Do libertarians have an “alt-right problem?”
That’s what The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis asked on Wednesday, noticing that alt-right advocates such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell had all described themselves as libertarian at one point before either flirting with white nationalism (Yiannopoulos) or going full racist (Spencer and Cantwell).
Lewis wants to know why these men used to identify as libertarian. It’s a fair question.
How can some who were once sympathetic to the hyper-individualist philosophy that is libertarianism somehow morph into believing in the crudest form of collectivism that is racism? What makes libertarians go anti-liberty?
“It is also true that many of today’s alt-righters are disaffected conservatives,” Lewis writes. “However, there are many more conservatives in this country than there are libertarians, which suggests a disproportionate number of today’s prominent alt-righters began as libertarians.”
This is noticeably true among alt-right leaders. I don’t know if it’s true among their rank and file racists, but I have watched that transformation happen on social media over the course of the election (after warning about this potential trend in May 2016).
But why? Lewis understandably asks.
In my experience, to the degree that libertarianism once appealed to some current alt-right racists has primarily depended on the emotional stability and mental maturity of those particular people – not libertarian philosophy itself. Writing about Christopher Cantwell on Monday, I observed:
Cantwell is best understood as the most extreme example of a certain personality type I have long noticed both within the liberty movement I belong to and in other ideological movements across the spectrum. They are people who are drawn to non-mainstream or contrarian ideas first and foremost, which can be healthy and intellectually exciting on its own. Yet when those ideas combine with a cantankerousness outlook and day-to-day embitterment, these sorts of people can veer in unhealthy directions.
Cantwell’s example is instructive, in that it is clear to anyone who has observed these types for any significant period of time they are personality types first and ideologues second. You could see it coming. They were bound to end up in a bad place of some sort — it just happened to be the alt-right.
National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty made a similar observation in his response to Lewis, writing that “Perhaps the problem is just that marginal movements attract marginal people,” adding:
Cranks therefore come to accept or even embrace their own crankishness. One marginal idea leads to the next even more marginal idea. And the mainstream they rejected isn’t just wrong; its proponents become contemptible and corrupt. And contempt spreads easily: Normal people don’t care about ideas, the crank’s thinking goes, and endure the corruption around them in nearly silent docility. It’s the “normies” that kooks really can’t stand.
These people have a deep-seated need to be outsiders which is most easily achieved by becoming extremists. Within their extreme outsider position, they can rationalize that those outside their bubble are the “problem.”
The overwhelming majority of libertarians I know are not like this. Some might be eccentric or quirky – as ideologues of any stripe can be – but aren’t hellbent on rejecting mainstream society. Most within the political Ron Paul-inspired liberty movement centered today around figures like Sen. Rand Paul and organizations like Young Americans for Liberty, aren’t trying to push the masses away. In fact, they’re attempting the exact opposite.
The minority of extreme libertarians – many of whom resent Rand Paul precisely because he strives to make libertarians part of the national conversation rather than keeping it a small club – are indeed prone to buying into any far-out idea that comes along.
On this front, Lewis has a point. I wrote on Monday:
I will not names as to not further risk damaging their reputations, but I watched too many young men and a few young women begin to talk a lot less about the dangers of big government and the importance of individual rights — basic Tea Party and libertarian issues — and more about ‘Western values,’ ‘Cultural Marxism’ and ‘cucks.’ I began to notice that some libertarians who once followed Ron Paul weren’t so much into it for the liberty but more because it gave them a way to rebel combined with a sense of community that was part of an exciting new trend — which is basically what also happened to many older Republicans in 2016 with the Trump campaign.
It wasn’t really about ideology for some of the young, right and wayward. They were mad as hell and were being given a voice, whether through the alt-right, Trump or both.
This has happened to some libertarians over the last year or so, but it did not happen for the overwhelming majority of them. It’s noteworthy, but also relatively insignificant in terms of sheer numbers as it relates to the libertarian movement in the United States. Such ideological journeys toward extremism are also not necessarily peculiar to libertarianism, as Dougherty notes, they are often true within religion and other group dynamics too.
My friend Jim Antle of The Washington Examiner has also pointed out in private conversations (which I have been given permission to share here), that part of holding extreme views of any sort also usually means prescribing simple solutions to complex problems.
For example, I’m a libertarian who believes in shrinking government to its smallest possible size, while realizing that we will also always have a state of some sort. I want to make America more libertarian, while realizing it would be impossible to make the country completely libertarian. The public debate is over degrees, and within those parameters, practical libertarians can discuss real world solutions with average Americans.
But for extreme libertarians, the state itself is the culprit in all situations. Full stop. White nationalists see the presence of non-whites as the “problem” in all situations. Period. Both groups literally see everything in black and white – that merely getting rid of government or minorities will solve all the world’s problems – which ignores the vast complexity of human society, politics, culture and everything that comes with viewing real life through a sane lens.
This kind of elementary thinking appeals to certain troubled personality types, something that is separate from libertarianism itself. These people could have just as easily gone straight to the alt-right, or from Occupy Wall Street to the alt-right, as Charlottesville “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler did.
But again, extreme libertarians and white nationalists are both still relatively marginal groups. The amount of extreme libertarians who’ve crossed over to join hands with white nationalists are an even smaller minority.
So, no, there is no steady and plentiful “pipeline” from libertarianism to the alt-right. But Lewis is right that whatever slow drip might exist, libertarians and conservatives should do what they can to shut off the spigot.