Trump and “Big Stick Libertarianism”

I made the joke once on Twitter that there had never been a “libertarian tyrant.” The joke here is that libertarianism generally favors “free people and free markets.” That is to say, less-restrictive government, individual liberty, and decreased regulations. It’s also a fair joke that if you put two self-avowed libertarians in a room, both will emerge ten minutes later swearing that the other person wasn’t a libertarian (hence the dilemma for a national Party based around individualism).

Tyranny, as opposed to liberty, is generally assumed in the modern context to be reflected in authoritarian forms of government. Without getting too far down the rabbit hole of “reductio ad Hitlerum,” it’s safe to assume that the best examples of “Statism,” or the modern form of autocracy, are found in the Nazi regime under Hitler and the Soviet regime under Stalin.

Let’s be clear at the outset that the goal of this piece isn’t to label anyone or any idea presented here as “fascist” or “like Hitler.” Too often in our political discourse, it’s easy to fall into the trap laid by one of history’s most wicked men and just assume that rhetorical similarity or echoes are tantamount to agreement. This is also not meant to “whistle past the graveyard” in terms of growing statist mentalities across the world. However, the “Hitler and Stalin” models of autocracy just don’t work in the information age. Both men, backed by their respective control of government, were able to be meticulous about media, appearance, and dissent. The question of “Could Hitler Have Risen to Power in the Age of Twitter” would be a fascinating research paper. However, that’s not the real point that we’re discussing.

In the first two-ish decades of the 21st century, the world has lurched towards globalism. This term is often used as a pejorative by “populists” or “nationalists” to indicate a loss of sovereignty or to infer a “shadowy cabal” influencing the way in which the new millennium unfolds. On the left, this is usually an accusation about multi-national corporations and military interests. On the right, this criticism is usually centered on socially progressive policies aimed at removing cultural identity. From both sides, the “goal” of globalism is control by the alleged wrongdoer. Obviously both sides venture into the weeds of conspiracy and poorly-sourced allegations. However, it’s generally impossible to deny that “globalism” is taking place.

“Globalism” in the way we’ll discuss it here, isn’t a conspiracy to take over the world, but rather the growth and development of technology and ideas that have led to the interconnectedness of people. I’ll always remember that the death of Osama Bin Laden wasn’t broken by a military press release, but rather by a tweet from a civilian in Pakistan complaining about helicopters roaring overhead.

Despite the concerns about loss of sovereignty or the myriad other issues that go into the critique of globalism, it’s impossible to deny that the world’s reliance on the internet and on social media has revolutionized the way in which we interact with our neighbors and with other nations. A case study is the recent Russian/separatist activity in Ukraine or the Civil War in Syria. Even as few as twenty-five years ago, press reports were the quickest way to get news out to people. Now, it’s as instantaneous as a “man on the street” taking a picture. The obvious downside of this connectivity is its exploitation to convince people of a political message, or to reinforce an existing belief.

Enter Donald Trump.

We’ve devoted a lot of writing here about the President-Elect and we will, no doubt, cover him more over the years of his Presidency. He, quite literally, changed the way the game is played.

Mr. Trump has succeeded in scaring both the institutional Democrats and Republicans with his, seemingly, ad hoc policy proposals and ideas. He has appointed Generals and CEOs to positions of prominence in his Administration and is clearly looking more to the people who have been influencing the “people in power” than the people in power themselves. Trump rode a wave of support on a message of economic populism and non-interventionism that seemed to be clear of Republican orthodoxy (at least as it’s developed over the past two decades).

Mr. Trump, at least as of the time of writing this piece, has also eschewed appointing members of the normal Republican intelligentsia to positions of prominence in his Administration. These folks, who some may call globalists, have been roundly attacking Mr. Trump’s apparent non-interventionist streak.

The reason why this analysis is so important at this juncture is to evaluate Mr. Trump’s relationship with the Russian Federation and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Trump made no secret of his desire to have better bilateral relations with Russia. This proposal drew heavy criticism from both the right and the left. From the right because it flies in the fact of the Cold War-era military-industrial complex under which many of the leading voices in the Republican Party came of age. From the left because Mr. Putin’s record on human rights and press freedom are reminiscent of the authoritarians of the 20th century.

These criticisms are compounded by, again as of the time of writing, anonymous sources that seem to infer that the Russian government may have had a hand in hacking and releasing controversial emails during the Presidential campaign and sought to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton. If true, the rationale on the part of Russia is actually fairly straightforward: Russia would prefer a President Trump to a President Clinton.. President Obama, and by association his first Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton, had a poor relationship with Russia over the course of Mr. Obama’s eight years in office. From the failed “reset” to the Administration’s sanctions over Russian activity in Ukraine and Crimea, relations between the White House and the Kremlin have been icy. The thought that Trump would be better than Clinton from a Russian perspective is not that difficult to imagine.

Mr. Trump, for his part, has espoused a totally new message with regard to foreign policy than almost any of his predecessors. One can assume that Mr. Trump’s aversion to foreign interventionism while pursuing lucrative bilateral trade agreements comes from his background as a CEO of a multinational company. While this sounds like the “free people, free trade” libertarian message from earlier, it also embodies some of the “tr-bigstick-cartoontick” diplomacy from progressive-era President Teddy Roosevelt.

The libertarian part of Trump’s plan, if it can be surmised from his public statements, looks something like this: build trust and cooperation with Russia and fight terrorists together, make American domestic policy more lucrative to business interests, negotiate mutually-beneficial bilateral trade agreements, oppose adventurism and military incursions abroad, avoid “nation building,” renegotiate defensive pacts where America bears the brunt of the cost, attempt to be a neutral arbiter (or at least make a show of it) to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and address China in terms of economics rather than military force.

In conjunction with Mr. Trump’s concerns about the monetary policy put forward by the Federal Reserve and his desire to audit and streamline military spending, the “Trumpian” core philosophy is more libertarian than most of his predecessors (at least since the early 20th century). Certainly the drama unfolding in the current news between Mr. Trump and America’s intelligence agencies seems to also underscore the idea that there may be a libertarian streak in Mr. Trump that would oppose expansion of the surveillance state.

This could be an issue of projection (basically, that because Mr. Trump has not defined his policy particulars, one can read-into his statements what the reader wants to see rather than what’s there). That is certainly a potential However, Trump’s decision to hire Generals and CEOs to be his closest advisors should be encouraging. While movies and media would depict military brass as being the most bellicose individuals, the Trump team looks to be cut from a more understanding cloth. Especially with the inclusion of General John Kelly, who lost a son in combat, at the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Trump has people around him who understand the real cost of war. Ditto, in a sense, with successful CEOs. While this may fuel the “globalist conspiracy” handwringing on the left, including people who understand the economic reality of policies and international affairs is reassuring.

However, it would be malpractice not to note the, highly non-libertarian, parts of Mr. Trump’s proposals. That is to say, the “big stick” part of the Trumpian agenda. Mr. Trump has proposed the threat of tariffs on imports, the use of overwhelming military force in certain circumstances, selective immigration, and use of enhanced interrogation techniques. The President-Elect has also been criticized for using the power of his office to influence the decisions by companies about whether to remain in the United States.

The foregoing shouldn’t be blindly accepted as criticisms. While they have been the critique of Mr. Trump from both the right and the left, they were popular proposals with many Americans. The issue is: how can Mr. Trump square his libertarian(ish) tendencies with the potential of authoritarian implementation?

(We’ll note here that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about “expanding libel laws,” banning flag burning, and other potential First Amendment violations is likely just that: rhetoric. Is it unwise rhetoric given the fact that is gives his enemies ammunition to play the “reductio ad Hitlerum” card? Sure. But, he’s President-Elect and he got there by doing things his way. If he does try to implement these reforms, the Supreme Court and the Congress would be united in preventing them from taking place. Though, we would have to revisit this article and its conclusions.)

The obvious conclusion would be to never have to use the authoritarian side of the coin and simply implement libertarian notions with the vague threat of reaction. Certainly the coercive use of “soft power” should be concerning. It’s the constant fear of the poker player: “what if they call your bluff.” The reality of the American Presidency needs to be that the United States is never bluffing. Hence the uproar over President Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” diplomacy in Crimea and Syria. While Mr. Obama should be justifiably condemned for giving an ultimatum in foreign affairs in the manner that he did, the failure to enforce the policy effectively eviscerated any respect that that United States had over the use of soft power.

Mr. Trump has seemed to embrace the policy100729_nixon_ap_218 stance occupied by President Richard Nixon. President Nixon wanted America’s enemies, and even our allies, to be afraid of what the United States, with Nixon in charge, might be capable of doing. President Nixon had at least been in Congress and been Vice President before he came into office; but not so for Mr. Trump. To the international observer, Mr. Trump is a wildcard. Despite his portrayal in some places as a buffoon, his rise to power has shaken perceptions of what the United States may or may not be capable of doing.

It’s our position that Mr. Trump should not engage in brinksmanship or the exercise of hard power unless it is absolutely necessary. For instance, the exercise of soft power in calling the President of Taiwan, and thereby sending a message to China that Mr. Trump would not be continuing the same hands-off approach of the past, is far superior to the exercise of hard power and slapping a higher import tariff on Chinese goods (or using the Treasury to take action against Chinese currency manipulation). Despite the shrieking of the Cold War-era hawks on the right, Mr. Trump should absolutely take a conciliatory tone with Russia. Of course it benefits Mr. Putin to have a friend in the White House, but it could also help to de-escalate many of the tensions around the world. Mr. Putin will obviously ask for a high price in return for thawing relations (probably the end to US-backed sanctions) but, cooperation between the two nations could lead to Moscow and Washington seeing better relations with Beijing rising.

It’s important to take the foreign policy decisions made by Mr. Trump over the next several years in the context of what the world will look like in 2100 and beyond (well after Mr. Trump and most of us are gone). A rapidly growing India and a stagnant China could provide the flashpoint for conflict. Certainly the center of the geopolitical concerns for the world will shift towards Asia. Likewise, cooperation between the United States and Russia on issues related to terrorism and incremental regime change in Iran could be beneficial to both nations.

Is this merely a rosy projection of a “big stick libertarian” Trump foreign policy? It certainly has all of those hallmarks, yes. However, we’ve noted some of the more dire concerns and it’s best not to wargame out what a trade war with China or a destabilization of America’s alliances would do to world affairs.

Right now, it is best to look ahead with a degree of optimism that the new Administration could increase some liberty around the globe.

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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