Standing Athwart Trumpism

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For libertarians, the time for schadenfreude is past. Satisfying as it has been to watch Hillary Clinton’s fatuous hack brigade flail about trying to explain why the voting public failed to give their heroine her due, we should now be content to let her wander the woods and float through gatherings of fellow millionaires. Politically at least, she is now an ex-person.

In looking over the commentary produced since the election, I worry that many libertarians are both underestimating and misunderstanding the nature of the threat Trump poses. Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton would have been an awful president, rivaling and probably surpassing the past two administrations for overall harm to the nation. But: what we as a nation have elected instead is a very different proposition. Donald Trump has no core beliefs other than in his own all-encompassing competence, and he recognizes no authority other than the one beneath his gilded combover.

The sole hope coming out of the campaign was Trump’s sheer manic variability, which saw him contradicting himself not just from day to day, but sentence to sentence. It was possible—barely—to measure his egregiously awful statements on policing, trade, and civil liberties against others taking on bailed-out bankers and US military failures in the Middle East, and hope that there was a better side of his nature that might yet win out.

Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton would have been a horrid president, rivaling and probably surpassing the past two administrations for overall harm to the nation.

A month later, that fiction is no longer sustainable. Trump has made clear he will govern by drawing on the worst of both the establishment GOP and the fringier elements who have swarmed around his campaign: an unholy union first appearing in the naming of past RNC head Reince Preibus to be chief of staff, while placing Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon in the role of “chief counselor and White House strategist”—an equal position that is, crucially, not subject to congressional approval. In one stroke, Trump coopted the establishment, installing the empty-headed Preibus to repeat talking points at press briefings while leaving Bannon free to plot in the darkness. Further, the arrangement takes away another fleeting hope: Trump, who is fickle even by the standards of small children, is often swayed by the last person he talks to; Bannon will make sure that person is him.

In many Cabinet positions, Trump has selected nearly the worst conceivable candidate. Jeff Sessions will be a nightmare as Attorney General, instantly silencing the crucial conversation about policing, prisons, and communities that had, at long last, emerged in the past couple of years. Retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis (no, really) will be well positioned as Secretary of Defense to carry out the war with Iran that neocons have been lusting after for decades—especially with the megalomaniacal Michael Flynn as national security advisor, and John Bolton, the man more responsible than any other single person for lying us into the disastrous war in Iraq, as deputy secretary of state. Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin as the secretaries of commerce and the Treasury, respectively, make sure the Wall Street welfare crowd keeps multiple seats at the table. And that’s not even to mention the grossly incompetent Rick Perry at Energy (a position generally held by, you know, an actual scientist), the ill-suited Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, the hopelessly compromised Andrew Pudzer at Labor and Betsy DeVos at Education, and the rumored but not yet confirmed Larry Kudlow as White House economist—you remember, the guy who insisted there was no economic bubble in 2008, right at the exact moment of its popping.

Trump, who is fickle even by the standards of small children, is often swayed by the last person he talks to; Steve Bannon will make sure that person is him.

Before even entering office, Trump has already caused an international incident, taking a call from the president of Taiwan. Though it appears he was gulled into it by, among others, Bob Dole (a paid lobbyist for Taiwan now for years), it’s of a piece with Trump’s inexplicable need to provoke China. The world economy right now is a thin layer of trade stretched over an enormous gulf of debt; Trump’s Smoot-Hawleyesque tariff plans would be just the thing to turn the coming post-Obama recession into a new Depression—and, in China, he has a perfect scapegoat for why his own economic plans (which, to judge from the whole Carrier incident, involve personally picking winners and losers) won’t do anything to fix it.

Trade war with China is only one of the many scenarios that Trump could blunder into that would lead to global conflict—there’s the entire Middle East, obviously, with special reference to either Iran or Syria; there’s Kashmir and the perpetual threat of Indian-Pakistani nuclear war; there’s Ukraine and Turkey and the limits of NATO—so many Archdukes, and all it takes is one bullet. Trump’s Twitter feed reveals a man fundamentally incapable of patience, diplomacy, or measured contemplation, a man so thin-skinned he’d be translucent if it weren’t for the fake tan. If even the tiniest of trolls can get his dander up, how will he respond when actual substantive criticism comes? To what lengths will Trump go to assert his authority?

Within the structure of the federal government as presently constituted, there are no effective checks on his power to do so. President Hillary would have broken the law, and egregiously so, but as with her emails she would have recognized that what she was doing was wrong and made an incompetent effort to cover it up. Trump’s illegal acts will occur in the open, as they have for decades; he will dare anyone to stop him, knowing that once he’s in power there really isn’t anyone who will.

The Democrats won’t: as they’ve proven time and again, they love power too much to allow it to dissipate. Obama had the chance to dismantle the post-9/11 security and surveillance state; he chose instead to ramp up both, prosecuting whistleblowers and leakers with a ferocity never before seen while wasting all his political capital on the narcissistic quest to get an already-disintegrating health plan passed. The 2020 hopefuls—be it odious busybody Elizabeth Warren, discount-store Obama knockoff Cory Booker, nepotism case-study Andrew Cuomo, or any other—will want to preserve whatever they can of the imperial presidency out of the belief, growing inexplicably stronger each time it is shown to be misguided, that they can fix everything on their next Oval Office turn.

Within the structure of the federal government as presently constituted, there are no effective checks on Trump's power to assert his authority.

The Republicans won’t either: for all the supposed “Never Trump” energy, they’ve all more or less fallen into line, accepting their ritual humiliations as the price for pushing their own agendas—just look at how Mike Pence flipped his economic views basically overnight once he saw the chance to take his social pathologies to a bigger stage. Even Paul Ryan, who remains near to power and could at least see principles on a clear day, has muted his opposition. The few exceptions, such as Sen. Rand Paul (who says he will lead the fight against Bolton) and Rep. Justin Amash, are isolated and ripe for the purge. It’s Trump’s party now.

And, of course, the establishment media won’t: as shown by their profiles of intellectual lightweights like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, all their supposed resistance will go out the door the second that fascism slicks back its hair and dons an off-the-rack suit. The media prizes respectability and access above any other principle; watch in the coming months how much attention CNN and the networks give to Trump’s lack of briefings and press conferences, versus how much they cover the deployment of the planned DHS police state, or the surveillance of Muslim communities.

Who, then? It doesn’t leave much, but it does leave us—as well as some groups that we might not be accustomed to pairing up with, but will have to if we’re going to survive this administration. Charts and statistics and lectures about sound economic theory didn’t cut it during the campaign, and they won’t cut it after the inauguration, either. We will need to remember how to protest; we will need to learn how to organize—not just in the comfort of our homes, or in the safe spaces of digital discussion, but in the streets and, if it comes to it, on the ramparts as well.

There is a tremendous opportunity here: if libertarians not only stick to their principles but demonstrate them at every turn, there is the chance to prove that libertarianism is not about protecting the powerful and the authorities, but rather providing the powerless the authority to live their own lives as they see fit. But balanced against this is an equally terrible prospect: if libertarians fail, either by cooption or purity testing or internecine squabbling, they will be subsumed—and there will be no coming back.



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Comments

Charles Barr

You can protest and organize against Trump without me. I’ll be busy celebrating the end of Obamacare, the implementation of meaningful tax reduction, the rollback of crippling economic regulations, the appointment of Supreme Court justices that actually understand the Constitution, the promotion of school choice, the strengthening of 2nd Amendment protections, the end of kowtowing to the U.N., the freeing up of energy resources, and the defeat of climate change hysteria and environmentalism run amuck. As a libertarian, I have no intention of “pairing up” with our cultural and political enemies for any reason – doing so would dilute our own message and give their overall agenda a moral sanction it does not deserve. There are many libertarian elements in Trump’s program, and supporting and encouraging such policies is at least as important as protesting the ones we disagree with.

drew

Will do! And later on down the line, if you still believe that Trump meant any part of what he said on the trail, or has any libertarian principles whatsoever—or principles, period, beyond the placation of his own ego—I will have 10 to 15 bridges to sell you.

Charles Barr

Do you seriously think Trump is going to magically morph into Hillary or Obama when he takes office January 20? His cabinet picks and his list of Supreme Court nominees indicate quite the opposite. Whether Trump has libertarian principles is irrelevant – what is relevant is that many of his publicly stated policies are libertarian-friendly, and those that aren’t are no worse than the policies in place today. At the very least Trump is going to dismantle much of the liberal establishment’s power base, which will help clear the way for the eventual rise of more consistent defenders of individual liberty.

Jon Harrison

Very well said. However, I think (hope?) it's less than an even bet that we will have a war. "Mad Dog" Mattis was a good fighting general in the Patton mold, but he's got no business being Secy. of Defense. He's no bureaucrat and lacks the ability to manage the enormous Pentagon bureaucracy. I predict he'll last about two years.

Of course you never know with a guy like Trump, who is singularly unqualified — intellectually, morally, you name it — to be president. The voters will have no one but themselves to blame when the economy blows up, or war breaks out in the South China Sea. And of course the people who put him over the top — the white working class losers in the Rust Belt — will find that their lives will change not a whit for the better under the Donald. C'est la vie. I'm going to sit back and watch America go down the tubes. At some point one simply bows to the inevitable.

Visitor

"..will have a war"? Thoughtless prognostications on war, while troops and America's enemy du-jour are killing each other this very moment, are akin to forecasting precipitation while the rain pelts us from above. I must have missed the peace talks.

Further you are arithmetically challenged in assigning victory to a swath of people, since each electoral vote holds equivalent weight in pursuit of 270. But you flail away in ignorant frustration.

Re the offensively characterized "white working class losers in the Rust Belt," are they losers because they are white? Or are they losers because they are working class? Or are they losers because they reside in the so-called Rust Belt? Or are they losers simply because they chose to pull the lever against the foul-mouthed, corrupt, war-mongering, empty suit? Yours is a despicable and angry bigotry.

LibertyUnbound

Visitor:

The comment you posted in response here was unintentionally deleted from our comment system; please repost if you are able!

Geezer

At some point one simply bows to the inevitable.

Is this the guy who said in July: "It’s simply a fact, Trumpites. Your guy is going to lose on November 8."?

I suspect that the "inevitable" this guy predicts in December is likely to be as certain as the prediction he made in July.

R R Schoettker

This essay took the thoughts from my mind and the words from my mouth. I fear looking for resistance from any collective entity, including the Libertarian party, is just wishful thinking.

"As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
~ H.L. Mencken

I think what we can look forward to is all of us now "getting it good and hard"!

Russell Hasan

I think that if there is one thing that the 2016 election showed, is a fundamental individualism in politics, in the sense that people don't vote for parties or for principles, people vote for individual people. Trump could not have won the Midwest without Democratic labor union workers who voted for Trump's anti-free trade rhetoric and were uninspired by Hillary's bland, inept corruption, nor could he have won without a cult of personality, as an individual, that motivated the Republican vote in a way that McCain and Romney could not.
In that spirit, I think it is a mistake, albeit an innocent one, to say that "libertarians" should stand up to Trump. There is no such thing as "libertarians" as a group. Some individual libertarians will stand up to him, but many won't, just as, perhaps, a few Republicans and (I think) many Democrats will. As a matter of principle, all libertarians should--except that, as principle, there is no such thing as "all libertarians."
That having been said, if being critical of the President is something that each man and woman must take on individually, then I applaud you, as an individual, for having written so forcefully in that direction. You, and individuals like you, might make a real difference, whereas "libertarians", as a group, I think, never will, and don't share the same actual beliefs across individuals (think AnCaps vs. minarchists, Austrian economics vs. Chicago economics, etc.), don't act as an organized whole, don't vote as one bloc, and never will.
Yet this does not make us powerless. If individuals are powerless, then Trump would have been powerless, too. Instead this means only that we must each act for change as an individual, and not try to change the world as one unified group. The Left and Right, to some extent, march in unison, and act as one collective entity. We do not.

Luther Jett

Thank you. I have been dismayed by the near-silence, bordering upon acquiescence, on the part of many libertarians. The LP itself, rather bizarrely, decided to treat the election as some sort of victory.

We need to recognize the incoming administration for what it is -- a minority government seeking to rule by fiat. Call it authoritarianism, call it crony capitalism, call it by the "f" word, and you'll have no disagreement from me.

True friends of freedom need to speak out against this regime at every opportunity. While we ought not allow the opposition to be co-opted by the extreme left (as is presently rapidly becoming the case), we may need to set aside the self-destructive impulse toward ideological purity, and find common ground with reasonable progressive liberals, centered around the defense of civil liberties.

It is sheer hell to have to say this, but the American experiment hangs in the balance. And if we fail, the night will be very long indeed.

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