Out of Options: Libertarians in the Age of Trump


It was predictable that delegates at the Libertarian Party’s national convention wouldn’t like Donald Trump. They invited him to get attention. That the frontrunner in the race for president would attend a Libertarian convention made them feel important. But Trump is not one of them. Libertarians believe government power should be strictly confined. Donald Trump likes power. He doesn’t want his power (or himself) confined.

Trump asked the Libertarians to make him their nominee, so that he would be on the ballot under two parties — one party more than Joe Biden. (William Jennings Bryan did it in 1896, so why not?) Trump offered his audience a deal. If they would accept him, he said, he would appoint some “Libba-tarians” to the cabinet.

His audience responded with groans and boos. Had Trump taken an interest in their ideas, he would not have been surprised by those groans. The Libertarians’ slogan, painted in big letters on the wall behind him, was “Become Ungovernable.” And they were. “Maybe you don’t want to win,” Trump bellowed. “Keep getting your 3 percent every four years.”

The Libertarian ticket reached 3 percent only once in 50 years. That was in in 2016, when Trump ran the first time. That year, the Libertarian candidate was Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico. Johnson was the most qualified candidate the Libertarians had ever run — and he took 3.3 percent of Americans’ votes.

Most of the time, Libertarians nominated unknown candidates who were good at making purist ideas sound reasonable. Their central idea is political individualism — that your life belongs to you, that you should be free to make (peaceful) decisions and take the consequences. That idea reaches deep into American history to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “don’t tread on me.”

The Libertarians take that idea a long way. They are against the draft and foreign wars. They are for the right to take drugs and own guns. Regarding Social Security, they say, “retirement planning is the responsibility of the individual, not the government.”

They are a radical small-government, low-tax, free-market, capitalist party — the mirror opposite of the Socialist Party of a century ago. That party was originally inspired by a 19th-century novelist, Francis Bellamy; the Libertarians were largely inspired by a 20th-century novelist, Ayn Rand.

Back in the 1960s, when youths on the right started calling themselves libertarians, they hung out with conservatives. Then, in 1969, a group of libertarians at a convention of Young Americans for Freedom publicly burned their draft cards. Conservatives, who supported the anti-communist war in Vietnam, were outraged at this act and denounced the libertarians as hippies. Some them were, though in adulthood most of them trimmed their locks and became Republicans.

Libertarian ideas, watered down to make them palatable, had a noticeable influence in the Republican Party in the 1990s in such proposals as public-school vouchers and 401(k)-type accounts in Social Security, and in opposition to Clinton’s bombing of Serbia. Even our Democratic president, Bill Clinton, said in his 1996 State of the Union address, “The era of big government is over.” Whether anyone believed it, it was notable that he said it. Have you heard it lately?

In the 2000s came George W. Bush, the 9-11 attacks, and the War on Terror. In 2002, only six Republicans in the House voted against the Iraq war. One was Ron Paul of Texas, a former Libertarian. In 2008, Paul ran for president. He was the Bernie Sanders of the right. With his calls for auditing the Federal Reserve, he wasn’t going to win the Republican nomination, but his supporters sure liked it. I dropped in on his rally at Seattle Westin, and stood by the door next to a state Republican official. “The rest of the party could use this kind of enthusiasm,” he said.

That year, in Washington’s Republican caucuses, Paul got 22 percent of the vote, with particular strength in Clark and Spokane counties. Only in Montana, at 25 percent, was his caucus support greater. But in the statewide primary, he got just 8 percent. Paul’s support was narrow and deep; John McCain’s was shallower but broad. McCain won the state’s delegates — and the nomination to run against Barack Obama.

Where are libertarians now, 16 years later? The Libertarian Party is still there, but it has been no more effective in the past 50 years than the economic sanctions on Cuba. Under Donald Trump the Republicans are a big-government, nationalist party. The most libertarian senator is Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son. Rand is less the purist than his father, but he is there — one guy.

In the state of Washington, the most prominent libertarian was Richard Sanders, who served from 1996 to 2010 on the Washington Supreme Court. But his views were too far out of line for progressive Puget Sound country, and he was voted off the court.

Faced with a trend against them, what should libertarians do? One answer is, “Forget politics. Invest your personal time in something else.” From an individual point of view — and that is their point of view — it’s hard to argue with that answer. It’s the answer, I think, that most libertarians have taken.

Another answer is, “Use your influence outside the parties.” Forget the parties. Support a cause. Or, if a candidate represents what you believe, send money to that candidate. Be like former Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who listed her political party as Socialist Alternative. Sawant never bothered with Democracy Vouchers, the pet plan of Seattle progressives. She raised her money from a nationwide Marxist network stretching from Oakland to Cambridge.

Washington’s top-two primary allows an outsider candidate to reach the November elections in a two-way race by knocking out the Democrat or Republican in the primary. To do that, however, would like climbing Mount Rainier in tennis shoes.

The remaining idea is for libertarians, the more moderate ones anyway, to hold their noses and go back into the Republican Party and slog it out as a faction. Nationally, one example is Justin Amash, who represented Michigan in the House from 2011 to 2021 and was the first Republican congressman to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump. In 2019 Amash declared himself a Libertarian — and in 2020 he did not run for reelection.

 Amash has since rejoined the Republicans and is running for Senate to take the open seat vacated by Democrat Debbie Stabenow. Amash calls for constitutional rights, balancing the federal budget, ending “the forever war,” and no more “governing by emergency.” Amash is in an uphill fight against former congressman and FBI agent Mike Rogers, who is endorsed by Donald Trump. 

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. The MAGA Republicans have captured the banner of irresponsible policy from the neoliberal Reaganites, so what’s left is the real true believers, mostly adolescent men, without the business support you need to go anywhere.


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