As libertarians sit upon the eve of the South Carolina Republican Presidential primary, a contest which appears to be little more than a coronation ceremony in the march to “Make America Great Again”, most seem to see little reason for optimism.
Libertarians, undoubtedly, look at the ascent of Trump as a sign that libertarianism, and it’s appeal, have regressed. The cynic may claim previous momentum was a faux embrace of principle in an environment barren of well packaged sentiment.
When one begins the journey into libertarianism, it is impossible to disregard the prevalence of pessimism as a universally shared trait. The trouble of pessimism, is its all consuming nature and libertarians can ill afford to miss the gifts of loss.
Lessons are learned in failure, not success. When faced with electoral defeat or failed attempts at convincing rational people to resist the allure of hope, change, and restored greatness, libertarians must not allow these lessons of defeat to become engulfed in a wave of disdain for our fellow voters.
Donald Trump’s ascent to the pinnacle of the political arena represents the single biggest glimmer of hope for libertarians since Ron Paul’s 2012 third place finish in Iowa and the widespread adoption of the “It’s Happening!” gif as an appropriate response to good news on Facebook.
Now, some may be reading this with their mouth hanging open in disbelief. How could a wall-building, Muslim-banning, China-hating nationalist possibly be interpreted as a positive sign for the prospects of libertarianism?
Because Donald Trump, for all his faults, has changed the game of electoral success forever.
However, few realize that Trump was not the first to try this new media and publicity centered campaign model. Ross Perot first tried it as a third party candidate.
Four years ago, some may remember that on the eve of South Carolina’s primary, Newt Gingrich, after roasting CNN’s John King at the opening of the Republican debate two days before the primary, won the Palmetto state with little more than prior successful debate performances, a single staffer, and tapping into a vein of voter hatred for the mainstream media.
The reality of the Republican race is that a well organized, well funded, boots on the ground operation is no match for a campaign focused on exploiting a media driven by linkbait and the number of eyeballs watching a focus group tested news anchor.
Before any current libertarian candidates run out and begin picking fights with their district’s top priest, a proper appreciation for Trump’s media mind must be given. It has taken Trump years of trial and error in the media to summon the attention he wants on demand. By now, surely no one thinks a feud with the Pope two days before the primary was sheer coincidence?
Even if the race were closer, it would not have mattered. He completely sucked the air out of the room by making sure every major media outlet covered his feud with the highest ranking Christian on Earth, rather than his rivals.
Why his success is such a reason for optimism for libertarians, is the fact that there are real constraints that come along with not being in one of the two major parties or as an outsider to their established members. Yet, Donald Trump has shown protective primary rules and years of major party media access cannot stop saleable media content.
What is the most appealing part about Trump’s strategy for Libertarian candidates?
FREE media exposure. Two birds, one stone.
A campaign built around an optimistic, future-oriented vision, and encapsulated within a short catchphrase, is a necessity in the world of ever decreasing attention spans.
When such a catchphrase is combined with just the right amount of controversial issue-driven messaging fit into media friendly sound bites, original and irrefutable character attacks on opponents (low-energy), and the inherent populism of libertarian principles (status as equal individuals under the law and its application, trade law that doesn’t favor one worker over another, etc…), dramatic electoral success is the result.
Now, not every race is winnable for third-party or outsider candidates, but the same was said about the Republican Presidential primary less than 9 months ago.
Context matters and the only reason Trump’s success has been possible, is due to the Republican Party’s dismissal of a rising tide of discontent and anxiety stemming from a rapidly changing society and culture. Is that a situation conducive to libertarian messaging?
Maybe. Maybe not.
All politics is local and for libertarians that means each race, even at the township level, presents an opportunity to run a new style of campaign. A campaign dramatically better suited to the economic and membership constraints of the Libertarian Party.
As libertarians, we believe in the free market. Prior to Trump’s success with a new model of campaign, the marketplace for political campaigns looked more like a Cold War era Soviet grocery store than a Walmart. Thankfully, an alternative with a successful track record is now available.
An election can be won with proper messaging, minimal staff and resource expenditures, and by exploiting a profit driven media. While Trump’s success will not be replicable by all, but prior to it, there was dramatically less reason for hope.
The game has changed. David cannot only beat Goliath, David is Goliath.
We are witnessing the dawn of a new era in campaigns and political science. One where publicity stunts and messaging can trump decades old political machines. What could possibly be better news for Libertarians?
So cheer up. We’ve got elections to win.