For libertarians, the time for schadenfreude is past. Satisfying as it has been to watch Hillary Clinton’s fatuous hack brigade flail about trying to explain why the voting public failed to give their heroine her due, we should now be content to let her wander the woods and float through gatherings of fellow millionaires. Politically at least, she is now an ex-person.
In looking over the commentary produced since the election, I worry that many libertarians are both underestimating and misunderstanding the nature of the threat Trump poses. Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton would have been an awful president, rivaling and probably surpassing the past two administrations for overall harm to the nation. But: what we as a nation have elected instead is a very different proposition. Donald Trump has no core beliefs other than in his own all-encompassing competence, and he recognizes no authority other than the one beneath his gilded combover.
The sole hope coming out of the campaign was Trump’s sheer manic variability, which saw him contradicting himself not just from day to day, but sentence to sentence. It was possible—barely—to measure his egregiously awful statements on policing, trade, and civil liberties against others taking on bailed-out bankers and US military failures in the Middle East, and hope that there was a better side of his nature that might yet win out.
Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton would have been a horrid president, rivaling and probably surpassing the past two administrations for overall harm to the nation.
A month later, that fiction is no longer sustainable. Trump has made clear he will govern by drawing on the worst of both the establishment GOP and the fringier elements who have swarmed around his campaign: an unholy union first appearing in the naming of past RNC head Reince Preibus to be chief of staff, while placing Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon in the role of “chief counselor and White House strategist”—an equal position that is, crucially, not subject to congressional approval. In one stroke, Trump coopted the establishment, installing the empty-headed Preibus to repeat talking points at press briefings while leaving Bannon free to plot in the darkness. Further, the arrangement takes away another fleeting hope: Trump, who is fickle even by the standards of small children, is often swayed by the last person he talks to; Bannon will make sure that person is him.
In many Cabinet positions, Trump has selected nearly the worst conceivable candidate. Jeff Sessions will be a nightmare as Attorney General, instantly silencing the crucial conversation about policing, prisons, and communities that had, at long last, emerged in the past couple of years. Retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis (no, really) will be well positioned as Secretary of Defense to carry out the war with Iran that neocons have been lusting after for decades—especially with the megalomaniacal Michael Flynn as national security advisor, and John Bolton, the man more responsible than any other single person for lying us into the disastrous war in Iraq, as deputy secretary of state. Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin as the secretaries of commerce and the Treasury, respectively, make sure the Wall Street welfare crowd keeps multiple seats at the table. And that’s not even to mention the grossly incompetent Rick Perry at Energy (a position generally held by, you know, an actual scientist), the ill-suited Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, the hopelessly compromised Andrew Pudzer at Labor and Betsy DeVos at Education, and the rumored but not yet confirmed Larry Kudlow as White House economist—you remember, the guy who insisted there was no economic bubble in 2008, right at the exact moment of its popping.
Trump, who is fickle even by the standards of small children, is often swayed by the last person he talks to; Steve Bannon will make sure that person is him.
Before even entering office, Trump has already caused an international incident, taking a call from the president of Taiwan. Though it appears he was gulled into it by, among others, Bob Dole (a paid lobbyist for Taiwan now for years), it’s of a piece with Trump’s inexplicable need to provoke China. The world economy right now is a thin layer of trade stretched over an enormous gulf of debt; Trump’s Smoot-Hawleyesque tariff plans would be just the thing to turn the coming post-Obama recession into a new Depression—and, in China, he has a perfect scapegoat for why his own economic plans (which, to judge from the whole Carrier incident, involve personally picking winners and losers) won’t do anything to fix it.
Trade war with China is only one of the many scenarios that Trump could blunder into that would lead to global conflict—there’s the entire Middle East, obviously, with special reference to either Iran or Syria; there’s Kashmir and the perpetual threat of Indian-Pakistani nuclear war; there’s Ukraine and Turkey and the limits of NATO—so many Archdukes, and all it takes is one bullet. Trump’s Twitter feed reveals a man fundamentally incapable of patience, diplomacy, or measured contemplation, a man so thin-skinned he’d be translucent if it weren’t for the fake tan. If even the tiniest of trolls can get his dander up, how will he respond when actual substantive criticism comes? To what lengths will Trump go to assert his authority?
Within the structure of the federal government as presently constituted, there are no effective checks on his power to do so. President Hillary would have broken the law, and egregiously so, but as with her emails she would have recognized that what she was doing was wrong and made an incompetent effort to cover it up. Trump’s illegal acts will occur in the open, as they have for decades; he will dare anyone to stop him, knowing that once he’s in power there really isn’t anyone who will.
The Democrats won’t: as they’ve proven time and again, they love power too much to allow it to dissipate. Obama had the chance to dismantle the post-9/11 security and surveillance state; he chose instead to ramp up both, prosecuting whistleblowers and leakers with a ferocity never before seen while wasting all his political capital on the narcissistic quest to get an already-disintegrating health plan passed. The 2020 hopefuls—be it odious busybody Elizabeth Warren, discount-store Obama knockoff Cory Booker, nepotism case-study Andrew Cuomo, or any other—will want to preserve whatever they can of the imperial presidency out of the belief, growing inexplicably stronger each time it is shown to be misguided, that they can fix everything on their next Oval Office turn.
Within the structure of the federal government as presently constituted, there are no effective checks on Trump's power to assert his authority.
The Republicans won’t either: for all the supposed “Never Trump” energy, they’ve all more or less fallen into line, accepting their ritual humiliations as the price for pushing their own agendas—just look at how Mike Pence flipped his economic views basically overnight once he saw the chance to take his social pathologies to a bigger stage. Even Paul Ryan, who remains near to power and could at least see principles on a clear day, has muted his opposition. The few exceptions, such as Sen. Rand Paul (who says he will lead the fight against Bolton) and Rep. Justin Amash, are isolated and ripe for the purge. It’s Trump’s party now.
And, of course, the establishment media won’t: as shown by their profiles of intellectual lightweights like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, all their supposed resistance will go out the door the second that fascism slicks back its hair and dons an off-the-rack suit. The media prizes respectability and access above any other principle; watch in the coming months how much attention CNN and the networks give to Trump’s lack of briefings and press conferences, versus how much they cover the deployment of the planned DHS police state, or the surveillance of Muslim communities.
Who, then? It doesn’t leave much, but it does leave us—as well as some groups that we might not be accustomed to pairing up with, but will have to if we’re going to survive this administration. Charts and statistics and lectures about sound economic theory didn’t cut it during the campaign, and they won’t cut it after the inauguration, either. We will need to remember how to protest; we will need to learn how to organize—not just in the comfort of our homes, or in the safe spaces of digital discussion, but in the streets and, if it comes to it, on the ramparts as well.
There is a tremendous opportunity here: if libertarians not only stick to their principles but demonstrate them at every turn, there is the chance to prove that libertarianism is not about protecting the powerful and the authorities, but rather providing the powerless the authority to live their own lives as they see fit. But balanced against this is an equally terrible prospect: if libertarians fail, either by cooption or purity testing or internecine squabbling, they will be subsumed—and there will be no coming back.