“I like it. A lot of good things,” said Donald Trump, describing libertarianism in late 2015. I’m skeptical if President Trump, then or now, could give even a basic definition of the liberty philosophy. But despite that ignorance, I believe Trump has paved the way to make the Republican Party more libertarian.
At a cursory glance, that seems a ludicrous proposition. Between the increase in drone strikes, the tariffs, the empowerment of ICE, the belligerent tweets, as just a handful of examples among an apparent never-ending list of statist abuses and outright evil, how has Donald Trump benefited libertarians in any way? He singlehandedly destroyed previously untouchable third rails of the Republican Party platform.
I have been an active College Republican for the previous four years. For even longer I’ve been a dedicated libertarian in the Rothbardian tradition. Needless to say, this has created the occasional tension and difference of opinion with my peers. My freshman year, after intense lobbying, I convinced the club to choose “the legacy of George W. Bush” as the weekly discussion topic. For over thirty minutes I argued alone against 15 fellow Republicans. I condensed as best I could every sin of that presidency, every breach of conservative (and moral) principle. And I got nowhere. I was rebuffed with continuous “If it wasn’t for him it would have been worse,” “I disagree” with no follow-up argument against flat fact, and of course “He’s a good person.”
That was in late 2014. Let me tell you, today I would not be arguing from my side alone. My group has doubled in size, old members graduated, new members joined, but the real difference has been the introduction of Trump. “I wanna tell you: they lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none, and they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction,” proclaimed Donald Trump, jabbing at an uncomfortably smiling Jeb Bush on a Republican debate stage. “All the guy wants to do is kill people and go to war and kill people even though he knows it’s not working although he doesn’t know because he’s not smart enough,” shouted Trump at a campaign rally, describing arch neoconservative Bill Kristol. Kristol, the amalgamation of every evil in the Republican Party, repudiated as a warmonger by the winning Republican presidential nominee. How many people thought they’d ever see that day?
When I argue with my more mainstream Republican friends, as I do every week, a new phrase has entered my vocabulary: “I agree with the President.” We were lied into Iraq, we should improve our relations with Russia, we should pull out of Afghanistan, and Obama is responsible for supporting Islamic terrorists in Syria. Those are all points that can follow the former statement. In this circumstance, it’s easy to say that such an appeal to authority is not a real argument. But it is a very convincing rhetorical tactic.
There has been a shift in the Republican Party. Among conservatives I interact with, few will openly defend George Bush, those who know Bill Kristol openly mock him as a liberal tool, and they rousingly cheer the phrases “Drain the Swamp” and “America First.” Like libertarianism, I’m sure Trump is wholly ignorant of the America First Committee and the proud history his adopted phrase carries. But the fact that he’s breathed life into a two-word phrase with an antiwar tradition that is easily explained as a national interest driven, noninterventionist foreign policy is the greatest gift a libertarian debater could receive.
This is precisely what radio host and Libertarian Institute Managing Director Scott Horton has elucidated as the Horton Strategy. You must attack the right from the right and the left from the left. On foreign policy, I’ve moderated several of my friends from the extremes of interventionism. I’ve done that by being righter than right, a committed America Firster, and I could not have made that progress with them without Donald Trump.
We are still in Afghanistan. We are still nearly $21 trillion in debt. We are still combating a growing police state. Donald Trump has not implemented libertarian solutions, and it’s unlikely he will. But he has given libertarians the rhetorical tools to try, and that should be recognized and appreciated.