What if Trump had won as a democrat? That’s what a former speechwriter for Bush imagines in a piece for Politico. It’s fascinating, and the details seem somewhat plausible. After all, Trump is a Hillary Clinton donor, anti-free trade, and hardly a conservative Christian. However, the author fails to recognize that by running on the right, Trump was able to tap into a movement that already existed: the paleo-conservative movement. It was/is pro-white, anti-elite, and entirely in favor of police brutality.
Right Wing Populism
In 1992, anarcho-capitalist and libertarian Murray Rothbard wrote “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement.” It detailed an outreach to what Rothbard called the “Redneck Caucus.” Rothbard prophesied:
Paleo-conservatism “will never get off the ground, unless it is sparked, and vivified, and energized by high-level, preferably presidential, political campaigns. What we need to build a new paleo movement, particularly at this stage, is a presidential candidate, someone whom all wings of anti-Establishment rightists can get behind, with enthusiasm.”
In the same publication, someone (presumably Rothbard) defends Pat Buchanan in a way that’s eerily familiar:
“We can already hear the small Modal [Rothbard’s word for libertarians he didn’t like] voices bellyaching: But Buchanan’s not a purist, e.g., ‘he’s weak on free trade.” To this we say: Come off it! To call for purity in a Libertarian Party candidate makes sense; the whole point of a libertarian political party is to expound a consistent doctrine. But to expect libertarian purity in a real-world candidate comes close to imbecility. On television and in his column, Pat has expressed forceful views on hundreds if not thousands of political, social, and cultural topics. Do we agree with every one of them? Of course not, and so what? That misses the point. The point is that Pat Buchanan is strongly infused with libertarian principle, and that he is as close as any real-world candidate could possibly come to paleo-libertarianism. All of us should be proud and delighted to work as hard as we can for a Buchanan presidency.”
A Shared Strategy
The paleo-conservative strategy also shares some of Trump’s main campaign promises:
Willfully or Woefully Blind to Racism
Rothbard calls David Duke, KKK member and white supremacist, a victim of the “Ruling Elite.” Rothbard accuses them of “slandering” Duke, and “questioning the sincerity of Duke’s conversion to Christianity.” By this, Rothbard presumes there was no real reason, like blatant racism, to question Duke’s adherence to Christianity. Rothbard continues:
“So why wasn’t the Establishment willing to forgive and forget when a right-wing radical like David Duke stopped advocating violence, took off the Klan robes, and started working within the system?”
Perhaps it’s because Duke is a blatant racist.
We see this sort of verbal hedging with Trump as well. Despite having mentioned David Duke in 2000, during his campaign, Trump said that he didn’t know who David Duke was. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, in a rare fit of accountability, called him out on it:
Rubio: "We cannot be a party who nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan."— Ed O'Keefe (@edatpost) February 28, 2016
A major theme of Rothbard’s piece is the victimization of the middle and working classes by the “dominant media and intellectual elites” who, “through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass.” And we see the same with Trump’s tweets against the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and other members of the media.
Rothbard, like Trump, advocated for “America First”. He says:
“The American economy is not only in recession; it is stagnating. The average family is worse off now than it was two decades ago. Come home America. Stop supporting bums abroad.”
Trump follows this strategy almost exactly, as highlighted in his “America First Foreign Policy”.
However, Rothbard’s statement about the average family being worse off is simply untrue, now and when it was written. CBO (the Congressional Budget Office finds that, between 1979 and 2007, income (adjusted for inflation) grew by:
- 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households,
- 65 percent for the next 19 percent,
- Just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, and
- 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.
In other words, every single income group saw huge gains in adjusted income. Granted, Rothbard was talking about the years 1972 to 1992, and this is slightly different (1979-2007), but either Rothbard is blatantly lying in order to rabble-rouse, or he was severely misinformed.
Another eerily familiar paleo-conservative strategy is #4: “Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals.” Rothbard explains:
“And by this I mean, of course, not ‘while collar criminals” or ‘inside traders” but violent street criminals-robbers, muggers, rapists, murderers. Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.”
Compare this to Trump’s whitehouse.gov policy:
“A Trump Administration will empower our law enforcement officers to do their jobs and keep our streets free of crime and violence. The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration. President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.”
Given that the first part of Rothbard’s piece defends KKK member David Duke, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the distinction between “white collar criminals” and “violent street criminals” is purely racial.
(Ironically, if taxation is theft, as Rothbard is famous for saying, it’d be white collar theft, so apparently we don’t care about taxation now.)
Moreover, Rothbard is known for his Non-Aggression Principle (NAP):
“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence.”
For him to advocate for easily corrupted government officials to employ “instant punishment” (i.e. brutal violence) is absurd. Apparently Rothbard thought that the government cannot be trusted to responsibly hand out food stamps (Item #2 of the populist program is Slashing Welfare), but government can be safety entrusted with the power to kill or maim civilians on sight. He does say that police officers might be held liable if they “are in error”, but a culture that unleashes cops is hardly going to hold them accountable after the fact.
Don’t Tread on Me
So where did Rothbard go wrong? Note that in the entire piece, Rothbard only mentions rights a few times: first, to argue against civil rights for minorities, and second, to defend “property rights” against taxation. Inalienable human rights do not seem to be the focus at all, and the few mentions of rights are not applied equally to all human beings. Rothbard seems to only invoke them when he benefits. For instance, when advocating for “America First”, Rothbard doesn’t argue in favor of isolationism because he’s against wartime atrocities. He couldn’t care less about that. Instead, it’s because he believes that foreign aid and foreign involvement take his money.
Nowhere is Rothbard’s lack of concern for human rights and basic dignity more apparent than part 5 of the populist program, “Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums.”
“Again: unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares? Hopefully, they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.”
Will the unleashed cops treat the homeless with basic respect? Will the police be able to harm them with impunity? Who knows? Who cares?
For a supposed anarchist, Rothbard is naively trusting of government power. In fact, he makes this distinction explicit. Unlike other libertarians, he proudly rejects the idea that “all government-operated resources must be cesspools.” If we’re unable to get rid of government, he explains, we might as well try to use its coercion to our advantage, giving the example of allowing prayer in public schools.
What Defines Libertarianism: Limited Government or Human Rights?
It’s obvious from Rothbard’s lack of concern for the rights of the homeless, suspected criminals, foreigners, minorities, etc., that being for limited government doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in favor of human rights.
This is confusing, because if you believe that power corrupts (as I do), you’re naturally against giving power to an unaccountable government full of flawed and ambitious people. Furthermore, because government currently places real restrictions on people’s lives such as excessive occupation licensing and zoning laws, freedom requires that these restrictions be lifted. In other words, if the power of the people is be expanded, the power of the government must be reduced.
I believe there are two separate groups, who both call themselves libertarians, and who both use the same keywords of liberty and freedom, and limited government.
Let’s call the group on the left “Human Rights Libertarians” and the group on the right “Don’t Tread on Me Libertarians.” These really are two separate groups - the ones on the left of the diagram aren’t merely cloaking themselves in the language of inalienable human rights. For instance, one of the best reporters when it comes to police brutality is Radley Balko, author of the book Rise of the Warrior Cop, opinion blogger at the Washington Post, and Media Fellow at the Cato Institute.
Another example of “Human Rights Libertarians” is the Free Thoughts podcast, also a product of the Cato Institute. (Note that it’s not a coincidence that the Cato Institute is smeared in Rothbard’s piece). The podcast brings on a variety of top scholars, philosophers, historians, economists, and public policy experts, all towards protecting human rights and allowing for human beings to flourish.
Bleeding Heart Libertarians is yet another group of human rights-focused libertarians, who are “libertarians who believe that addressing the needs of the economically vulnerable by remedying injustice, engaging in benevolence, fostering mutual aid, and encouraging the flourishing of free markets is both practically and morally important.”
My favorite group that I’d categorize as “Human Rights Libertarians” is Rehumanize International. They describe themselves as a “non-profit human rights organization dedicated to creating a culture of peace and life and in so doing, to bring an end to all aggressive violence against humanity through education, discourse, and action. We want to ensure that each and every human being’s life is respected, valued, and protected. As such, we oppose all forms of aggressive violence, including but not limited to: abortion, unjust war, capital punishment, euthanasia, torture, embryonic stem cell research, suicide, abuse, [and] human trafficking.”
In terms of politicians, Representative Justin Amash is pretty much the only Human Rights Libertarian, becoming the “only Republican in the House to vote against Kate’s Law, a bill that would increase maximum penalties for criminals who have entered the U.S. illegally more than once.”. He did so because he believed it violated “Fifth Amendment due process to some criminal defendants.”
So What Can We Do?
We can rebrand, as Bleeding Heart Libertarianism has. But we can also make use of the right to freedom of association and refuse to make coalitions with racists and other hateful people. If we are libertarians because we believe in inalienable human rights, there’s no possible coalition with right-wing populists based on limited government. That’d be like deciding to work with the Nazis because they were anti-smoking. For a possible small and momentary gain, we’d be betraying our core beliefs. And judging by Rothbard, it seems as though many people already have.