In an editorial in the print edition of Reason, Matt Welch takes me to task for “celebrating” the candidacy of Donald Trump, who he calls a “false prophet of anti-interventionism.” Reason’s editor cites one of my more hopeful predictions about the beneficial consequences of the Trump Effect on American politics:
“’If Trump gets the Republican nomination the neocons are through as a viable political force on the Right,’ Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo enthused at the end of February. ‘And if Trump actually wins the White House, the military-industrial complex is finished, along with the globalists who dominate foreign policy circles in Washington.’"
Welch goes on to cite similar expressions of deep satisfaction at the sight of the neocons’ hysterical panic coming from former Reagan administration budget director David Stockman and my old friend Pat Buchanan. And he even professes to see how “it’s not hard to see how the paleo crowd wound up here,” pointing to Trump’s evisceration of the Brothers Bush and his delightfully true description of how George W. Bush and his neocon advisors lied us into war. And then there’s this:
“Foreign policy, militarism, and even tear-jerking paeans to politicians who govern during crises – in other words, about 90 percent of the content at the 2004 Republican National Convention – were no longer safe political spaces for the GOP. Donald Trump is taking a battering ram to one of the Republican Party’s core identities, and not a moment too soon.”
Welch continues making my case for me by pointing out that the GOP elite’s counterattack – an “open letter” from the same foreign policy “experts” who gave us the Iraq and Libyan disasters – was eminently unconvincing. “The jokes almost wrote themselves” chortles Welch “after the neoconservative commentator Max Boot told The New York Times, ‘I would sooner vote for Josef Stalin than I would vote for Donald Trump.’”
“So you could see why longtime critics of American empire were talking themselves into enthusiasm about the Trump phenomenon,” says Welch. But of course I didn’t have to talk myself into anything. Unburdened by the cultural prejudices that forbid modal libertarians from recognizing the virtues of someone with bright orange hair and a distaste for political correctness, I was ready for someone who – as Welch puts it – is “saying things about foreign policy that few Republicans dared previously to utter.”
And so after detailing all the perfectly valid reasons why one could conceivably root for Trump, Welch asks the obvious question: “What’s not to like?”
His answer is as follows:
“The same candidate being cheered on by anti-war commentators is an open advocate of committing more war crimes. He favors deliberately targeting the family members of suspected terrorists (‘I would be very, very firm with families,’ he vowed at the December 15 debate in Las Vegas).”
It’s not clear what Trump is saying here: does he mean going after the family members of the San Bernardino shooters? Or does he mean taking out Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s mother-in-law? If the former, this is a separate issue from the question of intervening abroad, as is Trump’s advocacy of expanding the use of torture. These issues are usually brought up in the context of “What would you do if a terrorist had planted a nuclear device somewhere in an American city?” Would we torture him in order to find out where it’s hidden? While I’m not prepared to launch into a disquisition on the proper libertarian position on this question, the issue has nothing to do with whether or not America should be the policeman of the world.
Welch writes that “Trump’s troops will not only be ‘defeating ISIS big league’ but also seizing its oil.” This is more problematic, but I’ll note that Trump also says he wouldn’t put troops on the ground, and that he’d force the Saudis and the Gulf emirates to take up that task under the threat of refusing to buy their oil. This sounds remarkably like Rand Paul’s position, minus the threat to boycott Riyadh – and yet we didn’t hear any objections from the Reason crowd when he gave voice to it. Why is that?
Describing Trump’s domestic program, Welch descends into hyperbole, declaring that the real estate mogul would erect “an unprecedented police state.” What will this dystopia look like? Well, there’s that idea of his that we can somehow deport 11 million illegal immigrants “and their 4 million or so legal children.” [Emphasis in original.] To begin with, that will never happen: the courts will stop it, and even if they didn’t the sheer costs would make the task impossible. Secondly, those “legal” children of illegal immigrants will never be deported either, but while we’re on the subject: as Ron Paul points out, the idea of “birthright citizenship” is by no means part of the libertarian canon.
Nor is the idea of open borders. Welch is appalled by The Donald’s declaration that we must have a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on.” To begin with, this is unenforceable: how can one know for certain whether or not a person trying to enter the United States is a Muslim? Wouldn’t a prospective terrorist simply lie? Not that this has stopped a certain “libertarian-ish” politician from keeping Muslims out: Rand Paul introduced a bill in Congress freezing refugee visas from countries where terrorism is rife. Welch is aghast that Trump calls Edward Snowden a “spy” and says “we should get him back,” but when Sen. Paul said – in an interview with Reason – that Snowden should be jailed for some length of time we didn’t hear a peep out of Reason’s editor.
Funny how that works.
What Welch concludes from all this – “Trump’s policies, then, are anything but anti-interventionist” – has got to be the nonsequiter of the year. Most of his objections to Trumpismo have nothing whatsoever to do with foreign policy: one can oppose open borders, think Muslims in the US are a threat, hold that Snowden is a “spy” and still advocate policies that represent a radical break from the bipartisan interventionist consensus.
Significantly, Welch doesn’t mention Trump’s declaration that we should “rethink” US participation in NATO, and withdraw US troops from South Korea and Japan. Trump’s statement – which appalled the foreign policy cognoscenti – that he sees no value in having US bases overseas also gets zero attention. This may be because Trump’s interviews with the New York Times and the Washington Post, where he unveiled this new heresy, hadn’t been published when Welch wrote his piece. Be that as it may, this only underscores how badly Welch underestimates the GOP frontrunner. The DC elites are making the same mistake, as policy analyst Rosa Brooks – no Trump fan, to be sure – points out in the latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine:
“In his inimitable way, Trump is offering a powerful challenge to many of the core assumptions of Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy elite. And if mainstream Democrats and Republicans want to counter Trump’s appeal, they need to get serious about explaining why his vision of the world isn’t appropriate – and they need to do so without merely falling back on tired clichés.
“The clichés roll easily off the tongue: U.S. alliances and partnerships are vital. NATO is a critical component of US security. Forward-deployed troops in Japan and South Korea are vital to assurance and deterrence. We need to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. And so on. How do we know these things? Because in Washington, everyone who’s anyone knows these things.
“But this is pure intellectual and ideological laziness. Without more specificity, these truisms of the Washington foreign-policy elite are just pablum. Why, exactly, does the United States need to keep troops in Japan, or Germany, or Kuwait? Would the sky really fall if the United States had fewer forward-deployed troops? What contingencies are we preparing for? Who and what are we deterring, and how do we know if it’s working? Who are we trying to reassure? What are the financial and opportunity costs? Do the defense treaties and overseas bases that emerged after World War II still serve US interests? Which interests? How? Does a US alliance with the Saudis truly offer more benefits than costs? What bad things would happen if we shifted course, taking a less compromising stance toward “allies” who don’t offer much in return?
“Questions like these are legitimate and important, and it’s rasonable for ordinary Americans to be dissatisfied by politicians and pundits who make no real effort to offer answers.”
Trump’s foreign policy platform would dismantle the post-World War II architecture so loving built up by the War Party and its congressional Myrmidons. This is why he’s made all the right enemies, and nothing in Welch’s litany of complaints contradicts my statement that Trump’s triumph would mark the end of the neocons as a viable political force on the Right. After all, Bill Kristol is calling for a third party (the Neocon Party?) and Max Boot is threatening to vote for Stalin (a pretty transparent place holder for Hillary). That Welch and the Reason crowd are jumping on the “Never Trump” bandwagon with these two tells us all we need to know about this controversy.
Welch avers that Trump cannot be trusted to carry out his ostensibly anti-interventionist program because “you can express the right instincts about foreign policy on the campaign trail, but if you walk into the presidency without much fluency in world affairs, aggressive interventionism is only one tragedy away.”
I’m unsure what “fluency” means in this context: it seems that those candidates with the most “fluency” – Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio – are all inveterate warmongers, while the supposedly not-so-fluent Trump seems like Mahtama Gandhi in comparison. And of course there is no guarantee that any President, no matter how “fluent,” won’t waltz into tragedy once in office. More importantly, however, Welch completely misses the point by harping on Trump as a candidate, as opposed to the debate his candidacy has generated.
I have never endorsed Trump – we here at Antiwar.com never endorse candidates – and I don’t plan on voting for him in the primary. As I’ve explained many times, I am rooting for him, which is quite different from giving his candidacy political support. I’m much less interested in him as a candidate than I am in his supporters, many of whom are sympathetic to the anti-interventionist views Antiwar.com is dedicated to advancing.
Our job here at Antiwar.com is to do outreach to constituencies that, for one reason or another, are open to the idea that America should not and cannot be the policeman of the world. To ignore – or, worse, deride – a candidate who is giving voice to this concept would be sheer stupidity. Such a candidate’s supporters may not be consistent in their beliefs: our job is to convince them.
I’ve gotten some complaints, quite similar to Welch’s, from other libertarians, who cannot understand why I am paying so much attention to Trump. That’s because they don’t understand Antiwar.com’s mission, which is to build a broad-based single issue anti-interventionist movement that can finally change American foreign policy in the only way it will be changed – from below. And in order to understand how we have gone about pursuing that mission, it’s necessary to review our history.
When this site was founded, in the mid 1990s, the main foreign policy issue was Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” interventions in the Balkans. Our task then was to debunk the rationale for this egregious war, which I did on a daily basis through the duration. This won us our earliest supporters among the Serbian-American community, as well as some people on the left and a growing number of conservatives (many of them supporters of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns) who realized that the fall of the Soviet Union meant it was time to end America’s role as global cop: it was they who made the first donations that gave us the resources to continue our work. (And we even made some of them into libertarians.)
When the Bush era arrived, and the Iraq war loomed large, we targeted our efforts on the left, which was suddenly awakened out of its torpor and discovering its antiwar roots. “Bush lied, people died!” they cried – and they flocked to Antiwar.com, swelling the ranks of our supporters.
Some of these people melted away after the 9/11 attacks, when even a contributing editor of Reason was saying “there are no true libertarians in times of terrorist attacks” – but we held fast, confident in the knowledge that the pendulum would eventually swing the other way. As the failure of the Iraq and Afghan wars became all too apparent, it was once again fashionable to be anti-interventionist, and we were back in style. When the Ron Paul campaigns awakened thousands of mostly young people to both anti-interventionism and libertarianism, we reached out to them, too, and our audience expanded.
And now a new mass movement inclined toward anti-interventionism is making its debut, with Donald Trump’s candidacy electrifying the country – and terrifying the War Party, which is pulling out all the the stops in an effort to halt his march on Cleveland. As I’ve pointed out above, his critique of our interventionist foreign policy represents a comprehensive challenge to the globalist perspective that has dominated both parties since the end of World War II. And,what’s more, millions of people are listening to him.
Just like we reached out to the Serbs, the post-cold war conservatives, the Buchanan brigades, the “Bush lied people died” crowd, and the Ron Paul movement, so we are trying to recruit Trump supporters to our cause. And I’ll be damned if I’ll miss what is a golden opportunity to reach a wide audience on account of the smug snobbery and abject conformism of the DC “libertarian” elites, who are blinded by their cultural prejudices and never cared about foreign policy or anti-interventionism to begin with.
Reason is a purely libertarian magazine: unlike Antiwar.com, it is explicitly championing a multi-issue agenda. We are have another perspective. Yes, we are libertarians, but with a difference: we believe that foreign policy is central to the libertarian canon, rather than just an add-on that gets mentioned every once in a while when convenient. We believe that we’ll never have a free and prosperous society in this country until, first of all, we rid ourselves of the albatross of empire. All the “free market” proselytizing in the world won’t achieve the goal of limiting government until and unless we rid ourselves of this financial and moral burden. As the great proto-libertarian polemicist Garet Garret put it at the dawn of the cold war:
“Between government in the republican meaning, that is, Constitutional, representative, limited government, on the one hand, and Empire on the other hand, there is mortal enmity. Either one must forbid the other or one will destroy the other. That we know. Yet never has the choice been put to a vote of the people.”
Well, now that this vital question is finally being put to a vote of the people – and the people are voting against the Empire – it would be criminal to disdain it. Indeed, this opportunity should be celebrated – and taken full advantage of by anti-interventionists of every stripe. And it looks like rank-and-file libertarians – as opposed to the Beltway variety, who pretend to speak in their name – are indeed celebrating the rise of Trump: a poll of North Carolina primary voters, with an astonishingly large sample of 4,000, shows that a stunning 51% of self-identified libertarian Republicans voted for Trump.
It looks like the DC crowd are generals without an army.
Perhaps libertarians in flyover country know something the would-be grand strategists of the movement just don’t get: that Trump is blasting away the sterile orthodoxies that gave us Mitt Romney and John McCain, paving the way for a more open GOP that would make room for the heirs of Ron Paul.
And here is an extra added attraction for libertarians: as the Establishment works day and night to steal the Republican nomination from Trump, using every trick in the book, the illusion that we live in a “democracy” where The People rule is being rapidly stripped away. So why shouldn’t libertarians cheer as the very legitimacy of our “democracy” is dispelled before the eyes of the American people?
If ever there was an opportunity to create the right conditions for a real Libertarian Moment, then the Trump campaign fits the bill to a tee.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.