David Boaz joins us to recap 2016. Did we just have the worst year ever in American politics?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Here’s our Free Thoughts episode on Donald Trump with Ben Domenech, recorded after Trump won the Republican primary but before he won the general election.
Boaz mentions the current issue of Cato Policy Report, which features an article by Tom Palmer on the new resurgence of three threats: identity politics, populist authoritarianism, and radical political Islam.
Boaz also mentions this article by Conor Friedersdorf, “Tyrant-Proof the White House—Before It’s Too Late.”
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is David Boaz. He’s Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute. Welcome back to Free Thoughts.
David Boaz: Thank you.
Aaron Ross Powell: This is I think the last episode we are going to be recording in 2016.
Trevor Burrus: Thank God.
Aaron Ross Powell: So we’re doing today kind of a year-end wrap-up because it was a – call it an interesting year in Washington and in America. So let’s start with I think the most controversial issue of 2016, which was – so if a child due to parental negligence falls into a gorilla enclosure, is it OK to shoot the gorilla?
David Boaz: Is that what happened? I keep seeing this reference to a gorilla.
Aaron Ross Powell: Harambe?
Trevor Burrus: Harambe. Yeah, yeah, that’s what happened. Yeah, they shot the gorilla.
David Boaz: Yes. Well, I suppose if it’s a question of a child’s life or a gorilla’s life, I go for the child’s life.
Trevor Burrus: To be honest, I didn’t follow the debate that much. But it was weird to me. I understand animal rights activists and maybe they could have done something else like call the gorilla over with a statue of a blonde – a Barbie or something. You know, whatever gorillas are attracted to. But shooting a gorilla is OK in that situation. So I’m going to come down firmly on the side of the child. What do you think, Aaron?
Aaron Ross Powell: I will leave it to you two guys because I like to keep my Twitter timeline free of angry replies. So the rhetoric especially post-election has been that 2016 is the worst year in recorded history.
Trevor Burrus: Any year that begins with David Bowie dying is a really bad year.
Aaron Ross Powell: You’ve been at Cato for four decades.
David Boaz: Not quite, but in a fourth decade.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. So is this – how bad is this year in comparison? Have you seen worse in your time here?
David Boaz: Well, I don’t know about worse. But I mean, look, after the 2000 election, we went through a month of not knowing who the president was and some awfully bitter arguments about who it should be, about the inappropriateness, outrageousness of the Electoral College.
In fact, that year, there were full-page ads in the New York Times arguing for getting rid of the Electoral College that were US senators like Hillary Rodham Clinton arguing for getting rid of the Electoral College.
This time, people seemed to kind of accept. Hey, it’s the Electoral College. That’s what it is. I also remember the black-boarded, major – bordered major newspapers that were published after Ronald Reagan was elected. Oh my god. It’s the end of civilization. They’re going to abolish a lot of government agencies. I remember one really heartrending story in Washington Post about three members of one family, husband, wife and teenage son, who were all going to lose their jobs because of the Reagan landslide.
So this one is probably more bitter, but it’s not like seeing these kinds of changes of administration happen doesn’t often create a lot of outrage. I do think one difference here is there are a fair number of conservatives. Not many republicans anymore, but a fair number of conservatives who are still shocked, appalled and not reconciled to Donald Trump and that maybe puts a new edge on it, because when – theoretically your own team members are still outraged and appalled. Then that makes the arguments more severe.
Trevor Burrus: Is the kind of – do you see the Trump fear – you said this guy is following the element of Reagan. I don’t remember Reagan’s original election. But of course there was always a narrative from the left that Reagan was kind of a bumbling dope and if you added on top of this that he had been on TV, a movie star of fairly – well, fairly bad movies. So he could have been our first TV president so to speak like Trump. Do you see parallels there of the way that they sort of didn’t take him seriously to Trump?
David Boaz: Yeah, there are definitely some parallels there. They are different and I think – of course it’s easier in retrospect to say Reagan seemed to handle the presidency reasonably well, as he has handled the governorship of California reasonably well especially if you like tax increases and liberalized abortion laws.
But in the lead-up to and in his initial being elected and taking office, yes, there was a lot of that kind of he’s not up to it. This is crazy. He’s a TV actor and there’s also a theme that you heard republicans or at least Trumpists saying this year, which was – yeah, they said Reagan was dumb. Yeah, they said Bush was dumb.
Well, just because they said Reagan was dumb and in retrospect he probably wasn’t, doesn’t actually mean that Trump isn’t dumb. Some people are dumb. Some people are called dumb but aren’t. So it’s a legitimate thing to say you say that about every republican. If you call John McCain and Mitt Romney racist, why should we listen to you this time?
Well, maybe you should listen this time because his opening speech said Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers. Reagan’s speech did not say that. Romney’s speech did not say that.
Aaron Ross Powell: We do know Trump assured us yesterday, the day before, in an interview that he is very smart.
David Boaz: And he has previously said that he has a really good brain and so he would not need advisers.
Trevor Burrus: Of course. That would stand …
David Boaz: I think as a general rule, what kind of person says, “I have a really good brain”? Would it be your Stephen Hawking geniuses, your Ivy League professor, really smart people, your average guy, your insecure less-than-average guy?
Aaron Ross Powell: My experience is the smart people are typically the ones who are most uncertain about how much –
Trevor Burrus: There’s a name for this. It escapes me right now. It’s …
Aaron Ross Powell: Is it Dunning Kruger?
Trevor Burrus: The Dunning Kruger effect, yes. So now that we are living in – or we will soon actually be living in Trump’s America or he will be president of America, it’s not his country. But he will be president of this country. We look back to the beginning. For you David, when this began, when did you start taking him seriously?
David Boaz: I will let you know.
Trevor Burrus: I didn’t ever – I will admit to – up until the nomination, I was thinking that this was some sort of bizarre joke being played on us. So I didn’t take him seriously. I was wondering when you started taking him seriously.
David Boaz: Well, I really think it was about 10 o’clock on election night. There was an article in the Washington Post today saying it seems that everything we knew about politics, you need to follow these rules, you need to spend more money, you need to have a get-out-to-vote operation, you need to not insult people on your own team, was wrong.
So how do we make predictions for the future? How do we predict who’s going to run in 2020? Because is this a one-off thing or are there going to be a lot of reality TV stars or movie actors or businessmen running? When did I first take him seriously? Well, I would have to say that at every point, I thought it won’t last another week. This is a ridiculous speech he gave in announcing his candidacy.
He just insulted John McCain and all wounded veterans. He made fun of a disabled person. Who can do that and get away with it? All through those things and then he was rising in the polls and I would be like, “Yeah. Well, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were both high in the polls in 2012.” But they weren’t anywhere close to being president, even after he won New Hampshire. The other thing of course was that I kept assuming that even for him, this was performance art. It was a publicity stunt. Maybe it’s supposed to get more attention for his brand.
So honestly, even up until mid-October, late October, I kept telling the small number of people I knew who were for Trump. You do realize he’s going to drag the whole Republican Party down. So, what can I say? I was just wrong all along the way and so were the polls? And I remember in 2012, Republicans kept saying the polls are skewed. Romney will win and I just kept rolling my eyes and staring at them and saying, “There are 15 different polls and they’re all telling you Romney is going to lose narrowly. Not by a lot, but he’s going to lose,” and that’s what happened.
In this case, the polls were pretty much all wrong. Something did go wrong with the polls this time. I don’t think we know what it is yet. But I’m not sure there was ever a point at which I took him seriously and I can absolutely remember I drove home around 9 o’clock on election night and how stunned I was when I got home and suddenly looked at this percentage change of winning the election. Sixty percent Trump! I had no idea. Even when I left the party I was briefly at, at 9 o’clock, I didn’t know this. So don’t ask me.
Aaron Ross Powell: So a lot of explanations for what happened in 2016 have been tossed around and people are pointing the fingers. They’re pointing the fingers at themselves often. But we don’t seem to quite know except one of the things that seems to have happened is America expressed a lot of distrust and dissatisfaction with its institutions, with both its governing institutions and its media institutions and just got fed up. The question is, “How much is this our fault?”
So of the people in Washington, we at Cato have spent quite a long time saying there are all sorts of things wrong with the governing institutions as they exist right now. The people who run them either are not as good as they say they are or can’t possibly do the things that they say they can do or don’t know as much as they tell us they know. We’ve criticized the media for having an un-nuanced or not terribly deep view of how policy and politics works, of buying into narratives of state power and being cozy with these people.
Like, we’ve been out there criticizing exactly the things that seem to get tossed out in this election. To some extent, like people listened to our rhetoric but then they just took it in the wrong direction.
Trevor Burrus: Do you mean our – like specifically …
Aaron Ross Powell: I mean libertarians in general.
David Boaz: I suppose you can make a case for that. There were obviously and larger and more visible elements of Washington that were far more critical in an uninformed way. I don’t think we libertarians said we can’t rely on the media to tell you what’s going on here and there, around the world. We can say they have blinders. They have blind spots. They don’t understand economics very well. You know, criticisms like that and I suppose that could add up in the minds of some people to – don’t trust anything they say.
Similarly with the American government and I think there is a sense that we never really thought we libertarians would need to rally around establishment institutions and now, gee, compared to some of the alternatives, maybe the established institutions of the post-war liberal democratic consensus are not as bad as the invigorated left, the far right in Europe and maybe even a burgeoning far right in America.
So I don’t think we’re responsible. But we might have had some role to play in undermining trust in institutions. On the other hand, the institutions were far too full of themselves. They had seized too much power, claimed too much ability and knowledge. They did need to be criticized. I still think there’s a distinct possibility that if a big celebrity – I underestimated Donald Trump’s celebrity. I never watched The Apprentice.
So I think I didn’t realize he was a real big celebrity. I still think there’s a possibility that if a big celebrity with the same kind of crisp, get-it-done, businessman image had run for president on let’s say Rand Paul’s platform, he might have won. Some of it was just I’m a businessman and I get things done and I’m a big celebrity and I’m an outsider. So it may not have been a victory for prejudice and protectionism. It may just have been a victory for an outsider who’s a celebrity.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s the interesting question about – we have a theory as libertarians, which is one reason why I’m – if this sentence makes any sense. Shocked that I was shocked or surprised that I was shocked, because I look back and I’m like, OK, look, I have a theory about how the – the electorate is fairly ignorant of issues, how they rally around slogans and they don’t really pay attention to these things. So someone can come up and get them going.
I understand that I think better than a lot of people. But nevertheless, I’m like completely shocked that Trump did this. But that being said, I think the question that really is interesting to ask – and this goes to your point about, “Could a person with Trump’s personality, whatever sort of charisma that contains, adopt different policy positions and also bring people together which is …”
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, Trump adopted different policies.
Trevor Burrus: I think if you look at the things that he’s consistent on, trade and immigration in particular, and of course making America great again, which is – all of us thought that was laughably – I mean it was just a stupid slogan that everyone in the Beltway is like, oh, this is really going to work. He’s wearing a hat that says, “Make America great again,” and then it works.
Aaron Ross Powell: “Hope and Change” worked too.
Trevor Burrus: True. Let’s imagine that we change this around, because I think the really big question with Trump is, “Did he discover or did he create his constituency?”
David Boaz: Well, it seems clear there was a constituency there that Washington underestimated. I think republicans thought their base was Reaganite and establishment republicans thought we have to add to the Reaganite base more young people and Hispanics. But we have to do that without running into the Grover Norquist buzz saw of anti-tax Reaganism. Then it turns out it’s not at all clear that the republican base is all that Reaganite.
So yeah, something was amiss there in what republicans understood and what I understood about what the republican base believed. Interestingly, Trump did not pander to them very much on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, which we’ve always thought of as the social issues. Unfortunately he did pander to base elements on racial and religious scapegoating and that’s even worse.
He also did not present himself as a hawk. All the other republicans thought that you have to be a hawk. You have to support Bush’s foreign policy. You have to say Obama’s foreign policy is weak. Rand Paul won’t get anywhere because he doesn’t support the John Bolton foreign policy, and indeed he didn’t do very well. But maybe for different reasons, because it turns out Trump is contemptuous of the Iraq War and the John Bolton foreign policy and republicans didn’t bat an eye at that.
So that’s some good news from the Trump phenomenon. It turns out you can win the republican primary and win the presidency on a foreign policy that says, “Let’s have fewer wars and get out of regime change and nation building.”
Aaron Ross Powell: Is that how we should read that? Because I think there’s an alternate way to read it that is less optimistic, which is – so it’s not that he’s advancing our colleague Chris Preble’s foreign policy views say. But instead that he’s just as – change the adjective from hawkish to bloodthirsty, that he’s – so what he knocked down was the big Washington establishment doing these big operations that it then – you know, is as bad at it as it is at running entitlements and everything else.
But it’s not like he was saying, you know, look we should – that part of the reason that we get into these wars is because of a more American interventionism and foreign policy abroad, that we caused these problems or we have a hand in them. We should be more peaceful. Every time …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. Every time that there was a – some group or nation that looked like a threat to his base, so largely that was ISIS. He would pledge to do all sorts of violent and vile things to them. So was he really against intervention so much or was he just kind of against everything Washington was doing but still promising to bomb the hell out of people at every opportunity?
Trevor Burrus: He called everyone stupid. We fund all these wars stupidly. We didn’t do this. We have stupid people. It was like – we keep telling them what we’re going to do on TV. Don’t do that.
David Boaz: That’s right, and he had not in fact opposed the Iraq War before it started. But he said he did and so he was campaigning as I’ve always been an opponent of the Iraq War. So it wasn’t just stupid execution. He said it was a stupid war. So you’re right.
He said we will torture their families. We will take their oil. We will bomb the bleep out of them. At the same time, he said these other things. To some extent, this is what some analysts call the “Jacksonian view” of American foreign policy, which is if you’re going to go in, go in to win and don’t be constrained by political correctness or anything. Don’t go to war unless you have to.
If you have to, go in and do what it takes to win. That’s not exactly what libertarian non-interventionists believe. But it may be better than the Wilsonian prescription of endless war for good things. Not just for American national interest, but for everything good.
Trevor Burrus: But if we – if it actually comes to pass that he nominates John Bolton – and this has been discussed recently. We will probably know by the time this comes out whether or not that actually happened or he will be opposed by Rand Paul.
But if he was opposing that – I mean John Bolton kind of stands for the Iraq War in some sort of normal sense. Other than George Bush and Dick Cheney, he stands for the Iraq War. If he does nominate John Bolton to be – I think it’s undersecretary of state. Does this just show him to be a complete – as Bill Weld said, a huckster, a complete charlatan who said whatever he thought needed to be said to get elected?
David Boaz: Well, that’s an interesting question. All the people he was talking about for, secretary of state, seemed to be advocates of global interventionism and a couple of weeks ago, Rand Paul had said, “I will do whatever I can to block either Giuliani or Bolton from secretary of state because I want a secretary of state who has learned the lessons of the Iraq War,” which is to say I’m not insisting that he would be a libertarian non-interventionist but he has to understand that this war was a bad mistake.
None of the people he was talking about seemed to be that. You had the mushy establishment global interventionist Mitt Romney and you had the forthright stars and stripes global interventionist John Bolton and you had the insane global interventionist Rudy Giuliani. Now, what looks like maybe it’s Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson who maybe – maybe all of this was fate and now he’s going for Rex Tillerson who maybe is not so much of a global interventionist. We don’t really know. But maybe it’s because he’s economically tied to the Putin administration and maybe that’s not so good either.
So yes, it has been a tough thing there and it does make you wonder if he believed what he said about foreign policy for 30 years. He ran an ad in 1987 in the New York Times, making non-intervention-ish arguments. Then why would he be picking among these four people for secretary of state? Most likely he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Aaron Ross Powell: I feel like because we’re mentioning events that just happened – we’re recording this on December 12th. So the audience can have that context when they are listening to this in probably a couple of weeks. But on the Trump as the anti-war candidate, there was a strain among self-described libertarians, the libertarians for Trump people who argued that he was the libertarian candidate. This goes back a while into his candidacy because he was the one who would not get us into wars, but then seemed to continue to support him even when the really ugly stuff was coming out, which was never really hidden.
So, did Trump’s candidacy expose a rift within libertarianism? What do we make of libertarians who seem to latch on to this guy who across the board seems anything but?
David Boaz: The first thing to make of them is there were about six of them as I recall. Now, by the time you get to election day, there were a number of libertarians who said Hillary Clinton is the quintessence of everything I’ve been fighting against for 25 years and I’m against her and Trump is running against her.
So although I’m not sure that was the correct conclusion, I get that and so I don’t consider those people to be libertarians for Trump. I mean I think it was six people centered around Auburn, Alabama and the people in Auburn, Alabama had made a lot of tactical and strategic and philosophical mistakes. So I don’t find this to be anything in particular.
If he was a consistent anti-war candidate and he was also somewhat bigoted and a protectionist and seem to want to aggrandize power in himself, well, you would have a case. War is the worst thing that can happen. So I’m for the anti-war candidate, which might raise the question of whether they had supported Bernie Sanders back before Hillary seemed to be – before Trump seemed to be serious.
I’m not sure. They might actually have. Certainly Murray Rothbard way, way back supported Adlai Stevenson as an anti-war candidate and maybe McCarthy, McGovern in that era. You can make a case for, “I will always support the most anti-war candidate.” I don’t think they were confronting the conflict between Trump’s somewhat anti-war statements and his bloodthirsty statements.
Trevor Burrus: Now you brought up Bernie Sanders and you brought up some of the sort of things we’ve seen in Europe too and this question of whether or not Trump is a symptom of a worldwide disease in his own way and including Brexit, which was a huge thing that happened of course and now we’ve had elections, a possibility of a similar kind of populism rising in France. We’ve seen Hungary. We saw close election in Austria. Do you see these things as part of the same disease or are we sort of oversimplifying a bunch of different people for – you know, throughout the world is having the same …
David Boaz: Well, I think there are some distinctions we have to make. Yes, there are some similarities. America is not Europe. The Europeans like to complain about Americans and their cowboy attitudes and somebody said fascism is always hovering over America, but it only alights in Europe.
There’s something to that. We never had these fascists take power. Trump is not a fascist in the sense that he doesn’t have an ideology. He has some – he’s a protectionist. He seems to be a crony capitalist. He believes that he personally as the president should go pressure companies to do something that he thinks is in the national interest. He did use racial and religious scapegoating in his campaign. But Marine Le Pen is a sort of consistent fascist-like candidate for president. That’s more or less true in Hungary and Poland and maybe among some of the other parties in Europe as well.
Brexit on the other hand is a perfectly good free trade nationalist in the good sense liberal case for Brexit. There were also people who voted for Brexit for bad reasons that are similar to the reasons that they might support Marine Le Pen or something.
So I think all these things are different but as Tom Palmer writes in the current Cato policy report, there are some similarities there which are frightening and frankly, five years ago, we believed that Western liberalism had defeated fascism and communism and so we were arguing now within the Sweden to Reagan paradigm. Now it looks like that’s not the end of history, that there is a resurgent left that’s even pushing kind of socialist ideas as well as identity politics and an authoritarian way of stamping out dissent and there’s a sort of identity politics right.
Hey, why don’t we Hungarians, we French, we white people have a right to organize ethnically if everybody else does and don’t we need a strong leader to lead us and to save us? Trump kept talking about how he admired strong leaders like Putin and Kim Jong-un and – who else? There were some other strong …
David Boaz: He thought Saddam Hussein had been a strong leader. So that’s a dangerous tendency and you know, Hayek wrote about this in the Road to Serfdom and he said when the state is unable to deliver what it promises and eventually unable to really move in any clear direction, people start saying, “We need a man who can get things done,” and that might explain the rise of various authoritarian leaders.
Aaron Ross Powell: This brings me to the question I had about one of the post-mortem narratives after the election for the wave of Trump support and for the Bernie support as well and another one of these that is kind of liberals in the writ large sense, which would include us but would also include the kind of more generally free trade people. That what happened is our fault and it’s …
Trevor Burrus: Who is “our”?
Aaron Ross Powell: The liberals did something wrong, which was that we embraced this liberal economic global order that’s – and we said free trade is good for everyone and we enforced that for decades and it was by and large good for a lot of people. It was very good for those who were already doing pretty well and it was very good for the global poor who had seen their livelihoods increase dramatically.
But there was this wedge namely in America, the lower middle, lower class working people in manufacturing sectors who this economic order was disastrous for, that it caused them their jobs. It didn’t give them many options that they were promised. They were basically told, “We’re going to take away your jobs and in exchange we will give you cheaper stuff.” But that doesn’t make up for the loss of livelihood and that we kind of callously ignored this for so many years or figured that giving them Medicaid would be sufficient.
Eventually they just said no. Like your free trading ways have not worked for us. We want a piece of this and we don’t need to put up with it anymore. Is there any truth to that, like this neglected class or how do we counter that without saying, “Yeah, you’re right. Free trade is good for some, but not good for all”?
David Boaz: Well, how we communicate it I think is a difficult question. We certainly have tried to communicate the free trade idea in Main Street terms. I do think one of the things that has happened in recent years is that we’ve become so prosperous. We often have two people in a household working. So the loss of one job is not as devastating. We also have a vast panoply of welfare programs and so people can get that kind of support and one of the things that means is that for all the complaining about the disaster created by the closing of a factory, that caused a lot of people to lose their jobs, people don’t actually feel it as enough of a disaster to do something about it.
For instance, a lot of rednecks and African-Americans left the South and went to Detroit and other northern cities to find jobs. Did they want to leave the South? Not necessarily. That’s where their families were, the heritage, everything. That’s where they spoke the language.
But they went to where the jobs were and other people left those decaying northern cities and went to Texas during the oil boom of the 80s. Seems to me there has been less mobility and I think there are statistics on this. Americans have become less mobile and I think one reason is they don’t have to move to where the jobs are because we have these various safety nets including two-income families and also government programs and maybe fewer people would be feeling that they – their lives have been turned upside down by the closing of a factory because they haven’t just gone out and found something somewhere else that was different.
But it’s true that there was this backlash and some people rallied to the idea that we could stop this economic change or even reverse it and I think it’s clear from economics we can’t reverse this. We will not bring those steel jobs back and the president of the United States can get on the phone with individual companies and either bribe them or cajole them or threaten them and he will be able to save a few jobs here and a few jobs there.
But if they’re not economic, then that’s not going to last and so he is going to be, would seem to me, the latest in a series of presidents who promised, “I will deliver something to you,” and then he won’t deliver it.
Trevor Burrus: I think the word of the year – is it OED that declares the word of the year? Oxford English Dictionary or whoever. It was post-truth and there’s a lot of discussion of “fake news” going on and the bubble-ification of our social media feeds. I’ve done a couple of media hits in the last couple of days on fake news. Everyone wants to talk about it. How much do you think this contributed to the election, either just this year or over a long period of time? Secondarily, could it also maybe be a causal factor in things like Brexit and Marine Le Pen and other things that are happening, that people are getting into their own little newsfeeds?
David Boaz: Maybe. But Marine La Pen has been sort of rising in French politics for a long time and I haven’t heard about fake news being a thing over there. I don’t know. My guess is that in this election, what fake news mostly did was get circulated within bubbles, the left bubble or the far right bubble. I should say the far left bubble, the far right bubble and sort of reiterated the people. Yes, we’re right and the other side is totally corrupt and evil, but probably didn’t swing very many votes.
I’m very skeptical that these crazy stories swung a lot of votes. Of course all of those of – who consider ourselves to be fact-based, even if we’re strongly ideological, we’re rolling our eyes on Facebook and Twitter for this whole campaign and looking at these ridiculous claims from Sanders people, Hillary people, Trump people, how much difference that made to people. I suppose the fact that I saw some crazy things in my Facebook feed means there were people who ought to have been voting sanely and yet were – and maybe they were not changing their votes, but they were falling for crazy statements.
I just noticed the other day. A whole bunch of right-wing sites were reporting the Clinton Foundation’s revenue has fallen 37 percent. That shows you that it was corrupt money based on the prospect of her being president.
Well, no, that’s ridiculous. I actually think that will happen. I think in 2017, it will be interesting to see how much money people give to the Clinton Foundation when they know that Hillary Clinton is not going to be president. But it didn’t happen in the past four weeks. This was an annual figure which actually means their revenue failed while she was running for president and leading the polls. That’s an interesting question. Why did that happen? Now maybe it’s just because she and Bill were both too busy to be going, putting arms on people; they were busy campaigning. But the fact that people could somehow see this story and then start trumpeting it without even thinking about the fact – it has only been four weeks since the election. Do you really think you can measure their fall-off in their revenue? It’s a bad sign. You’ve been doing media about fake news. You tell me.
Trevor Burrus: Well, it seems to me that this is a culmination. The first thing is to put it into context because for a very long time, the right has been talking about fake news in the sense of the mainstream media. A lot of the …
David Boaz: Fake news or biased on the news? That’s different.
Trevor Burrus: I’m putting this in quotes. It depends on what you mean by fake news. It’s a definition question. But when you say, “Oh, look, you don’t really get the story from New York Times or they leave things out,” or all this, that has been a narrative that the right has been going – running with since I would say the early 80s. The growth of talk radio, these are the things that are not telling you kind of the attitude of the rights. So they go to Fox News and they get their little enclave and then – I’m not saying that Fox News is real news or fake news. But that was the narrative that came.
Now the left came in and started pushing back on that. I mean like faux news that we see that all the time. Everyone starts walling themselves off. The things that’s a concern to me is that it fits into the left’s campaign finance views very well, that they’re going to extremes. They’re a Citizens United opposition for media regulation because a lot of the question here of – we need to make sure that the people have accurate information that are not being swayed by one voice that’s too loud and inaccurate and biased. That’s what they say about Citizens United.
Now they can say it about media and license them and bring back the Fairness Doctrine and maybe make Facebook a public entity. I predict that all of this stuff will come in the next two to four years. Rick Hasen is a law professor who writes about campaign finance. I just like throwing that name. He will probably be – someone like him will write a book about why we need to regulate media, why we need to make sure fairness is happening. I think Facebook as a public utility is going to come up and it’s going to be very frightening. So I think it is a very e-culturally-defining thing of modern life. It’s the nitrification of everyone’s narrative, which changes how you view the rest of the world because you don’t really interact with it.
David Boaz: Well, I will say it occurs to me – and this goes back to what Aaron was asking earlier. There’s a fairly common thread in my Facebook conversations from people who probably are libertarians in some sense. That if I say I’m going to appear on NPR or here’s an interesting article from the Washington Post, I get this – nobody listens to NPR. Why would you believe anything that’s in the Washington Post or the New York Times?
Maybe that is dangerous. It’s stupid. I’m a critic of what I would consider liberal bias in those publications. But I’m not an enemy of those publications and I point out to people the only thing bloggers have to write about is things that reporters from mainstream media have reported. Very few blogs have reporters on the ground in Aleppo or Jakarta.
So it’s the New York Times and the Washington Post going out there and reporting the news and then bloggers taking potshots at it and saying, “You failed to discuss this angle and you don’t understand the role of religion and that’s why your reporting is flawed.” Those are a lot of legitimate criticisms there.
But the idea that people just say, “I wouldn’t read the New York Times,” or “No one reads the New York Times,” when it’s quite obvious that although the major media have slipped in their numbers, they’re still the major media.
Trevor Burrus: We will see what happens. I think that increasingly, the sort of conspiratorial aspect will be coming from both the left and the right because they won’t see the other side, so that the question here I always ask is – I always ask students this about campaign finance. When you ask people, “Why do people disagree with you?” you want – usually a person should say, “Well, because there are reasonable arguments on the other side.” They’re like that that is not there yet. So you can interpret it in different ways.
Increasingly both sides are saying, “Well, because they’re being duped by their new sources.” Both sides are saying that, that that’s why people disagree with me. I’m pretty frightened by what happens from that. But I don’t know. Maybe Aaron has a different …
Aaron Ross Powell: Well actually, I wanted to turn to one of the other big things that happened in 2016 which was a story that was mixed I guess in its optimism and pessimism, which was the Libertarian Party, Gary Johnson, his campaign. So he did the best a libertarian presidential candidate has done in terms of popular vote.
David Boaz: By a lot.
Aaron Ross Powell: Which is good, but it also feels like a lot of libertarians were disappointed by his performance, both his performance, how well he conducted himself, how well he answered questions, and also the failure to take advantage of the opportunity that he was running against the two least popular major party candidates ever, that we have data on, and only managed to get – was it four?
David Boaz: Four million votes, three and a quarter percent.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. So what shall we make of Gary Johnson?
David Boaz: Well, I think what you can say is this was the most credible, most experienced third party ticket maybe ever. Two two-term governors. There haven’t been two governors on a major party ticket since 1948. So an experience ticket that drew respect, that got more media attention than third parties usually do, as you say running against the two most unpopular candidates in polling history, and they only got three percent.
Now I will tell you what. I haven’t done the numbers yet. But I can tell you, when I calculate votes per dollar, Gary Johnson is going to have paid a lot less for each of his votes than Trump and Hillary did. So by that standard, they did OK. But they didn’t get the daily media coverage. Their speeches weren’t covered on cable news, all of that.
So they got more coverage than third parties usually do, but they didn’t get that much, and they only did that well. I thought that they were overhyping things from the beginning. They were talking about 15 percent and if you get 15 percent, then you get in the debate. Then who knows? The sky is the limit at that point.
I always thought that third parties fade as it gets close to the election, especially if the election is close. We thought for a while maybe it wouldn’t be close. Trump would be so far behind that people would say, “Hell, I might as well vote for somebody who’s qualified.” It turned out it wasn’t that much of a disparity.
So I think, sure, Gary Johnson had some bad moments in the campaign. Having done a lot of TV interviews myself, I can tell you it’s not like watching it on TV. You feel a lot of pressure. You’re constantly thinking, “What am I about to screw up?” and you make mistakes.
He made a couple that were bad. On the other hand, I don’t know any other libertarian who would have been on those TV shows. So that’s your catch-22. I do think you have to wonder as people probably do every four years after the Libertarian Party’s results. If two governors running against the two most unpopular candidates could only get three and a quarter percent, what really is the prospect for the Libertarian Party? It just seems like Americans don’t like third parties, at least unless they’re being run – their candidates are billionaire celebrities. Three and a quarter percent is more than any third party candidate got since the last billionaire celebrity Ross Perot.
Trevor Burrus: What do you think about the tactic that Gary Johnson and Bill Weld used to basically stylize libertarianism as the middle? Is it a useful – is it something we should be kind of looking more towards, getting out of this sort of right wing corner that people have wanted to put us in or was it just a sort of one-time thing that could be done because of the two people who were – who’s running against …
David Boaz: Well, they were particularly well-suited for it. But it’s an interesting idea and I think there is something to it and if I may say, I pioneered it myself in 1980 when I was the traveling companion of that year’s libertarian presidential candidate. I remember a Washington Post reporter coming with us on one campaign swing and he said something about – you know, but you guys are so extreme. You will never be able to get very many votes and I said, “We’re not extreme. You know what’s extreme? Sending American boys to die in countries that most Americans have never heard of. You know what’s extreme? Taking half of a working man’s income for the government to spend.”
I’m not sure the reporter bought it. But I think there is a legitimate argument to be made there and these days, with the threats to liberty from both left and right, from authoritarianism on both left and right, I think we can in a way say we want to be the intellectual vanguard of the liberal center. Whether that makes it a libertarian center, I don’t know. Maybe there’s a left and a right and then there’s a center and we’re up at the top of the center.
But yes, I think there is a sense that we reject both the authoritarian right and the socialist left and those are the extremes in American politics and here within the reasonably sane center, we’re going to argue with the neo-conservatives and the liberal interventionists about within the bounds of liberalism, what’s the most satisfying society.
Aaron Ross Powell: The Democratic Party on Election Day got clobbered and it looks like –
David Boaz: Although technically, they did get more votes than Trump for president.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. But in the votes that count, which were the electoral votes, they seem to have gotten – have lost pretty bad and they did not do well in congress and the indications are that they’re probably not going to do well in two years. At the same time, they are – for the first time in quite a while, the left is seeming to notice that the federal government is really powerful and that that’s bad if a person who’s crazy or dangerous or at least holds views different than yours is in control of all these levers of power.
So do we have an opportunity as libertarians to reach the left, to reach democrats in a way that we haven’t in a while? Do you think that the – that a Trump presidency will make them – at least help them to be willing to listen to us in a way that they haven’t been before?
David Boaz: Well, I would hope so. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic wrote a piece early in the year called Tyrant-Proofing the Presidency Before It’s Too Late.
But I will tell you, this is an argument libertarians have been making to in – in a sense left and right for a long time. We told republicans during the Bush years, “Do not give so much power to the president.” What if Hillary Clinton becomes president?
During the Obama years, we said, “Do not give so much power to the president and to the federal government because someday there’s going to be a republican president,” and I will tell you internationally, I remember libertarians in South Africa when the end of apartheid was looming, saying – we’re telling people in the government, the apartheid government, you need to privatize and denationalize a lot of institutions, especially state broadcasting because you know the ANC is going to be governing South Africa within a few years. You don’t want them to have the state broadcasting corporation, do you? So get rid of it!
And libertarians in Hong Kong wanted to privatize and deregulate even more because communist China was going to take over. I don’t think in either one of those cases or in the Clinton, Bush or Obama cases, did the people who were then in power listen to the concern that they were building up powers that they were going to turn over to their enemies.
Now for all that they criticized Reagan and Bush, I do think a lot of liberals right now believe that Donald Trump is more of a threat to the norms of liberal democracy than Bush or Reagan was and therefore they ought to be more concerned about it and we ought to keep making this point. In our Cato handbook for policy makers, we have a chapter on reining in war powers and a chapter on congressional resurgence. Congress should actually start insisting that it is the law-making body. But I don’t know. The left didn’t listen during the Obama years and they didn’t listen during the Clinton years when we said, “You know, a republican might succeed Bill Clinton.”
Trevor Burrus: So predictions, we’re now starting to see the Trump administration taking pretty – I mean we’ve seen – I think most of the cabinet positions have been named now. We’re seeing more and more people that’s a mixture of outsiders, sort of bizarre picks like the Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr. CEO and then –
Aaron Ross Powell: Banking executives.
Trevor Burrus: Banking executives and more typical insiders like Elaine Chao. We’re getting a better idea of what he might govern, how he might govern. Do you have any predictions? Anything from he will be impeached within the first six months to – I think this is – you know, the general tone of Washington over the next four years as we deal with this unique …
David Boaz: No. I no longer know anything. All my predictions were wrong. I think Aaron made a prediction just now that I would not expect will necessarily be true, which was that the democrats will have a bad 2018. That’s based on the fact that they have a lot of senate seats coming up and the republicans not so many. When we thought Hillary Clinton would be president, that looked like a bad formula for the democrats.
But now, it’s generally the case that senate seats swing against the incumbent president and this president could very well be in the throes of impeachment by then. On the other hand, since I’ve been wrong all along, maybe there’s a possibility that he will be incredibly popular in 2018, that he will have done four carrier deals and people will love him, and besides which if the economy booms, which it could. Their economic cycles of presidents don’t necessarily focus.
However, we’re also right now in the middle of a very slow and weak but long recovery. It might be time for a recession and so if a recession hits in 2017, then that will not be a happy time for republicans in 2018. So, I think we’re in for an unpredictable presidency. These cabinet appointments do not add up to anything consistent. There are crazy people and quite sane people and people with good free market principles being appointed to jobs but also people who don’t have those kinds of principles. We have even at the center of the White House a couple of crazy people and one bland Midwestern guy trying to keep a lid on it all.
Trump is a very different kind of president. He is the least policy-focused president we’ve ever had and the things that he’s really focused on are really bad – protectionism and building a wall and deporting people – and hopefully there will be a lot of pushback. But who are the people who ought to push back against protectionism and excessive executive power? That would be republicans in congress. Are they going to? I’m not seeing it yet. Maybe when he becomes president and he starts actually doing things instead of just talking. But I’m not confident of that.
So it may be that Rand Paul is Horatio at the bridge. On the foreign relations committee, he can keep a bad secretary of state from getting out of committee and other than that, I don’t know. I think we’re in for a wild ride.
Aaron Ross Powell: If you’ve enjoyed listening to Free Thoughts this past year, I encourage you to check out Libertarianism.org’s Facebook page where you can vote on your favorite episode of 2016.
Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Tess Terrible. To learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.