January 3, 2018 Reading Time: 3 minutes

As President Trump’s first year ends, libertarians are celebrating tax cuts and deregulation that are no doubt steps in the right direction. Perhaps the president’s authoritarian bark was worse than his bite, and he’s more interested in freeing markets than acting on populist rhetoric. But it all sounds a bit like when people on the left sing the praises of one Richard Milhous Nixon.

Progressives wax poetic about Nixon’s long list of left-friendly policies that included diplomatic relations with China and advocacy of alternative energy. They might like some things Nixon did, but was he good for their movement? Of course not: his “silent majority” all but spelled an end to the ’60s and ushered in Republican presidents for 20 of the next 24 years. Similarly, President Trump has enacted some pro-market policies, but on the whole sets back the cause of liberty.

My friend Jeffrey Tucker, no fan of the president, recent wrote for AIER that

it is perhaps true that in my commentary since 2015, I took his populist/nationalist language too seriously. If his most dominant trait is flexibility in policy so he can claim something or anything as an achievement, this is all to the good. He has proven to be a master of marketing. Maybe he has figured out that less government is more saleable than more.

Jeffrey is right to praise good policy when it happens. But Mr. Trump’s words do matter, and the liberty movement should continue to take his nationalist and populist rhetoric very seriously. The examples below will all be familiar to most readers, but we underplay their significance at our own peril. While many of his authoritarian flights of fancy from the campaign have not yet come to fruition, here are some examples of what this president has said and done in his first year:

  • Singling out potential immigrants from certain religious and ethnic groups by pressing ahead with plans to build a wall at the border with Mexico, and banning residents of mostly Muslim countries from entering the United States
  • Telling a recent New York Times interviewer “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department”
  • Escalating a war on drugs that has now failed for decades
  • Advocating police violence against suspected (though not convicted) fugitives:

And when you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?

  • Ceding more control over foreign-policy decisions to the military, while still making bellicose nuclear threats against North Korea on social media: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
  • Continuing to flirt with right-wing collectivists by not condemning neo-Nazi groups directly immediately after the violence last year in Charlottesville, Virginia.

All these words and actions have a common thread of nationalism and authoritarianism, and are anathema to those who support less government and greater liberty. But isn’t it just rhetoric? If free market policies make millions better off, who cares if the president tweets about the size of his button?

One reason we should care is that the president’s rhetoric signals an appetite of many Americans for an authoritarian leader. The Trump campaign basically amounted to “I got this,” the candidate’s purported unique ability to restore the nation’s greatness. After his term, there may be lower taxes and fewer regulations, but authoritarian voters won’t drop their xenophobia and militarism in favor of a libertarian worldview.

Mr. Trump’s words aren’t just the symptom of a problem, they make the problem worse. Because of this campaign and presidency, more workers feel entitled to protection from trade, more police feel confident violating the rights of suspects, and yes, more people feel comfortable openly spewing racism and xenophobia.

Make no mistake, some combination of the president, his staff, and Congress enacted economic policies libertarians should praise. But President Trump is a step backward for the libertarian movement, and it’s up to all of us to keep pushing back to ensure we aren’t at the start of an authoritarian generation.

Max Gulker

Max Gulker

Max Gulker is a former Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is currently a Senior Fellow with the Reason Foundation. At AIER his research focused on two main areas: policy and technology. On the policy side, Gulker looked at how issues like poverty and access to education can be addressed with voluntary, decentralized approaches that don’t interfere with free markets. On technology, Gulker was interested in emerging fields like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, competitive issues raised by tech giants such as Facebook and Google, and the sharing economy.

Gulker frequently appears at conferences, on podcasts, and on television. Gulker holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to AIER, Max spent time in the private sector, consulting with large technology and financial firms on antitrust and other litigation. Follow @maxg_econ.

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