A Libertarian Evaluation of the Trump Presidency
The presidency of Donald Trump is a tale of two cities. On one hand, there is Trump’s domestic policy. On the other, foreign policy. The domestic policy of Donald Trump has not strayed far from the precedent set out by Obama, Bush, Clinton etc. However, Trump’s foreign policy record is noticeably different from his predecessors.
It is precisely this mismatch that makes the Trump presidency unique, especially to Libertarians. Whereas Libertarians see both Bush and Obama as catastrophic failures on both domestic and foreign policy, an evaluation of Trump’s presidency requires more nuance.
The domestic policy of Donald Trump is largely a continuation of trends seen for years. Increased regulation of the economy, increased deficits, and ever-increasing debt. Despite the fact that Trump ran on smaller government and balancing the budget, these promises never came to fruition.
Obamacare was not repealed, despite a half-hearted attempt to do so, and it appears as if Republicans have largely accepted it into law, despite their vitriolic opposition to it several years ago. Trump’s tax cuts are a welcome change, but considering that spending has not been cut, the cuts are meaningless in the long run.
This is not to say that Trump’s domestic policy is wholly objectionable. Trump instituted important criminal justice reform that has been long needed, as well as deregulation in the energy sector. However, his good policy is far outweighed by the bad.
All of this is business as usual for American domestic policy. Trump has been no exception to any rules on that front. It is foreign policy that makes Trump different than his predecessors. US foreign policy has been expansionist ever since the end of the Second World War. This has often taken form in the US supporting regimes favorable to itself, as well as fighting wars to spread its influence.
The Middle East has been the central focus of US foreign policy since 9/11. It is here where the US policy of supporting regimes and fighting wars to spread influence is seen most clearly. The US has supported Saudi Arabia ever since the Carter presidency despite the country’s systemic violations of human rights. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are fought for the purpose of spreading the influence of the US under the guise of “democracy”.
Trump, however, has not continued the trends of US foreign policy. This is especially seen in the Middle East. Bush and Obama both started wars in the Middle East. Trump has not. Trump has continued to fight these wars (Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria), but these were inherited by him and not projects of his own machinations. He ended the support of the Syrian rebels, and is in the process of pulling US troops out of Afghanistan. Trump has unfortunately continued the war in Yemen, which is by far the most condemnable action of his presidency.
Trump has been “tough” on both Venezuela and North Korea. Fortunately, this has never risen above rhetoric and grandstanding. Actual wars with either country never seemed a plausible option. In both cases, there was no bite beyond the bark.
The lack of new wars under Trump is not the result of a lack of opportunity to do so. War with Iran was a real possibility in January of 2020 after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. Trump was not willing to further escalate the situation, however, even after a US base in Iraq was attacked by Iranian missiles. Compared to previous presidents, this is a show of remarkable restraint.
This is not to say that Trump has completely revolutionized US foreign policy. The US still deploys troops in its bases all over the world. The defense budget continues to increase, and the US still spends more on its military then most other Western countries combined.
All of this makes the Trump presidency an interesting case from the Libertarian perspective. Trump’s domestic policy, keeping with trends from previous administrations, is wholly reprehensible. However, his foreign policy has been much less interventionist than his predecessors, making him a welcome and much-needed change.
How then should Libertarians view the Trump presidency? Given that his foreign policy is much better than his predecessors, this makes Trump much better than Obama or Bush. Extending even farther back, foreign policy also puts him above Clinton and Bush Sr. He is arguably better than Reagan on foreign policy, but that is a separate topic on its own. Because of his non-interventionism, Trump is the best president in 30 years.
This does not mean that Trump is a good president by Libertarian standards. He certainly is not. The list of grievances that Libertarians have with Donald Trump runs very long. His status as the best president in recent memory is solely a reflection of how disastrous those presidents have been. Trump is being graded on quite a large curve in the foreign policy department.
If anything, this should be a wake-up call for the Libertarian movement. Donald Trump is the best president in recent memory and his administration has still been atrocious by Libertarian standards. His domestic policy has continued the same trends seen for decades. The size of the federal government continues to increase, as well as the power it wields. The only reason for his high placement is his relative disinterest in using the US military to invade other countries.
Trump is in no way a Libertarian president. It has been decades upon decades since the United States has had a president that could even remotely own that label. The United States was founded a under fairly Libertarian principles, but those principles have been long abandoned.
Libertarian ideas are not altogether unpopular. Drug legalization is more popular than ever. Demilitarization of the police is now a topic in discussion over the last few months. However, it is not enough to support liberty in some areas. Libertarianism is about promoting liberty as an ultimate end. Liberty is always the answer, no matter the question. In order to bring about a more free and prosperous society, liberty itself must be promoted, not just instances of it.