Rand Paul and the fizzling of America's "libertarian moment"

The experience of Rand Paul on the trail has a way of recapitulating the central conundrum of the libertarian movement, which is that its aspirational image is of the Silicon Valley tech millionaires, the Peter Thiel faction, the human beings on this planet most untroubled by the fast-arriving future, while much of its electoral base resides with those who want the modern world to leave them alone. This kind of dichotomy has often ensnared Paul: As soon as he entered national politics, pitched as the Republican Party’s best bet for racial outreach and reconciliation, it turned out that one of his aides had hosted a radio show as the “Southern Avenger.”

The question that the Times Magazine posed, in considering Paul, was whether libertarianism was ready to make the compromises needed for power. The simpler question it might have asked was, how many libertarians are there, after all? The quest for limited government has always been ideologically various — Second Amendment absolutists, suburban small businessmen, the religiously orthodox who are wary of secular intrusions. Many of these people can unite under the banner of extremely limited government, at least as a slogan of protest. But that doesn’t make them Paulists. The simplest fact about the libertarian moment may be that it was not specifically libertarian — that a more general outsider movement got called libertarian because libertarians were the outsiders of record. In this campaign so far, the outsider energy has been less theorized and specific — an anti-immigrant and anti-elite nationalism, the Trump cadres. In what had been billed as the libertarian heartland there seem to be very few pure libertarians around.

What the Paul campaign has inherited, then, is an unusually heavy task: to dispel the whole atmosphere of unreality that surrounds libertarianism.

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