In the 2008 and 2012 elections, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul emerged as the grassroots hero for libertarian ideas. He was wildly popular online, winning nearly every poll that had his name thanks to rabid youth support, and set daily fundraising records in the form of “money bombs.” Liberals embraced him as the one sane Republican for his non-interventionist foreign policy and staunch defense of civil liberties and while Republicans liked his views on limited government, he was routinely asked why he was running in their party.
Despite the enthusiasm of his supporters, Paul only received 5% of the primary votes in 2008. His criticism of the Iraq War and the growth of surveillance that made him popular in some circles, ultimately proved too much for many Republicans to swallow while Bush was still in office. But then something happened – the global financial system imploded. The bank bailouts, auto bailouts, and stimulus packages that followed resulted in backlash from the right and the left in the forms of The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. With the Democrats controlling the White House and at least one chamber of Congress, the right also became much more distrustful and resentful of government in general. While conservatives praised strong government under Bush, they took a particularly virulent anti-government stance under Obama. The number of state militias drastically increased, the Tea Party was branded as a libertarian movement, and Republican talking heads called the movement the future of the party.
That showed in the 2012 election. While Paul again did not win, he picked up 11% of the vote, doubling his previous performance and setting the stage for his son, Rand, in 2016. Rand took the libertarian standard from his father and made some strong early showings, railing against the country’s targeted assassination program, surveillance authority, and reliance on drones. These gestures put him at the top of polls for the GOP nomination in 2013 and 2014.
It didn’t last. When Rand dropped out of the race in February 2016, he was polling near 3%. How was it that the son of the libertarian stalwart of the past two elections not only didn’t build on his father’s momentum, but polled far below him?
There are a few explanations that might work here. First is that there were simply more GOP candidates (17 at one point) so Paul’s vote share was naturally diluted. Second, Rand Paul ran away from earlier libertarian stances in hopes that his campaign might appeal to a broader base, costing him his core supporters. Third, Ron Paul supporters also liked Tea Party darling Ted Cruz splitting his support between the two and even debating which of them should inherit Ron Paul’s support.
Each of these explanations can account for some lost support that ultimately ended his 2016 bid, but they can also all be explained by one other theory – there were no libertarians. Ron Paul’s supporters were not libertarians, there was no libertarian movement within the GOP, the Tea Party was not libertarian, and there are no libertarians voting in the GOP primaries this election.
Now, of course I’m being a bit facetious, out of millions of people there will be some libertarians in the GOP, but these numbers are so much smaller than what the standard narrative says that they’re practically insignificant. That’s also not to say there aren’t real libertarians out there. There is a libertarian party in the country. In 2008, they received 0.5% of the vote and in 2012, they, like Paul, doubled that to receive 1%. However, that may be more because they ran a more likable and well-known candidate, Gary Johnson, instead of an older, more crotchety, and scarily Southern Bob Barr. I’m arguing that that 1% is a much more accurate representation of actual ideological libertarians in the country instead of the 10-15% that polls often show. Let’s break it down.
People identifying as libertarian are not really libertarian. A Pew survey from 2014 found that “there are still many Americans who do not have a clear sense of what ‘libertarian’ means, and… [their views] do not differ much from those of the overall public.” In the survey, 14% described themselves as libertarian, yet only 11% both identified and were able to correctly define the term given multiple choices. However, of this 11% their views were only “modestly more supportive of some libertarian positions [and] few of them hold consistent libertarian opinions.”
Also, holding some libertarian positions doesn’t make you a libertarian. Most libertarian issues are covered by one of the two parties. Want less taxes? GOP is there for you. Want gay marriage? Look to the Democrats. Being a libertarian means being ideologically consistent on your reason for holding both those positions – you want less government. You wouldn’t call someone holding consistent libertarian positions a conservative because half of their positions align with conservatism.
The Tea Party is not libertarian. This statement should easily follow if even self-described libertarians aren’t really libertarian. And it’s also backed by surveys. In 2013, The Public Religion Research Institute found that 61% of libertarians (determined by asking positions on a number of issues) did not identify with the Tea Party. The report found that libertarians were more likely to support Rand Paul while Tea Partiers were more likely to support Ted Cruz.
It would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the PRRI study also found that 7% of Americans held consistently libertarian views. This seems somewhat high though. A 2012 Gallup poll found that only 4% hold both socially liberal and fiscally conservative views and the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has measure libertarians to be 2-4% of the population.
The Tea Party wave in 2010 also exposed the illibertarianism of the movement once elected. Anti-abortion issues became a top priority instead of shrinking the federal government, the exact opposite of a truly libertarian position. The Atlantic picked up on this in 2010 noting that Tea Partiers were well to the right of the average American on social issues. And if the Tea Party is socially conservative and fiscally conservative then they’re really just conservatives. Ultimately, the movement was nothing more than a re-branding of the GOP after their public image was tarnished under Bush. The goals and ideology were the same, but the tactics and rhetoric was different.
The “libertarian” support went to the most authoritarian candidate. Before Trump entered the GOP primary race in June 2015, Rand Paul was polling around 9%, not in first place, but in a position you would expect in an already-crowded field. After Trump entered, Paul’s support fell to 3% within months. And while Trump seemed to pull support from nearly every candidate, Rand Paul was one of the hardest hit. That’s because Ron Paul’s former supporters started flocking to Trump. Not only are a lot of Ron Paul fans now supporting Trump, but even dedicated people within the campaign have endorsed him. Even conspiracy goofball Alex Jones, an enthusiastic and longtime Paul supporter appears to be a Trump fan based on an off-the-walls interview in December.
On the surface this seems nearly nonsensical. Trump is nowhere near a libertarian; in fact, his supporters tend to be more authoritarian than the average GOP primary voter. The Pauls have also both been highly critical of Trump. Ron Paul has said that he would absolutely not support Trump as the nominee. Rand Paul, with political aspirations still on the horizon, only recently came out to say that he would support whoever is the GOP nominee.
Libertarian writers and commenters have also come out strongly against Trump. One columnist for The Daily Beast even argues that Sanders, the self-described Democratic Socialist, is the best libertarian choice after Rand’s departure. His argument is that the only things Sanders could realistically accomplish would be libertarian proposals, and given the five candidates currently left, he’s probably right.
So who were Ron Paul’s supporters if not libertarians? Well some were libertarians, Rand Paul did drop out with 3% support. The rest were really just using libertarian as a label to reflect anger at the government or system. That’s not something unique to conservatives either. Many self-described libertarians under Bush converted to liberals once Obama got elected. Comedian Bill Maher also described himself as a libertarian, yet in 2013 railed against the movement. And this all appears to be natural – a Gallup survey showed that views of government flipped depending on which party was in power.
But Ron Paul did more than capture people who were just dressing up their usual partisanship in more ideologically pure terms, he carried a populist message. A libertarian website argues that:
Ron Paul managed to enlist thousands of new libertarians during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns by successfully applying two populist messages: “End the Fed” and “Get out of the Middle East.” Both messages appealed across ideological lines, and both messages captured the prevailing mood of the country.
Obviously I dispute that those thousands enlisted actually qualify as libertarians, but otherwise the author is correct. Paul tapped into people’s anger and frustration. In the GOP debates he was clearly the odd man out and had easily distinguishable views. Trump has now taken over that roll. And while one report found that Trump supporters were more authoritarian, a separate study rejected that hypothesis in favor of Trump supporters being more populist.
That also explains why Rand lost out to Trump so quickly. His former supporters were hoping for that populist spirit of his father. Someone to stand at a podium and shout that they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. The younger Paul was instead too measured, too professorial, and without any clear populist message (even though he tried).
The libertarian movement under Paul was simply a mirage, a brief support of an ideology because it came in the form of populism. And now Trump has channeled and expanded that populism by using a less intellectual message. The same study showing Trump supporters as populist also shows them as anti-elitist and less likely to trust experts. Paul’s intellectually-based libertarianism was never amenable to these types of attitudes. Libertarianism comes with its own intellectual foundation from Austrian economics to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. With Paul’s populism you would still have to replace one expert for another, one elite philosophy for another. With Trump there was no background reading needed, no commitment to philosophical principles, and no need to listen to anyone besides Trump himself.
Many pundits looked at Ron and Rand and thought that this election would be the year when libertarianism took off. They saw their movement growing and figured now was the time for it to go mainstream. They were right, but they mistook a populist movement for a libertarian one.