Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Silver Lining

Even before Donald Trump won the presidential election last month, he had already made America a much worse place.  Trump’s emergence over the past 18th months have made our political discourse much more hostile and much less coherent.  Presidential campaigns have always suffered from lack of substance, but Trump’s mere existence as a topic stripped the entire 2016 season of whatever ideological clash it might have otherwise offered.  His racism, misogyny, and lack of filter for either goaded our sensationalist media into handing him much more free airtime than he deserved, creating a constant and insufferable distraction from anything important or newsworthy in American politics over the past year.  He incited violence by both his supporters and his opposition. He stoked racial tensions and polarized our country like never before in my memory.  And beyond our nation’s borders, he has already done incalculable damage to America’s image and reputation as a leader worth turning to for guidance and example.

Now that he’s won, the next four years will surely bring much worse.  With Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, Trump may attempt to deport millions of illegal immigrants, ripping mostly innocent parents from their wholly innocent children as punishment for victimless crimes.  He will likely attempt to make most Muslim immigrants register on a database, even those who have lived here peacefully for years, and deport any who do not comply. He has appointed a cabinet full of war hawks, drug hawks, authoritarians, labor protectionists, climate change deniers and racists, plus an Attorney General who’s all of the above. He may be able to impose abortion restrictions, and perhaps even appoint judges willing to overturn Roe v. Wade.  His foreign policy remains unclear, but vaguely ominous, having floated support for multiple war crimes during the campaign. He will almost certainly expand domestic surveillance, expand detentions at Guantanamo, and expand a unilateral drone program that already had far too few limitations or checks. He has threatened to censor media outlets which criticized him. Although the Supreme Court will almost certainly disallow some of this, the disastrous spectacle of the President openly defying their rulings has never seemed so plausible.

With such frightening possibilities on the immediate horizon, I am reluctant to write this entry at all. Optimism seems irresponsible at the present moment.  It is not the time for libertarians to shrug, laugh it off and hope for the best.  This is a time for libertarians to re-forge their Bush-era allegiance with the left, and to focus our combined energies on four years’ worth of resistance and disruption strategies.  Make no mistake: the glass is more than half-empty.

Nevertheless, I see reason for hope over the long-term, and for the next few years to be bearable libertarians will need to cling to it.  The silver lining is this: Trump’s rise to power will cause millions of people to drastically reconsider their views on democracy, the state, and its proper role in our lives, in ways which stand to benefit libertarian efforts to constrain those institutions.  For all the damage Trump has done and will continue to do to both our discourse and our policy, his presidency may have a sobering effect on political insiders from both the right and the left that makes it easier to improve those institutions after he’s gone.

On the right, Trump has done the political dialogue a tremendous service by teasing out what’s rotten from what’s worth keeping.  Specifically, he has teased out the racism from the libertarianism, such that libertarians have an opportunity to shed the oft-hurled accusation of racism so long as we consistently and passionately oppose Trump.

The libertarian label has long been an appealing hiding spot for racists in disguise.  From Goldwater’s segregationists to Ron Paul’s newsletters, the Alex-Jones crowd has polluted our tolerant individualist ideology with a hateful collectivist strain. But Trump’s emergence has temporarily solved this problem by forcing self-labeled libertarians to choose between ideologically consistent small-government conservatism on one hand, or white-resentment and animosity towards racial minorities on the other.  Which side you picked determines where your allegiances truly lie.

Consequently, the so-called “alt-right” has emerged as its own ideological affiliation, recognizably distinct from libertarianism, whereas its members would formerly get lumped together and give libertarians a bad name.  As I wrote months ago, “In destroying the Republican Party, [Trump] has demolished the dual hiding place of nativists pretending to be intellectuals, and intellectuals pretending half the country agreed with them.” As it turned out, the Republican Party may not be dead quite yet, but even so my point stands.  Conservative intellectuals appalled by racism, who had formerly supported the Republican Party without qualm, must now take a hard look in the mirror as they reexamine their political bedfellows.  Meanwhile, those libertarians who remain unbranded by the scarlet letter of Trump support will have an easier time convincing audiences of their intentions and credibility moving forward – especially now that Trump’s victory prevents conservatives from abandoning him and pretending he never existed.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Trump’s presidency stands to deal a devastating and long-overdue blow to left-wing people’s faith in government at large.  That faith has always been misplaced, and we’re about to witness why.  The 2016 election has already rattled people’s faith in democracy, including even that puny smidge of it my cynical heart had left.  With any luck, his administration it produces will only continue to weaken people’s confidence in the state as the proper mechanism for achieving social change.  If that lesson sticks, it will be very good for liberty in the long-run.

All through primary school, Americans are taught a series of comforting myths about our political system.  In fact, instilling these myths was one of the primary purposes for which public schooling was originally created. There is no grand conspiracy behind it, but that purpose remains alive and well today, at least subliminally.  Nation-centric history books teach us one-sided fables about how the government was founded, how it has governed since then, and how it works today.  We are taught nursery rhymes about our founding story and the legislative process.  We’re taught that democratic government is “all of us,” and can therefore be trusted; that “We the People” call the shots.  We’re even made to stand in unison and recite a creepy pledge to a piece of fabric each morning in which we remind ourselves that OUR government offers “liberty and justice to all.”  We play the national anthem before every sports game from middle-school up, and expect everyone to stand silently for its duration: motionless and hat-less, heads bowed as if in prayer to some revered entity.  Politicians of all parties reinforce these themes every chance they get.

All of this is intended to make you believe that our government is three things: legitimate, morally authoritative, and a noble instrument for social change.  Decades of subliminal indoctrination aim to convince you that the state operates “with the consent of the governed” – that you and your neighbors have a meaningful say in shaping the law, which you should be both proud of and contented with.  From there, the argument is made that the law is a moral authority: because the law arises from the bottom up, from the people, it allegedly follows that the law is righteous, the law is just, and we have a sacred obligation to obey the law.  And finally, the leap of logic is made in our imaginations that because the law is the arbiter of right and wrong, whenever we detect something wrong in the world, we should turn to the state to make it right.  We fantasize that this government of ours, which we’ve been taught is so unique and so virtuous and such a courageous experiment in “self-rule,” is THE essential tool for solving our society’s problems – perhaps even the world’s problems. 

All politicians want you to buy-in to these three beliefs, because these three beliefs have implications on which their power depends.  The implication of legitimacy is that you should vote, encourage others to vote, shame those who don’t vote, and then accept whatever governing decisions your voting produces as a rough approximation of what most people want.  The implication of moral authority is that after you’ve voted, you have an obligation to obey even those laws which you personally opposed.  And the implication of government being an instrument for social change is that the whole endeavor of governance is transformed from the relatively simple one of protecting our most basic rights, and creating the conditions necessary for human progress to emerge through peaceful means, into one in which the state itself must hire men with guns to spearhead our personal moral crusades if any progress is to be made at all.

The beauty of Donald Trump’s victory this November is that the most educated among us can no longer square these myths with the reality before them.  It is very difficult to claim President Trump’s every opinion represents the legitimate will of the American people when his favorability ratings hover at 37%; or when only 55% of Americans voted, and only 46% of those who voted picked him; or when he lost the popular vote to one of the least popular candidates in US history.  It is very difficult for thinking people to believe that majority rule is morally authoritative when anything close to a majority has supported someone as plainly immoral as Donald J. Trump.  And it is darn-near impossible to view the American as a harbinger for social progress when that system stands to undo so many decades of progress in a single election.

The truth is that our government – and all governments – are nothing close to the patriotic pornography that the West Wing opening credits would have you believe.  Government is ugly.  It is clumsy, it is heated, it is inherently violent, it is lethal, it is unconvincing, and 99 times out of 100 it is ill-suited to making the world a better place.  There’s nothing poetic about it.  Donald Trump’s opinions do not represent the “will of the people,” and neither did Obama’s nor any president before him.  On the contrary, his opinions render obvious, to any progressive for which it wasn’t obvious already, that democracy it isn’t all of us deciding things together, nor even most of us.  It is only some of us, appointed by others of us, and no matter how many elections they win they shouldn’t get to tell the rest of us how to live.

Just as Trumps candidacy forced conservatives to choose between racial resentment and small-government idealism, Trump’s presidency will force progressives to choose between advancing progress and statism.  I hope the choice is apparent.  Democracy is not sacred, and neither are its verdicts.  That’s not a comforting realization for the millions of Americans which have come to fetishize it, but it is an overdue one.

The next four years will cause more and more Americans to dispel, one and for all, with these fictions [sic]. As more and more become disillusioned with the state, libertarians need to have answers ready for the questions they will start to ask: what caused this?  How did things get so fucked up?  What lessons can we learn from it?  How can we make the best of it while it lasts, and how can we prevent it from happening again?  If we can publicize compelling answers to those questions, we will be in line to snatch up millions of new votes by the time we do another one of these damn elections.  

But more importantly, we’ll have finally gotten through to people about the absurdity of it all. When people come to see the state for what it is – not a battleground for the fate of humanity, but a necessary evil for a narrow function – they’ll stop letting political affairs have such power over their very self-identity.  They won’t be sucked in so gullibly to these 18-month media melodramas over which inflated personality caricature will “rule the free world!” next, but will instead seek to reduce the role this outsized and outdated institution plays in their lives so they can get on with living them.

The law is an opinion with a gun; resist it when you can, ignore it when you can’t.  The next four years will be embarrassing and will hurt lots of people, but they won’t be Armageddon.  Life will move on.  The greatest joys in life have nothing to do with the state, and nor do the most exciting ways in which the world is getting better. We don’t need government to improve the world, so let’s not wait until 2020 to start trying.

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