But speaking from more than a decade of experience as a libertarian Republican, engaging with other self-described libertarians, the truth is somewhat worse than what Matt depicted: For too many self-described “libertarians”—by no means all, but a lot of them—libertarianism and alt-rightism are in fact synonymous, and have been for decades.
In other words, there is no pipeline. Just a pile of jumbled policy views informed by notions of identity and superiority that’s been masquerading as a totally different perspective and philosophy—one with way better branding.
A friend who has variously worked to elect both former presidential candidate and Rep. Ron Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul, remarked to me a few years ago that the big difference he saw between the two Pauls—and one thing that would probably end up proving one wildly more successful in a presidential race than the other—was that Ron routinely telegraphs the belief that Americans (a traditionally majority white group) are exceptional. By contrast, Rand believes and tries to telegraph that America (an ideal, a dream, a concept, an idea undergirded by protection of a wide swath of fundamental liberties) is exceptional. This is a telling difference that gets at why for so many so-called libertarians, there’s no “evolution” (or “regressing”) from supposed libertarianism to alt-rightism. They have, in fact, always believed the same thing, but they’ve been able to slap a more appealing label on it, thanks to Ron Paul’s personal and political branding.
While Ron Paul ended his career as a Republican congressman who ran for President as a member of the Republican Party, it’s worth remembering that he first made a big splash, nationally, as a Libertarian candidate. Ron was perhaps the most prominent, self-described libertarian in US politics. As such, whether Ron Paul—a candidate for whom I voted in the 2012 Republican presidential primary (full disclosure) —is or is not a truly pure libertarian has never really been mooted, except in elite right-of-center intellectual circles. He said he was a libertarian, so people who rallied to him universally had to be libertarians, too. Except that Ron Paul showed some not-clearly-libertarian inclinations—and his followers did, too, or worse.
Ron Paul was a super-hawk on immigration. Ron Paul took a generally anti-free trade stance. Ron Paul and his fans spent a lot of time fretting about the NAFTA superhighway. Each of those positions would be more correctly described as anti-free market than “libertarian.” And conveniently, each of those positions are also more closely associated with the alt-right today than they ever have been with libertarianism, viewed broadly, conservatism, or Republicanism (whatever that is). They’re all positions that were, and could still be, very easily taken by any rank-and-file Old Labour type politician in the UK (substitute for NAFTA Superhighway, EU Agreement Allowing Romanian Trucks on British Motorways). There’s not much “libertarian” about Old Labour. But there’s a lot in common with the alt-right.
To be fair, many of Ron Paul’s policy positions that dovetail nicely with alt-rightism also can be justified on libertarian grounds. Alt-righters often love talk of “states’ rights,” because it is code to those of them who really do harbor major, overt, and fully disclosed racial grievances for letting states do away with policies that they perceive as “anti-white.” But “states’ rights” is obviously also a concept that would be supported to at least a good degree by the likes of former Gov. and Libertarian presidential candidate (for whom I also voted, and worked to win votes for) Gary Johnson.
A very high to nonexistent threshold for shutting down free speech, which clearly benefits members of the alt-right that would commonly be called racists even by their defenders, gets solid support from libertarians (note the ACLU’s defense of Milo Yiannopoulos).
And of course, yes, libertarians and alt-righters generally agree that having a less hawkish, less nation-building-focused foreign policy is the right move for America. But they come at this from different places: Genuine, one might say “pure” libertarians are generally skeptical of the ability of government—including the military—to successfully overhaul societies, economies and the like. And they’re skeptical about whether it’s a project worth undertaking anyway (is making Pakistan a more gender-equality-minded country really government’s proper purpose)—especially since it comes with significant economic costs (and libertarians loathe spending money on unnecessary things).
Alt-righters are less concerned about the government getting so big that it’s engaged in societal makeover efforts in distant lands, and more about government misallocating resources away from actual (white) Americans, in favor of brown people in Third World countries. They’re also concerned about the perceived waste of resources—not money but good, American boys in our military—on preventing Somalis from killing each other.
If you look at Ron Paul, you can see how all of this was nicely packaged up, but also how, courtesy of his views on immigration and trade, to say nothing of his staffing and the content of his infamous newsletters, he might be considered to be somewhat or as much alt-right as libertarian—while giving alt-righters the ability to claim a mantle that sounds good and cool: Libertarian. It’s about freedom! Even when for many Ron Paul devotees, it’s really not.
Rand Paul, by contrast, has taken a much less hawkish tone on immigration than did his Dad. While he didn’t vote for the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill, he has spoken about immigration, diversity, people speaking different languages and celebrating non-traditional white American cultures in positive terms. This is one thing that earned him the enmity of the anti-immigration lobby that backed Trump so heavily in 2016. Rand Paul spoke about his German ancestors being discriminated against because they weren’t “American” enough. He’s given speeches that integrate Spanish, and offered to Hispanic voters that he didn’t spend enough time paying attention in Spanish class in high school, so he only speaks “un poco di Tex-Mex y un poco de Spanglish.” True, Rand is not a pro-free-trade fanatic. But he’s clearly comfortable with people the alt-right views as “different” and “foreign,” like most true libertarians tend to be– and like the alt-right tends not to be (or at least not much).
Rand also has distanced himself from Barry Goldwater’s old position, highly approved of by the alt-right and (grudgingly) conceded by legitimate libertarians on philosophical purist grounds, that the Civil Rights Act went too far and undercut fundamental rights while extending or protecting others. That made him a traitor in the minds of a good number of his Dad’s old supporters—guys who were never drawn to him in the run-up to 2016, anyway, and who always were in a Trumpish state of mind.
And the truth is, when you exit the Beltway, and head for “Real America,” you can find plenty of people who caucused or voted for Ron Paul in 2012 and who chose Donald Trump over Rand Paul in 2016, not even giving Rand a passing glance. Very many of those people never changed what they believed, or tunneled down a slippery pipeline into the fever swamps of white-supremacy-curious. A lot of them have always been there, and Ron Paul gave them a political home, enabling them to associate with people who are fairly described as “cosmopolitan” or “(quasi-) intellectual.” People like me and several family members, who by the time we got to have our say in the GOP primary process, felt most drawn to Rand—who had, unfortunately, dropped out by that time—and who then went on to vote for Johnson in the general.
To some, this will read as an exercise in Ron Paul-bashing (not my intention, perhaps just collateral damage) or ideological purification, something that conservatives have engaged in ad nauseum for at least the full decade I’ve been in politics, and which seems unproductive. That’s unsavory, since as a libertarian Republican, I want more people like Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and yes, Gary Johnson in the party. If we can get them by grabbing the votes of a few unsuspecting alt-rightish voters who really love Ron, and have less in common with Rand, it’s highly tempting—and a goal perhaps undercut by pointing out these somewhat nasty realities.
But this is the reality: For a long time, and for a disturbingly large number of people, alt-righters have been “libertarians.” For them, there is no pipeline. Just the same old, static location, with new verbiage developed to describe them.