It’s time to end the never-ending libertarian support for Trump

Donald Trump is a clear and present danger to democracy, the rule of law, and to basic rights and human decency.  It is hard to see how anyone could deny this.  Trump encouraged violence and fraud to remain in power after he lost the 2020 election.  He continues to insist that he won the election, despite losing in court over and over, even in front of judges that he appointed.  In his campaign for re-election, he has emphasized revenge against his political enemies and threatened to politicize the justice department, and he may do the same with the military.  He has vilified immigrants and threatens mass roundups and deportations.  He sows religious division.  He uses dehumanizing language and celebrates authoritarianism, both at home and abroad.  He claims the President has absolute immunity.  Ominously, people associated with his campaign are no longer denying that he means what he says:  they want us to take him literally as well as seriously.  For an excellent bill of particulars, see this piece by Radley Balko.

But both sides do it . . .

Libertarians and classical liberals claim to be strong supporters of basic liberties and the rule of law – conditions that are always at risk, and that are most secure in representative democracies.  Yet many downplay the threat that Donald Trump poses to democracy and freedom, or they acknowledge that Trump is a threat but engage in “both sides do it” excuse-making for Trump. 

I can’t easily prove to you that libertarians downplay Trump’s authoritarianism.  Many of them mention it occasionally, and there is no accepted standard for how many warnings about Trump’s authoritarianism are appropriate under present circumstances, and exactly how urgent these warnings should be.  If you doubt my claim that libertarians downplay Trump’s authoritarianism, you can look at some of my previous posts on this issue, or you can scroll through libertarian websites and decide for yourself.

But I can give you many examples of libertarians downplaying Trump’s authoritarianism by claiming that “both sides do it”. 

Here Donald Boudreaux links to a WSJ piece on “the left’s war on the rule of law.”  Here he links to a WSJ piece acknowledging that Trump disregards the rule of law but asserting that “Joe Biden is no better”.  Another piece by Boudreaux:

. . . The leading populist on the right, of course, is Trump. And his ring is now being kissed by many supplicants who, I assume, pant for the prospect of exercising some of the power that he’ll obtain if he’s re-elected to the presidency.

But populists prominently populate also the left. Biden rules as one, and Congress has no shortage of ‘progressive’ populists to assist him in his appalling disregard of both the rule of law and the laws of economics. While I have my own opinion about what ‘should’ be the outcome of the depressing likely rematch of Biden vs. Trump, I recognize that reasonable classical liberals can (and do) disagree over this matter. I feel as though it’s again 2016 and American voters once more face the choice of being garroted or burned alive.

In this post Boudreaux appears to suggest that Biden is preferable to Trump, but this conclusion rests on highly contestable Rube Goldberg reasoning:  electing Trump would lead to a backlash against Republicans and thus ultimately to the adoption of more “left-wing policies”.  If a right-wing reader finds this reasoning doubtful, the lesson is clear:  vote for Trump to get the tax cuts and deregulation.

Is Biden really as bad as Trump?

Of course, it is possible that Biden is just as bad as Trump from the point of view of preserving democracy, the rule of law, and basic rights.  But what exactly has Biden done that constitutes a serious threat to democracy and the rule of law? 

Let’s take a look at some examples that George Will claims show that Biden is an “authoritarian recidivist”, in columns cited approvingly by Boudreaux.

One purported outrage cited by Will is the fact that Julie Su, who was previously confirmed as Deputy Secretary of Labor, is now serving as Acting Secretary of Labor despite not being confirmed by the Senate for that role.  I have not researched this issue carefully, but according to this legal opinion by the GAO, Su’s position as Acting Secretary is proper because federal law provides that the Deputy Labor Secretary will perform the duties of the Secretary until a successor is in place.  This opinion seems plausible on its face.  Of course, there is a lot of partisan sniping over Su because of her policy positions, and it is conceivable that the Supreme Court could disagree with the Biden administration’s interpretation of the relevant statutes or even hold that these statutes violate the constitution.  But this hardly shows contempt for the rule of law, much less a penchant for authoritarian rule equivalent to Trump’s.  Struggling with a dysfunctional Congress over appointments is not the same thing as, say, fomenting election violence or using the Department of Justice to target your political opponents.

Will also points to the vaccine mandate and student debt relief proposals of the Biden administration as evidence of Biden’s recidivist authoritarianism.  This dog won’t hunt; it won’t even drag its sorry ass out of bed.  It is true that both the vaccine mandate and the debt cancelation plan were struck down by the Supreme Court.  However, the bare fact that the Supreme Court struck down these administrative actions, standing alone, does not provide any reason to think that the administration was acting illegally, unless you also believe that 1) the Supreme Court is infallible at legal interpretation, so that its ruling definitively establishes that the administration’s position is wrong on the merits, and 2) that the meaning of our constitution and the relevant statutes is so clear that the administration must have known – before the Supreme Court weighed in – that its positions were illegal.  Both of these claims are preposterous:  legal interpretation is far from an exact science, and the Supreme Court is far from infallible.  Will may believe that the Court reached the correct decision in these cases, but that does not show that the administration’s position in either case was unreasonable, much less that the administration acted in a deliberately illegal or unconstitutional manner.

(After the Supreme Court struck down the administration’s debt relief plan, the administration has continued to look for ways to get relief to some deserving borrowers.  The WSJ claims that the Biden administration is defying the Court, just like Andrew Jackson (but unlike Trump).  This would indeed raise serious questions about the administration’s commitment to the rule of law, if it were true, but . . . it’s not true.  The administration is acting under different statutory authority.)

In short, these charges of authoritarianism against Biden are just a Gish Gallop of nonsense, false equivalence on steroids.  And certainly none of the executive branch wrongdoing alleged in these cases is remotely equivalent to what Trump did on January 6, 2021, or to his threat to weaponize the justice department or take revenge on his political opponents.

Why it matters . . .

The failure of libertarian thinkers to clearly and repeatedly warn of the threat that Trump poses to democracy is unfortunate because some of their followers are undoubtedly struggling to decide if they should support Trump to achieve their right-wing economic policy goals, or if they should support Biden to protect American democracy.  If it turns out that Biden is just as big a threat to democracy as Trump is, then this becomes an easy choice:  go for the tax cuts and deregulation.

The refusal of libertarians and classical liberals to speak up is especially troubling because many of them work for think tanks that are supported by politically active Republican billionaires whose money may play a decisive role in a close election.  Presumably these very rich libertarians have some respect for the opinions of people who work for the think tanks that they fund.  We know that some of these billionaires are troubled by Trump’s behavior.  Peter Theil has decided to sit out the election.  The Koch network has so far backed Nikki Haley, and it is unclear if Koch will ultimately support Trump, Biden, or simply focus on state and congressional races.  Perhaps Theil, Koch, and others can be persuaded to support Biden.  Or at least they can be persuaded to withhold support from Trump.

It is time for libertarians and classical liberals to speak up.