I’ll admit, I’m writing this primarily to see if he’ll publish an article of this title. I mean, he’s still wrong, but in a pretty inconsequential way and merely by implication. On Twitter, he wrote:
“Well… that #SOTU2020 has me leaning toward voting for @realDonaldTrump in November:”
— Austin Petersen (@AP4Liberty) February 5, 2020
Which of course led to a flurry of keyboard warriors accusing him of not being a “real libertarian”(TM).
I’m not here to make the case that there are no reasons for libertarians to vote for Donald Trump, especially when we don’t yet know what the alternatives will be. The Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, and Constitution Parties haven’t nominated their candidates, and every one of those parties have those who are at least arguably worse than Trump. I’m not making the case that Austin shouldn’t support Trump – he’s become a host on conservative radio, and there is some overlap.
What’s wrong is the implication that the State of the Union, as comparatively good as it was for a Trump speech, offered much for self-described libertarians. If that’s the implication, Trump missed the mark as well as managed to highlight some of the ways he is nowhere near loving liberty, much less “the most libertarian President ever”.
Sure, there were a couple of things about criminal justice reform victories, a random shout-out to school choice (which he implied he’d like to achieve through greater federal control of education), and words about non-intervention that he never seems to back up with actions despite being President.
But overall? It was a good speech. But one not written for us.
This year’s SOTU speech writer did a better job than last year’s speech writer – or maybe Trump just did a better job staying on teleprompter. The metric to judge SOTU speeches hasn’t been how accurately they paint the state of the nation to Congress, and it probably never was. It was, as is the case with the final SOTU of a first Presidential term, essentially a political document outlining a reelection strategy.
Trump’s strategy is to say things are great, and that they’re better than they were a few years ago. Despite all the tweets and the controversies and the boorishness. Despite scandals and impeachment, his argument goes… look at the results, because that’s what matters.
He did a good job making his case to his target audience. If he cherry-picked selective focus while ignoring the downsides, or fibbed and did cringey things, or took credit for conditions he did not create, well… that’s to be expected.
Most Presidential reelection strategies are convincing people to answer the question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” with ‘yes’. By that metric, he’s got a strong case.
It’s a shortsighted question. Of course economies can be temporarily propped up when you’re running trillion dollar deficits. If you’re better off today than four years ago, it doesn’t mean your children are. Everything looks great from the height of a bubble. Until it doesn’t.
There are underlying, rotting fundamentals that our politicians refuse to address, because doing so could mean some short term pain while voters tend to be short sighted.
“From the pilgrims to the founders, from the soldiers at Valley Forge to the marchers at Selma, and from President Lincoln to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Americans have always rejected limits on our children’s future.” is the story Trump told, while refusing to act on an entirely predictable entitlement crisis amounting to massively mismanaged intergenerational theft on a social credit card.
“…we will always protect your Medicare, and we will always protect your Social Security. Always.”, Trump promised, while letting such programs slide toward collapse through inaction.
Trump’s irresponsible refusal to address long term structural concerns and just kick the can down the road mirrors what Republicans and Democrats have been doing for generations. It’s what we’ve come to expect.
But we shouldn’t, and that’s not a valid excuse.
He promised that now, under his watch, “our borders are secure”, as one of his accomplishments. Which would lead one to assume we no longer need that wall he promised Mexico would pay for. Later in the speech, he promised “a long, tall, and very powerful wall is being built”, ignoring sections falling over in the wind and promising to add hundreds of miles to it in the next year.
Nearly every policy achievement Trump mentioned had a corresponding downside.
When he talked about “enacting historic and record-setting tax cuts”, the flipside of the equation is the simultaneous, massive hike in federal spending. Given all spending is paid for with taxation (even if that taxation comes in the form of inflation or is levied against future taxpayers), what the tax bill really represented was merely a shift in the tax burden from one group to another. Shuffling the chairs on the Titanic and (taking the long view) reducing nothing overall.
When it came to the military, he literally bragged about increasing the already disturbingly bloated pre-Trump military budget, with no sense of shame. “To safeguard American liberty, we have invested a record-breaking $2.2 trillion in the United States military”, he said, as though our military footing was protecting rather than endangering liberty, and as though such spending at a time when our deficit is $23 trillion was a positive.
He bragged about the creation of a new branch of the military – Space Force – and as cool as it may sound, he’s never really made the case as to why doing so was necessary in the slightest.
He talked, as he often does, about non-intervention and anti-nation building principles, but words are meaningless compared to action. He is the President, and could bring troops home tomorrow if he chose. We are still bombing and patrolling the same countries we were when he assumed office, and when he says we should pursue peace, his words ring hollow.
He touted his “achievements” on trade, which have amounted to federal, unilateral infringements on individual actors voluntarily doing business with one another to achieve… what, exactly? A new NAFTA that doesn’t change much and offers special benefits to select unions? A trade deal with China that from all accounts may just restore trade that had previously existed? He couches his trade philosophy in the phrase “fair trade”, which is a concept free traders are opposed to as inherently unfair in practice – but his philosophy on trade isn’t even as good as that.
Just to clarify: When Trump uses the phrase “fair trade”, he’s not talking about using trade to impact environmental or social policies in nations the US does business with. He doesn’t care how much China pollutes, or whether they’re throwing Uyghurs and dissidents in “re-education” camps. He doesn’t care about “fairness” or working conditions or Hong Kong, and I don’t think he even understands IP laws all that well.
Instead, he uses “fair trade” as a euphemism for nothing other than protectionism. Specifically, he’s trying to benefit the relative rich at the expense of the relative poor, while in practice harming both.
He rounded off his speech with a flurry of proposals aimed at more federal funding for things such as family leave, child care, infrastructure, protecting the environment, providing high speed internet, ramped up immigration enforcement, restrictions on local government control, and getting humans to freakin’ Mars.
Maybe Trump is a better choice than what the alternative is. Maybe that chasm is enough for some of those who share my ideology to hold their nose long enough to pull that lever. Not me, but I’m sure there’s a case that can and would be made. But to be excited about the prospect? To be persuaded by this performance?
I don’t see it.
Again… for what Trump needed to convey, it was an effective speech. But that’s not the same as being persuasive through the promotion of anything approaching libertarian principles.