As a lifelong libertarian, I've found presidential elections to be a largely meaningless exercise, a choice between tweedledee and tweedledum. Libertarianism is about protecting individual liberty and keeping state power in check. Neither Republicans nor Democrats do either consistently. So if I dragged myself to the polls, it was mainly because, as a naturalized American, I wanted to witness the quadrennial exercise in democracy-making of my adopted country.
Not this time.
This time my civic duty as a libertarian requires me to help defeat President Trump by casting my ballot for the only candidate who can defeat him: Joe Biden.
To be clear, Biden is no libertarian hero. He is a political opportunist. He portrays himself as a criminal justice reformer now, for example, but until recently he had been boasting that his name was on every civil liberties-busting crime bill since 1970. Worse, he picked as his running mate California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose hardnosed approach to law enforcement as Golden State's attorney general earned her the sobriquet "top cop."
By contrast, Trump, to his credit, passed First Step, a criminal justice reform bill that has resulted in shortening drug sentences for 4,000 offenders as well as advanced school choice, another issue on which Democrats have it truly backwards as far as libertarians are concerned.
Still, the libertarian case against Trump is so over-determined that it's hard to know where to begin.
Some of Trump's free market supporters claim that his tax cuts and deregulation have restored lost economic liberties. But he hasn't cut taxes so much as imposed them on future generations, given that his profligate spending has blown up the national debt to record levels. Indeed, Trump spent in four years what his predecessor spent in eight, and the latter's bill included the tab for the financial meltdown while Trump's trillions of dollars in COVID-19 relief don't even factor into his. The size of government is nearing a record high, notes Brookings Institute's Paul C. Light. "Despite campaign promises to the contrary, Trump opened the contract and grant spigots instead, adding more than two million jobs to the blended federal workforce, including one million in the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Health and Human Services alone," he maintains.
And it's not just Trump's profligacy that offends my libertarian sensibilities. He's an aggressive economic interventionist. Both he and Biden are protectionists, of course. But it's even worse in Trump's case given that he is the leader of the (allegedly) free trade party. President Bill Clinton relied on Republican support to buck special interest groups on his side to pass NAFTA and normalize trade relations with China, both accomplishments that Trump has thoroughly trashed. His trade apostasy has shifted the Overton Window, handing Democrats the license to become even more protectionist in the future.
And then there is Trump's need to pick economic winners and losers, something that used to be anathema in his party. If Biden wants to tax businesses to eradicate income inequality, Trump wants to command them to do their patriotic duty. He has jawboned American automakers that shuttered money-losing plants because he considered it an affront to his America First agenda. He showered taxpayer dollars on Foxconn, a Taiwanese manufacturer, to prod it to locate its manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin to create jobs that never materialized.
What about his much-vaunted deregulation? Whatever good he did early on has been wiped out by his hostility to trade and Big Tech. "Trump cuts, but Trump also adds," the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute declared.
But CEI didn't even take into account the worst aspect of Trump's regulatory overreach: His unprecedented assaults on immigration almost entirely by executive fiat and administrative means.
Biden, to his shame, opposed drivers licenses for unauthorized immigrants and stayed mum when President Obama ramped up deportations. But Trump's zero-tolerance border policies have resulted in unspeakable human rights abuses. Just recently news broke that the Department of Justice's top guns gave orders to separate kids from Central American migrant parents regardless of how young they are. Trump even reportedly considered "extreme action," such as shooting migrants in the legs.
And then there are his assaults on foreign professionals. He has just announced unprecedented and sweeping new restrictions on the H-1B visa program that will basically make it not just impossible for companies to hire new professionals but result in mass firings of those already in their employ. Courts might stop him for now but all bets are off if he gets re-elected. As libertarian writer Jacob Grier laments: "Under Trump, Americans are less free to trade with foreigners, and less free to work with them, hire them, and welcome them as our neighbors."
But Trump's policy record does not capture the true damage he's done to a libertarian vision for America.
In the libertarian schema, government is a necessary evil that is charged with doing two things that are in tension with each other: Making people respect each other's rights while keeping its own tyrannical tendencies in check. That's why, for example, the First Amendment not only guarantees a right to free speech without government interference but also gives individuals the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." But the task of preventing rights violations is much easier in a tolerant and harmonious society. That's why, once elected, leaders shy away from stoking tensions.
Trump launched his first campaign by playing on nativist sentiments and feeding Islamophobia. But his re-election has degenerated into outright racism. At a recent Minnesota rally, he complemented the predominantly white crowd on its "good genes" — and warned that Biden will turn the state into a "refugee capital," a cheap dig at the Somali refugees settled there. He has issued pro-forma condemnations of white supremacy in one breath and sanctioned it in another — retweeting "white power," calling the tiki-torch carrying white nationalists in Charlottesville "very fine people," and berating brown-skinned immigrants as hailing from "shithole countries" while musing why America can't get more from Denmark.
Trump has both intensified existing culture wars while opening new fronts, politicizing ever more aspects of our lives. He publicly demanded that the NFL fire black quarterback Colin Kaepernick for bending the knee to protest police brutality, inflaming the conversation about a vital issue as it was getting started. He ginned up controversies where none existed by, for example, taking digs at the Oscars for handing the Best Picture prize to a foreign film, as if the only criteria for judging art is if it serves his MAGA agenda.
Even something like mask wearing to stop the pandemic has become grist for Trump's culture wars. Under libertarian thinking, individual liberty presupposes personal responsibility. So a freedom-loving president would encourage voluntary mask use while pushing back on government mandates. Not this one. He proudly spurns mask use and encourages his followers to do the same.
Trump sees politics as war and so he has no political opponents, only enemies. That, combined with his obsession with strength, means he gets along better with brutal dictators abroad like Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong Un than his critics at home. Witness his refusal to even express shock at the plot to kidnap Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by armed militia.
Indeed, one of the cardinal sins under libertarianism is the initiation of force. Trump commits it on a daily basis with his glorification of both private and state violence. He has repeatedly encouraged his supporters to "beat the crap" out of protesters at his rallies. But even before he became president, he expressed admiration for the "vicious" and "horrible" tactics that China's Communist rulers used to crush the pro-freedom protesters at Tiananmen Square and lamented that America, by contrast, is perceived as "weak." Hence it was no surprise that this summer he deployed the military police to tear-gas peaceful protesters outside the White House to clear the way for his Bible photo-op.
But Trump's most dangerous trait by far is his open contempt for the institutions and norms of governance that check political power and hold it accountable. He has continued the tradition of usurping congressional authority to wage war abroad. He has attacked judges that rule against him and targeted the very idea of an independent judiciary. When a federal judge stayed his administration's new rules barring asylum applications, Trump condemned it as the handiwork of an "Obama judge," earning a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts. He thinks executive agencies are his personal fiefdoms rather than guards against public corruption. And he has repeatedly abused his powers by pardoning a political ally like Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio who was convicted of criminal contempt and a war criminal against the wishes of top military brass. And in an act of brazen self-dealing, he commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, his former campaign adviser, who was convicted by a jury of lying to shield the president.
This barely scratches the surface of Trump's four years of attacks on everything that would check his power, the latest iteration being his effort to delegitimize the election outcome itself. To be sure, one cannot find a president who has never once given in to the corrupting temptation of power. But one can scarcely find anyone who has done so this frequently and unapologetically.
None of this is to suggest that libertarians won't have their work cut out for them in the event of a Biden victory, particularly when it comes to stopping the advance of the soft tyranny of the regulatory state that Democrats have come to embrace. But Trump with his authoritarian taste for the hard power of the police state is an existential threat to libertarian ideals.
Relegating Trump and Trumpism to the dustbin of history is the only thing that matters right now.