Political pundits and ideologues of all sorts are possessed of a kind of double vision, a two-track perspective on the world that informs and modifies their worldview. This condition, which might normally be considered a disability, requires the strictest discipline, because it involves the ability to distinguish what one thinks will probably happen from what one passionately wants to happen.
For the ideologue, the integration of these two tracks into a single narrative is his life’s work. It’s the difference between a successful ideological entrepreneur and some crank handing out tattered leaflets on a street corner. It’s the difference between those who warned that the invasion of Iraq would end in a tragic disaster and Bill Kristol who said we’d win in “two months.” Elevating the playing field a bit, it’s the difference between Ludwig von Mises, who back in 1920 said socialism could not work, and the leading intellectuals of the time who claimed capitalism was doomed and the only question was what authoritarian system would replace it.
Among libertarians, the art of ideological entrepreneurship is virtually unknown, while the economic entrepreneur is lionized. One of the very few libertarians with a thorough understanding of both was Murray Rothbard, the economist and philosopher who founded the modern libertarian movement. Anyone can have an ideology: the point is to make it a living reality. All too many libertarians treat their worldview like a game: to be contemplated, and enjoyed, but never implemented. Rothbard had the exact opposite attitude: he was serious about ideas.
Which meant his two-track perspective was in fine working order: he knew what ought to be, and also knew enough to be able to distinguish it from what is.
Sometime in the mid-1970s, the billionaire Charles Koch, a devoted libertarian in those days, decided to fund the libertarian movement as it has never been funded before. An elaborate network of groups was set up, including the Cato Institute, but not before the principals involved – Koch, Rothbard, and a bevy of distinguished longtime libertarian scholars and activists – had discussed the strategic conception behind the project. They all wrote papers on different aspects of what a libertarian strategy for victory would require, and a series of private seminars took place, with Rothbard giving the main talk. Aside from delving into organizational issues, he took up the question of what kind of audience they were addressing.
Rothbard saw the conservatives, our old allies, as practically hopeless, given their fanatical pro-war orientation and obsession with the Soviet Union. For the current period, our audience, he concluded, was the liberal public, the type of person who reads the New York Times. All agreed with this orientation – but the comity didn’t last long.
As the Libertarian Party ran Edward H. Clark, a corporate lawyer, for President, Rothbard began to see the compromises this entailed, and was soon in open conflict with the campaign. Aside from that, something was stirring in Rothbard’s mighty brain, an intuition that the future did not belong to enthusiastic readers of the New York Times. In working with Rothbard in the LP, we had formed the “Radical Caucus,” which was mainly a parody of a left-wing grouplet but which Murray kindly saw as a valuable addition to the libertarian coalition: a “cadre” he could count on. And yet now Rothbard kept talking about how we needed a “Redneck Caucus”! Long before Donald Trump made his appeal to “the forgotten man” of radicalized Middle America, Rothbard had developed a strategic vision that envisioned a right-wing populist rebellion against precisely those New York Times-reading liberals who were supposed to be libertarians’ original audience.
When the Soviet Union fell, and the issue of communism was moot, Rothbard joined with a dissident faction of the conservatives to forge a new right-wing populist movement. The country, Rothbard realized, was in rebellion against the increasingly statist liberals, who had now become brazen militarists: Kosovo, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq – the post-cold war foreign policy of the left was barely distinguishable from that of the neoconservatives. Together the two factions united to drag us into Iraq and beyond.
Meanwhile, on the right, the power of the new right-wing populism was growing: “isolationist,” culturally conservative, distrustful of centralized power, and explicitly anti-elitist, this trend birthed the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. “America First” – the moniker of the biggest anti-interventionist movement in our history — was the common theme, and it all culminated in the Trumpian insurrection, which did what its predecessors could not: win the White House.
Rothbard was right: he saw the direction the country was going and he sought to put it to the advantage of our movement. In his historic speech to the John Randolph Club, he presciently pointed out that with Bolshevism gone the new enemy is Menshevism – the “soft” authoritarian globalism of the Davos crowd. A new movement, he predicted, would arise to defy and defeat the globalist elites – and we are seeing it today as it jumps the Atlantic and takes Britain, France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and rips the façade of stability off the pompous face of the EU.
There are several lessons here, and no space to explore them all, but one final point needs to be made.
Rothbard had broken with the right in the 1960s in a bitter split full of mutual recriminations. When the Vietnam era rolled around, he was embedded in the New Left, preaching libertarianism to the commies (and the sincere liberals). Further back, despite his “right-wing” views, he had supported Adlai Stevenson for President on the grounds that the Democrat wanted peace with the Soviet Union. So this turn toward right-wing populism was something he had to challenge himself with: he had to reexamine his previous assumptions and put them to the test. And he had to have the courage to change course and swim against the tide within his own libertarian movement.
This is the strategic orientation that guides me today. History, as they say, will absolve me. In the meantime, this is by way of an explanation to those of my readers who have questions about my view of Trump and the international situation in general.
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.