For students of political strategy, the 2016 presidential race was a remarkable and informative election. This is especially true for grassroots libertarians who want to learn how to build an electoral coalition capable of winning national elections. It shows why libertarian populism must be the way forward for activists interested in advancing the liberty movement.
Donald Trump – or should I say President Trump – accomplished something incredible: he methodically took down sixteen of the Republican Party’s best candidates in the primaries and then annihilated Hillary Clinton in an electoral landslide, holding on to traditional red states while winning states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that establishment Republicans could never even dream of winning. What made his victory even more amazing was that Trump managed to win these traditionally deep blue states despite being viciously attacked around the clock by the mainstream media, Democratic Party, and neoconservatives (who de facto are the Republican establishment).
Trump accomplished all of this while turning the traditional political strategy of beltway elites on its head. Instead of abandoning his core campaign promises after the primaries and moving to the center – or, as beltway elites like to frame it, “triangulating” between his base and moderates – Trump took and then stood by hardline stances on issues like immigration, gun rights, tax cuts, and deregulation. On other hot-button issues, like abortion, he defied political convention even more when he moved further to the right the closer he got to the general election.
While Trump was undoubtedly the most successful insurgent candidate of 2016, he wasn’t the only anti-establishment Republican to enjoy success. Neoconservatives like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich – all candidates who were treated like top-tier contenders by the mainstream media and the political class in the early stages of the presidential race – failed to collectively garner more than a third of the vote in the primaries. This was because, in addition to Trump, another radically anti-establishment Republican, Senator Ted Cruz, dominated these supposedly respectable establishment Republicans throughout the primary process.
Meanwhile, the man whom much of the liberty movement placed their hopes on – Senator Rand Paul – abandoned much of the radical libertarian platform that his father, Dr. Ron Paul, ran on four years earlier. For example, instead of advocating for abolishing the income tax and ending the Federal Reserve, like his father did, Sen. Paul was content with calling for a 14.5% flat income tax and a mere audit of the Federal Reserve.
Many beltway libertarians thought that this abandonment of libertarian principle, combined with Sen. Paul staffing many of the top positions on his presidential campaign with establishment consultants like Chip Englander and Chris LaCivita, would make Rand Paul’s campaign appear respectable to the mainstream media, the Republican establishment, and high-dollar donors. This, they had hoped, would improve Sen. Paul’s electability.
But experience proved otherwise. Sen. Paul’s supposedly respectable presidential campaign failed spectacularly in the first electoral contest of the presidential cycle, the Iowa caucus: Rand Paul garnered less than one-third of the vote that his radically libertarian father received in 2012 – just four years earlier.
So what happened? Why did Donald Trump – and to a lesser extent Ted Cruz – do so well while neoconservative candidates and the self-described “libertarianish” Rand Paul crash and burn? All libertarians who genuinely want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past must also ask themselves: why did Rand Paul perform so miserably compared to his father?
Despite their different ideologies, there is a similarity that Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Dr. Ron Paul all share with each other but are absent from the neoconservatives’ and Sen. Rand Paul’s politics: populism.
What Is Populism?
Populism is a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites. Because of its inherent anti-elitist attitude, populism is often confused with left-wing egalitarian movements – but this is not a necessary relationship. Populism can be used just as well by nationalists to displace globalist elites, or by Christians to displace atheist or secular elites, or by free-market capitalists to displace bureaucratic or socialist elites.
What distinguishes populism from other political strategies can be broken down to:
- Messaging: the central message obviously has to revolve around the theme of populism – “the people versus the privileged elites”
- Strategy: put simply, the central strategy of populism is to bypass the ruling class – academia, mainstream media, and political establishment – in order to get the message out directly to the masses
- Tactics: in order to achieve the strategic goal of bypassing the ruling class, populist candidates and organizations must make use of grassroots organizing, events, digital communication (social media and email), and the alt-media to communicate directly with the masses
- Issues: the message of “the people vs. the elites” is closely adhered to on every single issue advocated; in addition to this, the policies advocated for must be sufficiently radical to inspire a core base of supporters who will passionately support the populist campaign/organization as donors and activists
Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ron Paul all had elements of this populist approach deeply ingrained in their campaigns. For example, Ted Cruz and Ron Paul both were widely lauded for their superb grassroots operations that mobilized volunteers to knock on millions of doors. Also, both Ron Paul and Donald Trump made use of large rallies and alt-media to communicate directly with thousands – sometimes tens of thousands of voters – at a time.
Crucially, despite their ideological differences, all three candidates synced their message with their issues. They all took radical positions on issues that were vociferously opposed by the ruling classes but garnered strong support from the grassroots, e.g. Ron Paul on taxes and monetary policy, Donald Trump on trade and immigration, and Ted Cruz on defunding Obamacare and religious liberty.
The Case for Libertarian Populism
Recent political history shows that Ron Paul’s libertarian populist campaign performed much better than Rand Paul’s presidential campaign not just electorally but also in terms of fundraising and number of new activists recruited. This, of course, is crucial to any movement’s long-term success.
More importantly, Ron Paul’s two presidential campaigns – which undoubtedly used libertarian populism as a successful tool – brought more people into the liberty movement than all other efforts combined. These other efforts pursued by the liberty movement can be boiled down to two alternatives to populism: Hayekian educationism and Fabian incrementalism.
Hayekian educationism, named after Friedrich Hayek’s theory of social change expounded in his essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” relies first on persuading a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas. Then, according to Hayek’s model, those intellectuals persuade a growing number of what Hayek calls “second-hand dealers in ideas” like journalists, teachers, and politicians to propagate their ideas among the general populace.
Fabian incrementalism, named after the Fabian socialists of late 19th century Britain, relies on a similar group of individuals – intellectuals, journalists, and policy wonks – to persuade government bureaucrats and politicians to adopt gradual changes in policy. This, performed consistently over a long period of time will, theoretically, lead to the adoption of long-term social changes that the reformers set out to achieve.
Fundamentally, these two approaches differ little from one another – which is why both of these approaches are often employed in tandem. The main difference between the two models of social change is simply who will be educated and persuaded – and in both models, there is little to no emphasis placed on political technology, grassroots organizing/mobilization, or electoral politics.
Both of these models of social change have been employed for decades in the United States by beltway organizations like the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, and others.
Students of political strategy will note that both Hayekian educationism and Fabian incrementalism worked well for the statist left – after all, these were the two dominant strategies utilized by the left for the bulk of the 20th century, which saw unchecked growth in government.
So why were these strategies successful for the statist left, but not for the anti-statist right?
The reasons for this are explained in detail in Murray Rothbard’s essays about political strategy in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, a newsletter that gained wide traction among grassroots conservatives and libertarians in the early 1990s. Rothbard argued in these essays that Hayekian educationism and Fabian incrementalism do not work well for the libertarian movement for one fundamental reason: both of these approaches rely on winning over the hearts-and-minds of the ruling classes, which will naturally oppose any ideology that threatens their power and way of life.
Instead, Rothbard saw political opportunity in the various populist movements of his time – the Buchananite paleoconservatives, the religious right, and the supporters of third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot. All three of these movements utilized populist strategy and tactics to bypass the mainstream media and academia in order to grow and become powerful political forces.
Notably, these movements shared many of libertarians’ concerns, including state-led social engineering, high taxes, reckless wars, and increasing centralization of power in both the federal government and transnational organizations like the United Nations. Rothbard saw no reason why libertarian activists couldn’t capitalize on these movements to roll back state power and establish their own lines of direct communication with the masses.
This anti-establishment right-wing sentiment is exactly what the Ron Paul campaign successfully capitalized on in his insurgent presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
The Potential for Populism Today
Today, in between the religious right, the Tea Party, and the Trump coalition, right-wing populist movements are stronger than ever before. Whatever misgivings some (mostly beltway) libertarians have about them, these movements are largely anti-statist in their nature. The religious right is now almost exclusively focused on fighting to retain at least some of their religious freedoms from the state’s extensive social engineering programs; the Tea Party is mostly concerned with high taxes, bailouts, and growing corruption; and members of the Trump coalition are concerned about forced integration of culturally-alien immigrants in their communities, endless wars and nation-building overseas, and the increased centralization of power in the United Nations.
More importantly, the means of directly communicating with the masses are more affordable than ever before. When Rothbard wrote his essays on libertarian political strategy in the early 1990s, the chief means of bypassing academia and the mainstream media were direct mail, grassroots organizing, and (in Perot’s case) late-night infomercials. Today, thanks to the digital revolution, populists can easily communicate with millions of people using email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other tools at a very low cost. These low-cost digital tools also led to the rise of the alt-media; online publications, shows, etc. by Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, and others who have audiences that range anywhere from the thousands to the millions – audiences that populist candidates and organizers can easily tap into. We’ve already seen Ron Paul and Donald Trump, for example, go on the Alex Jones show to communicate with his audience of millions.
These two factors – the rise of several strong populist right-wing movements and the digital revolution – mean that the potential for libertarian populism as a strategy is greater than ever before, especially for grassroots activists and organizers interested in making a serious difference in the political environment. Libertarian activists would be remiss to ignore this successful political strategy in favor of the failed strategies of the past.