What Went Wrong With Rand Paul?

A year ago, Trump was a joke and Paul was rising. But now that their fortunes have flipped, is it fair to say libertarianism is finally dead?

12.30.15 5:01 AM ET

So this is the year that libertarianism, a political philosophy advocating minimal government across the board and thus annoying as hell to both conservatives and liberals, finally up and died.

Not really, but that’s the new official story, at least as told by media types who have been prophesying the end of libertarianism for as long as they’ve been writing.

There’s a superficial plausibility to the charge, especially among those who confuse partisan politics with the real America. Among high-profile Democrats and Republicans, the constituency for more-open borders is zero and there’s nothing like Islamic terrorism in France and California to rev up the war machine and ignite bipartisan calls for encryption backdoors or a ban on secret communications altogether. After a few years of an unintended pause, our elected officials have even managed to put aside their differences and are once again cranking up spending.

But the main case that libertarianism is finally, finally, finally dead this time is the zombie walkabout that has been Rand Paul’s presidential campaign and the juggernaut that is Donald Trump’s. I think it’s a major category error to equate libertarianism with partisan politics, but for folks who believe the only important political question is who wins the presidency, the divergent fortunes of Trump and Paul tell the whole story.

There’s no doubt that Paul’s presidential campaign is on life support. What started out so promisingly as an unstoppable drive to the White House got a flat tire before it even left the parking lot. In February, Paul won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the third year running, cruising past Scott Walker (remember him?) and positively crushing Donald Trump by over 20 points. As recently as June, Paul was topping polls of Republican contenders! And yet just a couple of weeks ago, Paul was reduced to special pleading to even get on the main stage of the latest Republican debate. He’s now scraping by with Pataki-like numbers, even as his fellow senators, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, duke it out for what might come if and when Trump hits the skids.

What happened to Rand Paul? He has run a bad campaign, especially from an ideological perspective. Conservatives have never been especially fond of libertarian-leaning Republicans to begin with and Paul seemed eager to show time and again that he wasn’t, well, that libertarian. Sure, he had called the GOP “stale and moss-covered” and even reached out to ethnic minorities, but once he started aiming at the presidency, he’s rarely missed an opportunity to jump on every conservative outrage of the day: sanctuary cities, ebola quarantines, Planned Parenthood, the Iran deal, you name it.

The guy who counseled—at the war-crazy Heritage Foundation, no less—that the U.S. should give peace a chance overseas was suddenly talking about bombing the Middle East and waging war against ISIS and banning refugees and ending visas for people from countries with “a jihadist movement,” a term of art that covers essentially all of Europe these days. After this summer’s shooting in Chattanooga, he called for the sort of profiling program he had once rejected as intrusive and ineffective.

The result was that Paul went from being what Time called “the most interesting man in politics” to sounding like most of the other windbags running for the GOP nomination. He abandoned exactly what had brought him attention at exactly the wrong time. And by fixating on the 2016 presidential race, he may well be undercutting the long fight he needs to wage within the Republican Party to win hearts and minds to the cause of smaller government across the board.

Whether going full libertarian would have produced different results in today’s GOP is anybody’s guess—based on the years they controlled Congress and the White House, there’s no reason to believe that Republicans are actually interested in a government that does less and spends less—but there’s no question it would have made Paul’s campaign more interesting.

That still would likely not have been enough to counteract the emergence of Donald Trump, who has reshaped not just the Republican race in his own dumb image but that of the Democrats as well. It’s still staggering to remember that his notorious Mexicans are “bringing drugs…they’re bringing crime…they’re rapists” patter wasn’t a hot mic moment or an aside at a Bohemian Grove sketch but the centerpiece of his official campaign announcement.

Fast-forward six months and Trump is not just still kicking ass in Republican polls, he’s managed to push the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, into agreement on “closing that Internet up in some ways.” If Trump is Politifact’s liar of the year, he is already goading Clinton into telling her own whoppers.

No evidence for Hillary Clinton’s claim that ISIS is using videos of Donald Trump as recruiting tool,” reports Politifact, which rated Clinton’s charge as “false.” And as Trump himself can tell you, ISIS apparently is using Bill Clinton in videos.

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If the rise of Trump has dumbed down political discourse (which has a way of always getting worse somehow), it remains far from clear to me what any of this has to do with the death of libertarianism as a force in American life. The rise of ISIS and especially the beheading of two American freelance journalists in 2014 has reawakened war hysteria, but even now all of the leading presidential candidates are careful to emphasize they don’t want boots on the ground because there is no support for such actions.

Terrorism is freaking people out but confidence and trust in government, law enforcement, and virtually all other societal institutions are at historic lows, a confluence which bodes well for libertarian ideals of autonomy and DIY community building. The embrace of gay marriage and pot legalization, criminal justice reform (something which, to his immense credit, Rand Paul has been leading on), and school choice are not slackening and the past year has seen the beginning of pushback on all sorts of political correctness.

Rand Paul was “supposed to embody a new libertarian moment,” according to Politico’s obit from the fall. “But there never was one.” Such renderings miss what that “libertarian moment” was and still is all about (as the co-inventor of the term, I’m happy to pull rank on this).

It’s not about the White House, for sure, but about “comfort with and demand for increasingly individualized and personalized options and experiences in every aspect of our lives.” As Matt Welch and I argued in our book, The Declaration of Independents, politics is a lagging indicator of where America is headed. It will be the last area of our lives to be transformed, but you can already see the old order breaking down.

So regardless of whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or somebody else making plans to move into the White House this time next year—and regardless of Rand Paul’s thwarted presidential aspirations—I regret to inform you that the death of libertarianism has been greatly exaggerated.