Libertarians in the age of Trump

Just a little while ago journalists were talking about a “libertarian moment” in American politics, with Rand Paul as its avatar — an entitlement-cutting, prison-reforming, drug-legalizing, intervention-opposing, drone-strike-filibustering politics that was supposed to build bridges between Republicans and millennials. But then Paul, like other Republicans, was steamrolled by Trumpism in 2016. So what exactly happened to his moment?

One answer is that the libertarian spirit was overextended and vulnerable to a backlash. Confident free-traders underestimated how much outsourcing had cost the Western working class. Entitlement reformers overestimated the political practicality of their proposals. Cultural laissez-faire weakened social solidarity, with opioid-driven disintegration the starkest symptom of decay. And the rise of ISIS transmuted the post-Iraq anti-interventionist impulse into a “raise the drawbridge” style of politics, with the libertarian aspect drained away.

In this account Trumpism, with its tariffs and walls and family-separating cruelties, is simply a rejection of the politics of liberty, an anti-libertarian moment. But there’s also a different story, in which Trump didn’t as much defeat Rand Paul’s worldview as co-opt its more effective messages, while exploiting libertarianism’s tendency to devolve into purely interest-based appeals.