Authoritarians vs. Libertarians Is the Real Fight on the Right

Trump and Cruz are yuuge authoritarians. My libertarian side is losing. But there are clear signs that we’re not going down without a fight.

03.09.16 5:01 AM ET

Don’t be fooled: The real future of the Republican Party isn’t a struggle between GOP frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. It’s between authoritarians, who prize order and control über alles, and libertarians, who push for increased autonomy and freedom of choice in how to live, work, and thrive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since interviewing Edward Snowden in late February at The Free State Project’s Liberty Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire. Joining a crowd of 500 anarchists and libertarians via a Google hangout, the National Security Agency whistleblower—who is condemned equally by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican national-security hawks—stressed that the conventional right-left, conservative-liberal binary misses a larger truth.

“I do see sort of a clear distinction between people who have a larger faith in liberties and rights than they do in states and institutions,” said Snowden. “And this would be sort of the authoritarian/libertarian axis in the traditional sense. And I do think it’s clear that if you believe in the progressive liberal tradition, which is that people should have greater capability to act freely, to make their own choices, to enjoy a better and freer life over the progression of sort of human life, you’re going to be pushing away from that authoritarian axis at all times. Because authoritarianism is necessarily about the ordering and control of society. Now they can argue that that will produce a better quality of life, but it cannot be argued that it would provide a freer life.”

Trump and Cruz’s authoritarian tendencies are in clearest view when it comes to the issue of deporting undocumented immigrants. The case they make against undocumented immigrants is all about ordering and controlling society. Within minutes of his announcement for presidency, Trump made it his signature issue by notoriously equating Mexicans with rapists, drug dealers, and disease. The response among establishment conservatives at places such as National Review, which devoted a special issue in January to slagging The Donald, was that Trump’s insane call to deport all undocumented immigrants and then allow some of them to re-enter the United States after the border was secured amounts to “a poorly disguised amnesty.”

Cruz has gone even farther. He attacks Trump’s plan as weak (to use a word the billionaire is overly fond of). “The biggest difference,” Cruz told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly last month, “between Donald Trump and Marco Rubio and myself is that both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio would allow those 12 million people to become U.S. citizens… I will not.” When asked by O’Reilly whether a President Cruz would “round up 12 million illegal aliens,” the senator responded, “Yes, we should deport them… federal law requires that anyone here illegally who is apprehended should be deported.” When pressed by O’Reilly if that meant going door to door and workplace to workplace, searching for illegal immigrants all over the country, Cruz said, “Of course you would, that’s what ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] exists for.”

Both Trump and Cruz emphasize the role of “following the law” as a main justification for rounding up undocumented immigrants, who in reality neither “steal” jobs from native-born Americans nor lower our wages. Undocumented immigrants also cause less crime than people born here. Invoking “the law” as a motivating factor for a policy that would radically empower the federal government to bust into every aspect of daily life is authoritarian thinking in action. Especially when it’s coming from candidates who otherwise vilify the federal government as inept, inefficient, and incompetent.

Since Rand Paul’s presidential run fizzled, there hasn’t been anything remotely approaching a libertarian voice on the GOP debate stage or a libertarian choice for primary and caucus voters. The senator’s failure to launch led to any number of understandable and yet erroneous grave-pissings about how libertarianism died with Paul’s withdrawal. Indeed, two of Paul’s congressional protégés, whom I spoke with at the recent International Students for Liberty Conference in Washington, suggest that the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, however clipped at the moment, is not going gentle into that good night.

Thomas Massie, who represents a district in northern Kentucky, grants that when it comes to the 2016 election, “I don’t think there is a good outcome” possible given the candidates remaining. He bristles as much at the idea that Trump, Cruz, or even Rubio will be a candidate for president as the notion that Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton will be on the ballot.

Yet Massie, a patent-holding MIT engineering grad who built a 3D-imaging company before running for office, is bullish on privacy protections that would prevent the government from forcing Apple to unlock its iPhones and tech makers to create “backdoors” for federal spooks. He also says that every election cycle brings “12 to 20” newly elected people to Washington who are serious about reducing the size, scope, and spending of the federal government. One of his missions is to figure out how to keep them “from getting whipped into voting for things they never intended to vote for.”

Justin Amash represents Gerald Ford’s old district in Michigan and is a leading member of the House’s Freedom Caucus, which spends as much of its energy battling the GOP establishment as it does anything coming out of Barack Obama’s White House or from congressional Democrats. Amash says that Trump “presents a kind of threat to our system that is maybe in some ways bigger than what the Democrats present.”

Trained as a lawyer, Amash says that Trump “cares about power, he doesn’t really care about things like the Constitution.” Like Massie, Amash was all in for Rand Paul originally and he too believes that there’s enough bipartisan support for strong encryption legislation. Unlike Massie, Amash has endorsed Ted Cruz as someone he can “persuade.” While his endorsement letter spelled out all the ways in which Cruz is no libertarian, Amash says that Alberta Ted is at least “a constitutionalist, a constitutional conservative,” and “a person I can work with and a person I can persuade.”

There are other libertarianish forces at work within the Republican Party that are pushing back against authoritarian tendencies (which inevitably attach themselves to the presidency). Mike Lee, the Utah senator who was one of Rand Paul’s wingmen during his 2013 filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA, has started the Article I Project, which seeks to restrain presidential power and return primacy of policy-making to Congress. Lee’s gesture isn’t simply a partisan attack on a Democratic White House masquerading as a principled commitment to the separation of powers. Lee has lambasted both Cruz and Rubio for flip-flopping on criminal justice reform and opposing privacy and encryption standards. He’s joined in the Article I Project by characters such as Arizona’s pro-immigration Sen. Jeff Flake.

Flake, who calls himself “an unapologetic member of the Gang of Eight,” for years has pushed for an actual budget process with votes on individual spending bills as one way to decentralize power. “This is not just a partisan issue,” Flake told The New York Times. “There is an accumulation of power in the executive branch that is unprecedented.”

That libertarian critique won’t go away even if a Republican manages to win the White House. Indeed, a GOP victory might even embolden the House Freedom Caucus, which continues to push for net spending cuts, and Article I Project senators to force the Party of Lincoln to get serious about living up to its small-government, pro-individual liberty rhetoric. They’ll find support, too, in the latest Gallup Governance Survey which sorts the electorate into one of four categories—conservative, liberal, populist, and libertarian—based on responses to questions about government “trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” and whether you think “government should not favor any particular set of values.” For the first time, libertarians ranked highest, at 27 percent. Conservatives came in next (26 percent), followed by liberals (23 percent), and populists (15 percent).

That may not be enough to sanction Edward Snowden’s optimistic take on the rise of freedom around the globe. In the New Hampshire interview, he flatly declared, “The individual is more powerful today than they ever have been in the past.” But the pushback against authoritarianism within the Republican Party and the rise of libertarian sentiments among the American public at large should give aid and comfort to those of us who want to live in a country and world in which all of us “have greater capability to act freely, to make their own choices, to enjoy a better and freer life.”