the upside of deregulation without ever having to engage in the messy business of politics, because Uber just went ahead and implemented its business model before getting regulatory permission. If anything, companies like Uber show that you can have lots of regulation, and a group of entrepreneurs will come along and out-innovate the regulation, without us ever needing a libertarian “moment” to correct the failure. Best of all, Uber quickly becomes an incumbent business, and the political system bends toward its needs as usual.

For Rand Paul, all of these developments must be particularly dispiriting. It looked like maybe—just maybe—all the talk of smaller government would actually result in a movement to make government smaller. Even Republican primary voters seemed to be gradually wading into the pool in recent years. But xenophobia and the airing of long-standing grievances seem to be a greater priority for today’s version of these voters. These voters may have at one point seen libertarianism as the best way to channel those grievances, but that mood appears gone for now.

While Rand Paul and the Koch brothers may honestly believe in greater liberty and smaller government, the rest of the Republican Party still thinks of this as code for making sure the bounty of American peace and prosperity goes to them and those they deem fit. For that to change, libertarians are going to have to figure out a way to stop this tendency of Republicans to cheat on their talking points and make them deliver tangible results. If history is any indication, that’s going to take a real Tea Party revolution, not the mild boomlet that we just saw spark and fizzle out before our eyes.

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