How much of a role did media coverage play in Donald Trump winning the Republican primary? Is Trump’s brand of conservative populism and identity politics here to stay? Would a Trump loss in November be an opportunity for libertarians to reshape the philosophy of the American right?
Ben Domenech shares his personal theory that explains Donald Trump’s rise to prominence on the political stage.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Here’s Domenech in 2015, predicting the path of Donald Trump’s candidacy and on the emergence of Trump’s brand of identity politics.
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Ben Domenech, founder and publisher of The Federalist, host of The Federalist Radio Hour and writer of The Transform, a daily subscription newsletter for political insiders. He’s also the co-founder of the RedState group blog. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Ben.
Ben Domenech: Good to be with you.
Trevor Burrus: Free Thoughts is usually a show – I think we try to be a show about deep ideas and eternal ideas, not as much politics. Our last episode –
Aaron Ross Powell: Topics without a large audience.
Trevor Burrus: Yes, exactly. That’s our niche and our last episode was about Confucius and libertarianism. But today, I think we should just talk about politics, if Aaron will oblige. Are you OK with that?
Aaron Ross Powell: I think so.
Trevor Burrus: OK. So we are in the midst of everyone’s craziest political year ever, with all these things going on and of course the big name is Trump. You wrote a piece a year ago – we’re recording this in August of 2016 – that did a pretty good job of predicting Trump. I’m not sure if that has changed much. But I guess I just want to ask, what is your theory of Trump? Because everyone has a theory of Trump. So what is your theory of Trump?
Ben Domenech: Sure. And with apologies for the fact that just about everybody’s theory involves vindicating their prior critiques of the republican coalition or the party or ideas, what have you. Everybody likes to blame the people they were already blaming for things. From my perspective, my theory of Trump and the one that I wrote about back in – last August, was essentially that the Republican Party has been a coalition that combined people who believed in conservative or limited government ideas from a – what you could generally describe as a classically liberal view of the rights of all people and the importance of limiting government’s intervention in people’s lives.
That ideological core was what really animated conservatives and particularly I would say the tea party, things of that nature. At the same time, a significant portion of the Republican Coalition was not particularly ideological and was much more open or thought of themselves as being on the right out of a vision that had more to do with what you might describe as white identity politics.
Now, that isn’t to say these people are racists any more than people who are looking out for their communities are racists or if you’re a Cuban voter, you care about how Cubans are treated, that you are racist or something like that.
What it means is that they cared about protecting the entitlements that benefitted their communities and they disliked the entitlements that went to other communities. So you saw this rise in previous cycles via the various candidates who sounded populous notions when it came to economic policy. You saw it with Pat Buchanan. You saw it to a certain extent with Ross Perot. You certainly saw it with Mike Huckabee in 2008 and you saw it with Rick Santorum in 2012. All of whom broke with conservative orthodoxy on economic issues to basically espouse, well, I’m for tax cuts. I might be for smaller government in some senses. But I’m definitely going to protect all the old age entitlements. I don’t want to get rid of any of these redistributive things that go to the middle of the working class. I’m going to defend all of those things in opposition to what you might see as the Paul Ryan agenda, which basically says, actually, we’re going to go do our own white older voters and convince them that they should have less Medicare dollars flowing their way.
So those two things were always at odds within the coalition, but you never saw anyone stand up and give voice to them. I think that what Trump was able to do with the cycle was really play the identity politics cards to the hilt and what he did in this way would show that you could succeed in that vein.
If you had something that a lot of these other candidates didn’t have, what’s then common in between Buchanan, between Huckabee and between Santorum? They’re all basically bible thumpers when it comes to the culture where they all have these socially-conservative, traditionalist, Catholic or Baptist views that made them a lot more prone to talking about those issues when it went on – when it came to doing media than the economic side.
I actually ran into Mike Huckabee recently in New York and had a conversation with him about this and he basically said nobody cared about my economic agenda because they just wanted to ask me about what I thought about gays or abortion or all these other issues. Trump didn’t have that going for him. He’s a very secular – maybe the most secular candidate we’ve ever seen nominated. This is a guy who does –
Trevor Burrus: He doesn’t give any actual – he doesn’t make the obligatory references …
Trevor Burrus: Even if you’re an atheist, you have to –
Ben Domenech: I think we probably never had someone run for president who say that they don’t ask God for forgiveness. Like that’s kind of a new thing. So in the absence of that, he was able to play to this economic agenda and at the same time, he was able to play on the concerns that a lot of white Americans have about the changing nature of the culture and the global economy, concerned that – allowed him to sound this nostalgic – taking us back to when we were great again moment and what that really did was show to us I think that the American political reality is maybe a lot more European than we thought, that one way or – the parties of the right sound more – less like conservative principle people and more like nationalist, sometimes even xenophobic people and I think that Trump really showed that there was an audience for that in the American electorate.
Now his problem is that the audience for that is maybe a third of the voting population and now enough for him to really form some kind of grand coalition we’ve seen in the recent weeks that he has been trying to reach out with an olive branch to all of those communities that he has pissed off for the course of the preceding months and years.
But I think that that is really my thesis about Trump. That the breakdown of trust in elite institutions, in – of the conservative ideology that had been at the core of what the Republican Party at least pretended to stand for, for a long time. The breakdown of faith in that led a portion of the republican base that had not particularly been active in primaries in the past to come out and support someone with this nationalist agenda that really is not about limited government. It’s more about I’m going to work for the people who look like you.
Trevor Burrus: Now, a year ago, would you have said – you wrote this and you still said you were – he’s not going to get the nomination. Are you really surprised or – now that you kind of can figure it out retroactively in saying, “Yes, this was inevitable.”
Ben Domenech: So the explanation that I wrote in August since I write The Transom – I write every day. So virtually, every day, I’m going to be giving you 700, 800 words in the morning about what I think about something that’s going on unless there’s some big story that I just think you need to read and I started saying that Trump could be the nominee or that I thought that he would be the nominee in - I want to say after Thanksgiving, in December.
Part of the reason that I thought that or that – what changed my mind was seeing the response to activity – basically the terrorist activity and general sort of concern about the world, seeing those voters go to him as opposed to maybe a more stable or someone who stood to benefit. For the entire month of November, I felt like every single pundit was coming in every day and saying, “Well, this is why this news story is good for Marco Rubio,” and none of it was happening. None of that was going on.
What I think that reflected was that when voters talk about wanting somebody new, wanting a fresh face, what they really meant this time around was somebody who was completely outside of politics. Not just someone who’s a fresh-faced governor or senator or something like that.
They wanted somebody dramatically new and then as soon as the republican – it became clear that the Republican Party was unwilling to become the party of Ted Cruz, the party of kind of strong conservative ideological ideas and it became clear that they just weren’t interested in that. That’s the moment where I really changed my mind and I think that that was happening basically in December.
Aaron Ross Powell: How much of a role did media coverage play in him winning? Because you have a field at least earlier on in the primaries of – I mean there are a lot of people. They can’t – it’s a lot of people to pay attention to, especially if you’re someone outside of the beltway who cares probably the right vanishingly small amount about this stuff compared to us crazy people here and Trump is a highly entertaining train wreck who – and so the media is just talking about Trump all the time and that’s how most people hear about the candidates anyway. So do you think he would have had anywhere near the success he did if the other candidates have gotten a more even coverage?
Ben Domenech: So, I’m going to blame it – I’m going to spread the blame a little bit. The media coverage of Trump was pretty critical from day one. It’s actually a myth to say that they weren’t critical. What was different about Trump is that he got direct access to the voter at a far higher rate than any other candidate.
Nobody was doing the equivalent of setting a camera down in front of a podium when Bobby Jindal is doing a rally in Iowa and just letting him talk on air for an hour. That’s something that just is separate. That’s not media coverage. That’s just giving him access.
So that was the part that I was critical of. I felt like they were asking critical questions in interviews pretty early on. Most places didn’t – only treated him as a sideshow until the point where he made the integration proposal. As soon as he did that, people had something to ask him about that was different. I think that they did start asking those questions.
But I think that you have to split the media maybe basically. Their access to him I think was significantly beneficial and was not – was not given to any other candidate. But then there was also the role that right wing media played in this process and I think that we need to understand that you don’t want to paint with a broad brush. Not everybody dealt with Trump the same way. I did sign on to the “against Trump” cover that National Review ran along with a number of other people and my real argument against him just came down to Donald Trump doesn’t believe in the constitution. I don’t think we should have presidents who don’t believe in the constitution. We’ve had too many of them already.
But the conservative media complex has a lot of different flavors. I mean it has kind of the younger online places that have only been around for a decade or less. The Federalist is obviously one of those. We turn three next month.
Then you have the kind of – the intellectual journals, the places where the smart people kind of get together. But then you have the mass media side of conservative media and I think that there’s a distinction people need to make mentally, and I’m not sure if everybody does, which is that – there are very intelligent people who work within conservative media. I think Rush Limbaugh is a very smart guy. I think he’s very good at what he does when it comes to radio, whether you agree with him or not.
But then there’s also a form of media on the right that is as much about entertainment and as eyeballs as it is anything else. It’s the same as ESPN’s coverage, of the NFL or something like that. They’re not going to be all that critical of the NFL because they have Monday night football.
The difference I think that you saw here was if you go down the Fox sort of hole and you look at who was critical of Trump and who wasn’t, the people who were in DC, the Krauthammers, the Georg Wills, the Brit Humes, they were critical of Trump almost from day one. They were criticizing those people who know politics, who know someone who doesn’t know politics.
It was the New York contingent of commentators, many of whom have no political background, who were from day one backing Trump, defending him, saying a lot of things in support of him. Sean Hannity, Eric Bolling. All of the kind of midday commentators in that kind of set and it was actually very few of the people on Fox from New York, Dana Perino and Greg Gutfeld kind of being exceptions, who were critical of Trump and sustained it in a way.
I think that made a significant difference in the cycle and I think that it had a lot to do with the fact that Fox people and people who watch it are voters. They are republicans. They’re very active and I think that the most critical moment in this cycle was actually – came after Ted Cruz won Wisconsin and had some momentum. He was actually in internal polling. He was ahead of Trump in California. He was – he looked like he had some momentum.
Then there was a two-week period there after that Wisconsin victory where every single day on Fox and on a lot of these – in a lot of these different venues, there were people pounding their hands on the table and basically saying this is over. He’s going to win New York. He’s going to win Pennsylvania. It’s over. Ted Cruz has no hope. He’s just – he’s kind of a dog who’s biting at your heels. He needs to drop out and that drumbeat had a significant effect in the internal polling. Ted Cruz saw his numbers turn around significantly. He really dropped and I think that that speaks to the power that this media really has to frame what’s happening in the election.
Trevor Burrus: It seems that your theory partially of Trump relates to the sort of idea of transactional politics and it kind of reminds me of Jay Cost’s Spoiled Rotten, which is – we had Jay on and talked about A Republic No More. But his book before that, Spoiled Rotten, discusses how transactional politics – meaning vote for me and I will give you things cropped into the Democrat Party in the 30s and that’s sort of where it remained. But if the Republican Party was trying to be classic liberal, which is sort of against transactional politics, at least in theory, in principle, that’s just not going to fly.
This brings up the question of what libertarianism – that part of republicanism has to offer an electorate anymore. If we’re going to say, “We’re not going to give you anything except for the possibility of a richer world,” that is not a check in your pocket and so it’s a repudiation and so maybe the reality of politics just ends up being that if you got principles, you’re going to lose.
Ben Domenech: The libertarian position is the same as Michael Corleone’s in Godfather II. I’m offering you nothing, not even the fee for the license.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, yeah.
Ben Domenech: But here’s the thing about that. My argument has been – and this goes back a couple of years now that this populist rejection of the elites was going to happen one way or the other. Like, it was already – you can see it rising and people like Tim Carney and myself have been writing for a while now. Hey, guys, you kind of need to get behind this or find a way to help it move in the right direction. Otherwise, it’s just going to go.
I mean this is a fire that was going to happen anyway. But when a forest fire happens, you have to do controlled burns around it. You have to dig trenches. You have to do – you can’t just let it burn. Otherwise, it just consumes the whole forest. I think in this case, you had a number of politicians who are themselves transactional, working in a way that ignore this populist fervor, the rejection of the elites and this distrust of established institutions that was rising. Instead the problem that they had is they were just interested in transacting with other people.
So what do you have? You have situations where the biggest priorities for the republican senate when they were running for office was, oh, we’re going to be a hedge against Obama’s radicalism. We’re going to push back against Obamacare. We’re going to prevent him from doing his immigration plan and then they get in and their priorities are the keystone pipeline and getting rid of the medical device tax and all these other things that K Street lobbyists and corporations want. I think that the people really rejected that, not so much because of what they were doing, but that their priorities weren’t lined up with what the people were.
I don’t think that they were rejecting it out of this principled argument that like this isn’t something government should be doing. It was more about rejecting it from the perspective of you’re not paying enough attention to us.
My real concern is that historically, that has not really been the animating factor for the majority of American politics. It has been a portion of coalitions and it has been something where – we were talking before the show started about the prescription drug benefit. That’s certainly an example with transactional. We want to reward our older voters with this entitlement benefit that’s going to redistribute stuff toward them.
So this is not new. But it hasn’t been the driving animating force of a party. The party has always been – or at least pretended to be more about ideas, ideas about what the life well-lived looks like, how government should facilitate or get out of the way, of allowing people to live in that way.
That’s a debate that has really been absent from this cycle entirely because basically what Trump has done, he has become the same kind of candidate that the democrats have fielded over the course of the past several years, which is basically saying, “I’m just going to fight for you and I’m going to get you the benefits that you deserve.”
You look across this country and you see lots of people who you don’t think are working hard and don’t deserve the benefits they’re getting. I’m going to change that. That turns out to be a very powerful message in America, a message that speaks to a perhaps more sizable portion of what we thought might have been a group of people who voted the way they did because of ideas or because of policies. Instead, they’re voting that way because they just think this person is an avatar for me and for my group.
Aaron Ross Powell: So one the one hand, that’s even distressing from where Trevor and I sit as working day to day to advance libertarianism because we’re kind of constitutionally opposed to that sort of politics.
Ben Domenech: Yes.
Aaron Ross Powell: And think that the very basis of government is in doing the opposite of that sort of politics. But on the other hand, I wonder how depressing the overall picture is because – so the – among the democrats, the person who seemed to campaign the most on, “I will protect your interests,” was Bernie Sanders who lost.
Trump, well yes, he won in a crowded field, looks, fingers crossed, on his way to a loss and likely a fairly large one. He certainly didn’t represent the majority of primary voters. So is this populism – is it a large threat in the sense that it could realign one or both of the two parties that we seem to have fixed in this country?
Ben Domenech: Populism flares up in ways that can have a significant impact. But it usually does so temporarily. Historically, these movements can’t sustain themselves. They die off. One of the things that I think that should give people hope is that you’ve seen a couple of small imitators of Trump. But Trump-ism is so attached to him and his brand, that it’s hard to see it taking on something that – as a phenomenon within the Republican Coalition.
Trevor Burrus: It’s transmittable to other people.
Ben Domenech: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: It kind of reminds me of the story I saw that Hillary is having a really hard time finding a person to stand in for Trump in the debate prep because it’s – no one can just give the verbal vomit of just like …
Aaron Ross Powell: Caleb Brown does a decent job.
Trevor Burrus: But the inimitable, irreplaceable – that’s not the right word. Irreproducible Trump.
Ben Domenech: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Ben Domenech: The other thing is that I think that actually the way that Trump moves the needle in a couple of directions is interesting. I’m wondering if he actually serves to discredit some of the ideas that he advocates for.
For instance, I think that – let’s take two issues where libertarians are clearly at odds with Donald Trump. OK? The border. Clearly, this is a candidate who has gone through all sorts of different twists and turns when it comes to his immigration policy. Just the other day, Ann Coulter, one of his most dedicated supporters, was expressing a lot of concern that he’s moving away from his hardline position.
But I actually have heard a lot of concern amongst smart people who are more closely aligned with Trump’s position that lost at the ballot box and that the nature of the way that he has made the case for this actually discredits their ideas and maybe hurts the case that they’ve made for much harsher approaches to immigration and keeping people out on the issue of trade.
I think clearly we have an issue in America where people don’t have faith in their elites to cut the deals for them and nobody really understands TPP. They don’t understand the trade policy unless they’re in it. But I actually think that his giving expression to the idea, well, this is an unfair deal. This is something that we can’t trust because it’s something that Obama and Clinton cut with these other trading partners and that we can’t have faith in it.
I don’t think that that’s actually a policy critique. I think it’s something that it’s just – it’s a distrust of the people and so again, I don’t think that endures after Trump in a way other than something that we probably would be OK with, which is skepticism of our elected officials to not just be corporatist – not just have a corporatist approach to the way the trade policy works.
On the other side, on foreign policy, I think that Trump actually reveals how much of the republican electorate rejects the general foreign policy consensus that has been a part of their hawkish leadership over the course of the past two decades. One of the downsides to not having anyone from the Bush administration run in 2008 or 2012 or anybody closely aligned with Bush was that we never had a great working out of what we learned from our act and what we learned from Afghanistan, what we learned from his approach really to foreign policy generally.
So that conversation was really delayed and didn’t really happen I feel like until this year and when it did happen, you have a candidate who openly broke with the idea that the Iraq War was a good idea and used it repeatedly to – you know, against his opponents. Now you can go back in the records and find that he’s not really accurately representing his position. But still, I think that that gave voice to a lot of people who had generally been ignored by the consensus foreign policy position of the Republican Party.
So it’s not all bad in a way. Like I think this is – this is – it’s a revelatory thing. It tells us more about what this coalition is and what it isn’t, that it’s more secular, that it’s perhaps less hawkish, that it is more – that it is less wedded to conservative economic ideas than perhaps we would like.
But I think as a whole, what you can step away from it and say is, now, we know more. We know this thing now. What should we learn from it? I think the biggest error that would be made by conservatives or by anybody who cares about the future of the Republican Party after this election would be to say, well, we just think the same things that we thought in 2012. Let’s have the autopsy for the party again and just update all the dates in it and just think the same thing.
I think what they need to do is look long and hard at what this coalition told them about – what they believe about government and what they don’t believe. And then it’s the responsibility of leaders to try to translate that populist rage into things that are actually good. How do we use skepticism for the elites, skepticism for these institutions, skepticism about the deals that are being cut to actually further the cause of liberty as opposed to just promising that I will be a strong man for you?
Trevor Burrus: If this is a – so it’s sort of like a Republican Party colon cleanse, which I kind of see. And if Trump is sort of unique in the way you’ve said, it might be therefore – you kind of seem like you’re saying that it’s – the reports of the death of the Republican Party have been greatly over-exaggerated. What is that …
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that maybe the Republican Party will be better after this.
Ben Domenech: That really depends on the people who are part of it. I mean the – Trump reveals things about the country that I think we have been ignoring for quite a while. The Republican Party established and leaders, the donor class was very good at keeping this tapped down. They nominated John McCain. They nominated Mitt Romney and it was a situation where they really did kind of push this populist rage to the side.
Now they’re nominated the guy who was one of the original birthers and is clearly someone who plays this very aggressive tabloid-esque kind of game. But I think that the error would be to think that this was just about the media or that this was just about the black swan effect of a guy who can – one of these few rich people who have the capacity to connect to the working class and be kind of a trader to his own class.
The lessons that I think they ought to take are ones that really tell them things about their coalition that they might not have wanted to pay attention to for a while and parties do die. But what’s more common is for parties to realign in ways that make them be very different things. The Democratic Party of JFK is not the Democratic Party today. OK? In fact, I would argue the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton is not the Democratic Party today.
Trevor Burrus: Absolutely. Bill Clinton could run against – I mean Bill Clinton is more Mitt Romney. I always wanted Bill Clinton in 1992 to run against Mitt Romney and they’re basically the same candidate. Yeah.
Ben Domenech: Yeah, you’re completely right about that and the thing is honestly, that’s the kind of future that I think the Republican Party has. I think it’s going to go through a period of realignment. It’s going to become something different.
The concern I would have if I were a member of that party or if I was in its leadership is that they’re – there’s going to need to be a lot of leadership from some young voices that directs this fire. Otherwise, it will consume the party and it will turn it into a rump nationalist party along the lines of what we’ve seen in Europe from the far right.
Aaron Ross Powell: So when I have look at – when I paid attention to the Trump campaign and when I have been critical of Trump, there’s – the concern that I have is not just about the policies that he represents or the shift towards – we’re going to prop up entitlements and we’re going to build walls. We’re going to kick people out and we’re going to murder even more people overseas and so on and so forth.
But there’s like there’s an ugliness to it and that seems like the kind of thing that it’s harder to realign around. Like the thing that seemed to rocket him to fame initially was his – that Mexicans are sending rapists and every time he turns around and says something, it’s not just stupid and he says a lot of very stupid things. In fact he’s often – one of the most profoundly confusing things to me is how people can be excited at his rallies because what he’s saying literally doesn’t make any sense.
Trevor Burrus: It’s like a Space Ghost rant.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. But that there seems to be this like just really repugnant ugliness to the rhetoric and the way that he talks about other people and the way that he talks about out-groups from the perspective of his supporters. That seems like – so yeah, something to say the Republican Party should embrace that. Like, if that’s a large portion of his appeal, then that they need to figure out how to embrace that seems to be a problem. It seems like that might point even more to the death of the party because of how dis-favorable he’s seen by all of the growing demographics.
Ben Domenech: So a couple of things about that. First of all, what we are seeing at this point is that as much as the Democratic Party would like to paint all republicans with the Donald Trump brush, they haven’t really been successful with it at this cycle. Particularly you see that by looking at the senate races where across the country, virtually every republican senator is running 10 points ahead of Trump. In some cases, it’s as much as 13 or 15, in some states.
In fact at this stage, I was talking with CBS’s head of polling on Sunday and he says that he sees three or four net losses for republicans in the senate, which would not turn it over to democratic hands.
So I think that tells you to a certain extent that they haven’t – they’re not grouped in with him in the same way when it comes to the perspective that Hispanic and Black Americans have on Trump.
Trump at his best sounds like a politically incorrect New York City cop who’s sitting at the bar at the end of the day and ranting at the television. That’s basically the way Trump lives his life. There’s something that actually can be refreshing about that in the day and age of scripted politicians and you think of how scripted Romney was in particular, and particularly politicians who are just willing to take it when it comes to the media criticism and not fire back. I think that given that our media entities are so unpopular, Trump’s activity in doing that is something that really paid dividends for him at this cycle. I think that that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Republicans to take on in their relationship with the media going forward, simply because the media is, let’s face it, in the tank for Hillary. It really is and it’s not so much – it’s more true in this cycle I think than it has been true any other cycle. It’s not just that they view Trump as like this extinction level event.
From day one, they’ve been kind of shocked I think that people responded to him in a way that they did. That’s not necessarily bad. But I agree with you on the ugliness side. At his worst, he’s Joffrey from Game of Thrones. He is literally the guy who likes to go and pull the wings off of insects and just do – he will just pick people to go after on certain days for no rhyme or reason and do so in a very active and personal way.
That to me is something that’s very disgusting and I think that most politicians will never do that. Very few politicians will go down that road. But I do think that when – just as a matter of the way that he approaches things. People will say things about him like, “Oh, he tells it like it is,” or “He doesn’t play their game,” or “He’s not politically correct.”
I think there’s actually some virtue to that in this day and age in recognizing that the media no longer plays by the rules that it did 20 or 30 years ago in the way that it treats these candidates. I think particularly that’s true of outlets that have really risen up to a degree where they particularly will target and try to ask republicans difficult and crazy questions in order to get them to stumble.
I think a perfect example of that is actually – was from a Trump press conference a couple of months ago where he spent the entire press conference bashing the media and talking about how terrible it was and doing it right to them.
Then the last question was from a Yahoo news journalist who asked him what he thought about Harambe and Trump actually gave like this five-minute answer about what he thought about Harambe and it was – you know, just sort of going, well, it’s a very difficult thing. You have to make these split judgments and I understand how the concern – you can clearly think through what he thought about Harambe.
But the thought that I had was, “You know what? Ask that of any of the other 16 and they would probably have stumbled on that question.” They might not have known how to answer it. They might not have – you know, what will I say in this sort of scenario? They might have given some very typical politician answer like, well, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about subsidies today.
I think that Trump’s response actually in that point, that type of thing, does work and it works because in this day and age, you have journalists who are asking not just “gotcha” questions but “gotcha” questions about all kinds of pop culture things.
I don’t know if Trump has gotten asked yet, but I’m sure he’s going to get a Ryan Lochte question. It’s just like the one thing that I wish I could take away from Trump and give to more politicians generally is just be more engaged in the culture, be more aware of these things and then, when the journalist asks you the “gotcha” question, trying to get you to say something stupid, that can go on TMZ and not just on CNN, be more prepared for that.
Trevor Burrus: Now we do have this third candidate in the mix.
Ben Domenech: Yes.
Aaron Ross Powell: Jill Stein.
Trevor Burrus: Yes, Jill Stein.
Ben Domenech: You don’t have any Wi-Fi around here, do you?
Trevor Burrus: Exactly. It’s going to fry your brain.
Ben Domenech: No Wi-Fi, no vaccines.
Trevor Burrus: Gary Johnson is interesting to libertarians and possibly an opportunity of some sort to at least get more of the message out there. How do you sort of see that fitting into the rubric that you’ve described? Is this an opportunity for libertarians to have a hand in reforming the Republican Party along a more principled aspect or the libertarian party maybe going to be a significant …
Ben Domenech: Sure.
Trevor Burrus: … element in the future?
Ben Domenech: So I think this is an opportunity obviously for libertarians. Personally, I wish that they had a different candidate running this cycle and it’s not that I dislike Gary Johnson personally. I think he would be a better president than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. I know plenty of people who are republicans or who have been republicans who are going to vote for him. I think that that’s a good thing. I hope that the level of support that is indicated in polling actually comes through on Election Day, which is something that is always a problem with the third party people kind of underperforming that number and I hope that he gets on the debate stage.
My only problem really is, is that when I look at Gary Johnson, what I actually see and even more so when I look at Bill Weld, I see kind of a 90s era liberal republican, which is not as much about eliminating departments, cutting back government – limiting government in aggressive ways. It’s more about well, socially liberal, fiscally conservative, that kind of thing.
The difference is social liberalism in the 90s was – the ACLU was still signing on to the Religious Freedom Protection Act. They were still fighting along the same lines when it came to civil liberties.
Trevor Burrus: Free speech.
Ben Domenech: And free speech. Liberals today have really dropped that from their menu of things. They are aggressively anti-free speech in a lot of different areas and not just in the campus. I’m very concerned that that’s going to be an issue under a Clinton presidency that gets ramped up even more, since she has never been a fan of free speech and has plenty of enemies out there that she would like to see have to deal with all sorts of problem.
I wish that the Libertarian Party had nominated someone who was more aggressively pushing libertarian ideas as opposed to kind of being a middle of the road, moderate republican candidate, which is basically what he is this cycle.
I understand though that – I mean this is a guy who had a very good governorship. I think is someone who – it’s certainly a – he doesn’t have the criminal problems of Hillary Clinton or the insanity problems with Donald Trump.
The only thing is I wish that it had been maybe a younger voice who represents more of a 21st century approach to libertarianism. I would have really liked to see when it became clear that Clinton and Trump were going to be the nominees, I would have liked to see somebody like Justin Amash get in there, just in the sense that I would like to see some of these younger faces, because we want someone who can – not just be a face for libertarianism this cycle, but can be a leader going forward. I think that that’s going to emerge I think. I think that there are going to be a lot of people after this cycle who kind of take a hard look at, “Am I really a republican? What do they really stand for?” If the Libertarian Party really stands for things that I believe in. Maybe that is something that I can build a more meaningful approach around – you know, for myself as a voter going forward. So I do think it’s an opportunity. I just would have liked it to be a little bit more – shall we say radical?
I would like to be having those good fights where libertarians are really right and republicans have been really wrong, and instead it’s like – it’s more hey, look, we’re way more normal than these other people.
Trevor Burrus: I like your 90s comparison because he does – Gary Johnson reminds me of the guy who used to host Double Dare. Marc Summers, because he used to wear sneakers with a suit and was like, well, you’re so crazy Marc Summers. What are you doing? Yeah, and he’s kind of awkward and stuff. But …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, this is – I think it was the week before he was – Johnson got the nomination. I had a piece in the Washington Post about my fears about nominating him and Weld, that – it was when a lot of republicans were saying – I mean not a lot, but there were prominent republican pundits and other people saying, “I’m going to switch. I’m going to vote for the libertarians. I’m going to switch my party affiliation,” and so on.
I had this fear that the libertarian party, which I should say – because we get lots of confusion about this. Like, Libertarianism.org, this podcast we’re part of, is not in any way affiliated with the Libertarian Party. Cato is not affiliated with the Libertarian Party. They’re different things. Not all small L libertarians are big L libertarians.
But that there were – if the Libertarian Party became kind of the place where people who used to think of themselves as republicans and then the Republican Party went insane, and so we want kind of moderate republicans to have a new home, and if Johnson and Weld represented that kind of moderate republicanism taking over the Libertarian Party, that unless they were going to win – because obviously they’re better than the alternatives right now – that you risk – that if the Libertarian Party and libertarianism kind of represents like America’s founding conscience, like the principles of the American founding and the principles of real constitutionalism and giving that a voice, even if it’s not going to win. It’s going to be a voice out there saying like, hey, you guys are drifting from like what you have pretended to value at least. That that’s going to hurt American politics over time, but at the same time, it’s hard to say like – because even the kind of moderate republicanism that they’ve advanced looks so damn good compared to …
Ben Domenech: Yes.
Aaron Ross Powell: … the other choice.
Ben Domenech: Yes. I mean it does look – it does have that 90s moderate republican flavor to it. I agree with you. I wish that this was more – I wish that they were more running about free speech, about your right to self-defense, about the fact that government shouldn’t even be doing these things. It’s something that I would like to be hearing more from them as opposed to kind of an alternative.
But I do think that there’s – in the war of ideas that we’ve all been fighting in and dealing with over the course of our career, this is I think an opportunity, regardless of whether Johnson and Weld can be the people who actually express those ideas consistently. I think this is an opportunity to kind of say what does the party stand for. What is it about? What should a coalition be about? What does this look like?
I think in this context, the clarity that libertarians offer, that small L libertarians can offer to voters in the wake of something that’s crazy, is something that I think is going to have more appeal to it and is going to get a response, not just from those looking for someone who’s not a criminal and not nuts.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that there will still be the alignment with libertarianism and the right? Because some people say, oh, this is now the middle, which is a little bit different than people have said. But it works in this context. But can the left ever really come over to the libertarian side at this plan anymore or are we going to have to look to the right?
Ben Domenech: I think that the anti-war left can come to be in favor of some libertarian ideas. But I think that the rise of the type of social justice, speech-crushing approach among the younger liberals, it’s – I mean it’s one of the most depressing phenomena I’ve seen in my lifetime. But it’s also something that I think really closes the door to having libertarians be kind of more at home on the left, in the sense that that’s just such a fundamental issue that – you can’t really cross that line. I think that there was actually more hope of that type of alignment.
Again, back to the 90s when the ACLU and libertarians saw each other as being a lot more aligned and people who cared about those issues were a lot more aligned. I think now that you basically have a democratic party that is corporatist, that is more hawkish, that is entirely in favor of the surveillance state, but doesn’t particularly care about civil liberties for individuals and that having sort of achieved what they wanted to when it came to most of the culture wars is now moved from arguing about whether abortion should be legal or not up to arguing that we need to get rid of the high demand and everybody gets paid for everybody else’s abortions.
Like they’ve moved so far away from where they were before that I think that has really kind of closed off. I think libertarians actually may end up in the middle just by default. If we end up in a situation where you have one party that is basically corporatist, one that is kind of nationalist and one is in protectionist, the middle position is going to be the one that’s OK with advancing in the global economy and economic progress and technology and isn’t just trying to engage in either Keynesian expenditures or in some kind of redistributive project that more favors people of a certain race or a certain background.
Trevor Burrus: So handicapping the future here, since you did a pretty good job a year ago, who’s going to win and then what’s going to happen a year from now? We could have you back a year from now. We could just continually do this, this sort of Nostradamus thing. You bring them back every year.
Ben Domenech: Oh, gosh. So I’m not – I will say that I’m not always good at predicting things and I certainly thought this cycle – even though I outlined how I thought Trump could win and why he could, I still thought that it was unlikely when I wrote it a year ago.
So here’s what I think is likely as of this date. I think Trump is going to lose but I think he’s going to make it closer than people currently think. I think that he will probably end up with a loss that looks – it looks nationally probably like a five or six-point loss. But he might actually win a state or two that Mitt Romney didn’t win, simply because of the demographics involved. He might lose a state or two that Mitt Romney won. Ultimately I think it’s going to be kind of a wash. Not the blowout that I think some people see in the national polling, but also I think not close.
The thing that I think we should be concerned when it comes to this whole context of like what’s moving forward and what we’re looking at a year from now is let’s just say for the sake of argument Trump loses by six points. The republicans retain the senate by one or two seats and Hillary Clinton is elected and a year from now, Mitch McConnell is on the senate floor saying, “Well, you know what we really need to do to solidify the party and to wash the taste of Trump out of all of our mouth is we need a past conference of immigration reform with Hillary Clinton.” That’s something that would just be a giant finger raised to their – to the base of Trump’s supporters and would probably animate them all the more within the republican primaries.
Now I’m not saying that’s going to happen. I’m just saying there’s a possibility of something like that happening or name your deal. Name your other sort of thing that they’re going to do in terms of transactional politics with Hillary Clinton. There’s a surprising number of republican politicians I think who think of Hillary Clinton as the way she was when she was in the senate or much earlier, as opposed to the way she is now, which is in my view much more wedded to the progressive culture war and to all of these different promises that she has made along the way, to get to where she could be right now.
I expect that her presidency is going to offer something that looks a lot more like Obama and a lot less like the triangulation that Bill Clinton did in the 90s.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please take a moment to rate us on iTunes. Free Thoughts if produced by Mark McDaniel and Evan Banks. To learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.