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Why Donald Trump is a much bigger test for the "libertarian moment" than Rand Paul

Rand Paul's photo at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest annual gathering of the conservative movement.
Rand Paul's photo at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest annual gathering of the conservative movement.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Braedon Wilkerson was a junior in high school when he came across an eight-minute YouTube video of Ron Paul titled "A New Hope."

It changed his life. Wilkerson began volunteering for Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign when he got to college. At 20, he served as a delegate for Paul to the Republican National Convention. When Rand Paul declared his presidential campaign, Wilkerson saw a new generation of libertarians ready to win the nomination with a broader, more inclusive message.

"The Ron Paul people grew up: We learned that what’s revolutionary is cutting your hair, putting on a suit and tie, and showing up prepared to fight for your ideas," says Wilkerson, wearing a button-down shirt while waiting in line at the decidedly non-revolutionary Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. "We wanted to have a greater impact by being part of the mainstream."

But the collapse of Rand Paul’s campaign and the rise of Donald Trump has proven a thoroughly confusing experience for many of the young libertarians first drawn to politics by Ron Paul.

This was supposed to be the year libertarians jettisoned their most extreme positions in exchange for greater standing within the Republican Party. Rand Paul followed through on the first part of that plan — but it backfired completely, and Paul dropped out after barely making a dent in the race.

"We’d seen an exponential growth of success. Everything was going right," Wilkerson says. "And then something happened. Our message got lost in the fray."

How libertarians are trying to make sense of Rand Paul’s failed campaign

I talked to about a dozen attendees of CPAC, the country’s largest gathering of conservatives, who described themselves as either libertarians or libertarian-leaning. They were dismayed that Paul’s campaign had been buried by the Trump bulldozer, but they had a broad set of (sometimes contradictory) explanations for what went wrong.

Rand Paul after announcing his presidential campaign on April 7, 2015, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

Rand Paul after announcing his presidential campaign on April 7, 2015, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

Some held views similar to those of Reason’s Nick Gillespie, who has argued that Rand Paul failed to build on his father’s electoral success in part because he ran away from the core libertarian philosophy that made Ron Paul so popular.

"[Rand] didn’t emphasize his libertarian elements in a way that would make him unique," said libertarian-leaning CPAC attendee David Bier, 28.

Ron Paul’s appeal came in part from being critical of the Republican establishment. When Rand Paul appeared to seek the blessing of the party’s elders, Bier said, he ceded the "outsider" ground to other candidates, like Trump. (Paul was criticized by some for moving to the party's mainstream on issues like immigration.)

"A lot of the libertarian sentiment is: ‘Look, the Republican party’s leadership has failed to limit government; we have been failed over and over by the party,’" Bier said. "Trump has really tapped into that."

An alternative explanation: The GOP just isn't interested in libertarian ideas

But other libertarian-minded attendees admitted to having more discouraging thoughts. What if Paul failed simply because the great majority of Republican voters just aren’t interested in libertarian ideas?

"It’s broken my heart, really, but I just don’t think a lot of Americans hold the pro-libertarian ideology," said Nathan Korne, 19. "I’d love to stay within the GOP, to change it from within, but if someone like [Trump] can get to the front of the Republican Party — I don’t know."

Donald Trump skipped this year's CPAC conference. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump skipped this year's CPAC conference. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This view fits with the broad pundit consensus: that Rand Paul struggled not because he was a bad candidate, but because libertarian ideas are just really unpopular with most of the conservative base.

"The libertarian moment [Paul] symbolized is over. To be more precise, it never existed," wrote Politico’s Michael Lind, pointing to broad polling support for middle-class entitlements, border security, and defense spending. "White working-class conservatives — nativist, protectionist and often religious — are to libertarians what matter is to antimatter."

Why the biggest test for libertarians this election may be yet to come

My colleague Michelle Hackman and I interviewed a few dozen CPAC attendees on Friday. Many older voters said they’d support Trump if he were the nominee in a general election, even if their first choice was Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.

Not so for the libertarians, who universally said they would vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson if Trump wins the primary. Die-hard libertarians didn't express a particular love for Rubio or Cruz, in part because of those candidates' hawkish foreign policy, but they said Trump represents a threat of a different magnitude.

"This election was supposed to be about Rand Paul’s rise and the rise of libertarian ideas," said Will Nardi, 18. "And this eccentric celebrity has come along, and all the theories we spent years building went out the window."

Rand Paul in 2011. Bill Clark/Roll Call

Rand Paul in 2011. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)

The libertarian CPAC attendees I spoke to did not mince words about Trump — calling him a "fascist" and a "would-be dictator." Some characterized Trump’s campaign as the "libertarian moment" in reverse: If it had a mirror image, it would be Trump’s authoritarianism. They listed Trump's bellicose foreign policy, his calls for dramatically increasing border security, and his combative rhetoric on free trade as all antithetical to the libertarian worldview.

For this reason, Trump’s ability to unify the party arguably represents a greater test of the libertarians’ strength than Rand Paul's candidacy.

Paul’s failure can be attributed to any number of factors: bad management, poor messaging, compromised values. But if the vast majority of Republican voters get behind Trump — a personification of anti-libertarianism — it will be much more difficult to maintain that libertarians have policies that widely resonate with conservatives.

For now, many libertarians are holding out hope that Trump is just a flash in the pan. "We may not have won the Republican nomination this time around, but movements take time," Wilkerson said. "The libertarian message has been lost right now. But it’s still the future of the Republican Party."