The official slogan of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was “America UnCancelled,” and the conference featured a slate of topics confined to such controversial viewpoints as “Why the Left Hates the Bill of Rights … and We Love It” and “California Socialism: Promising Heaven, Delivering Hell.” Fitting for the single largest annual event for America’s conservative movement, CPAC was hosted at a corporate hotel that strictly enforced a Democrat-controlled local government’s mask mandates and featured a controversial stage constructed by a major Democrat donor.
All of this gave the familiar look of American conservatives standing athwart history yelling stop while handing operational power over to the Left.
Still, more interesting than the official events offered by the American Conservative Union is the larger conversation about the future of the American right. Now that 50+ million Americans have lost faith in the operation of American democracy, with many considering the value of secession, what is the best path forward at a time where a political realignment seems possible?
The political figurehead of the American right is still represented by Donald Trump, as demonstrated by CPAC’s annual straw poll results and the way his presence in Orlando attracted supporters from around the country to rally outside the hotel.
Intellectually, however, there remains a massive void left by MAGA’s rejection of institutions such as the National Review and most of the conservative “think tanks” that occupy the Beltway. It is largely understood that the future of the GOP is one that appeals to the sort of working-class voters who are more victimized by the economic and cultural policies of the authoritarian left. That has left many populist-right figures advocating for a brand of “economically left, culturally right” conservatism, represented in their minds by figures such as Teddy Roosevelt or Huey Long.
The irony here is that Teddy Roosevelt was America’s first progressive reformer in the White House, and the one who began the process of economic cartelization that has created the corrupt corporatist world we now live in. While he likely benefited from higher testosterone levels than your average modern progressive, he helped set the stage for the world they now manage. Similarly, it is precisely the sort of government wealth redistribution programs Long advocated that have, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe has noted, directly contributed to the decay of family structures, civil society, and conservative social order.
The twenty-first-century culturally left–economically left dystopian woketopia is the direct result of mostly twentieth-century culturally right–economically left political actors.
Thankfully for the American right, there is another alternative to the neoconservatism of William Buckley, the neoliberalism of Milton Friedman, and the paleo-progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt: the libertarian populism of Murray Rothbard.
What makes Murray Rothbard such a unique intellectual figure is not simply that he was a brilliant polymath who made original contributions in many fields—prior to the growth of the bureaucratic state, economists were widely expected to be trained in other social sciences—but it was his dedication and energy in trying to make his ideas translate into shaping the real world. While his political strategies and coalition changed over time, the core of his ideas—an uncompromising defense of liberty and hatred of the inherent evils of the state—remained a consistent force in his work.
It is his work in the ’90s that has the most obvious relevance to an American right that today is recognizing the inherent corruption of federal power and the dangers of the war on terror tactics whose use abroad many cheered but that now directly threaten their liberty at home.
In 1992, Rothbard identified that the most important political audience to organize against the American empire is those in the country who suffer the most from its rule: the American middle class. Long before the phrase “the Cathedral” became popularized online, Rothbard noted:
The reality of the current system is that it constitutes an unholy alliance of “corporate liberal” Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.
It is easy to read these words in 2021 and hear the voice of a figure like Tucker Carlson.
A key plank of Rothbard’s right-wing populist platform is “Abolish the Fed; Attack the Banksters,” highlighting a significant difference between himself and Mr. Carlson. While the latter often offers scathing criticism of the predatory nature of modern financial markets, it is the former who offers a direct attack on the primary force that has enriched Wall Street at the expense of Main Street: a politicized monetary regime established by the political and financial elite. Though bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are seen as increasingly attractive options to bypass the censorship aspects of a state-regulated banking system, one of the great weaknesses of the new right—perhaps directly resulting from the relative disinterest in rigorous economic analysis—is the direct role central banks and fiat money have played in the construction of the modern managerial state.
This issue also goes directly to the class-conscious narrative that has become increasingly popular in new right circles. The substitution of the gold standard for the PhD standard is what has revved up the financialization of the American economy that has greatly enriched the financial services industry at the expense of American workers. As Murray Rothbard’s piercing analysis of the creation of the Federal Reserve shows—a brilliant example of his power elite analysis—the underlying goal was always to empower a selected elite at the expense of the rest of the nation.1
Interestingly, one figure in Donald Trump’s orbit who was able to articulate this level of understanding was Federal Reserve nominee Judy Shelton, who directly compared the rule of Ivy League–trained central bankers to the power of Soviet central planners. But many on the populist right opposed Shelton’s nomination due to favorable comments about immigration—an area where the Fed has little direct influence.
Rothbard’s understanding of the power of populist politics and his belief in the resilience of the American spirit also led him to recognize the impact a Donald Trump–like figure could have in realigning politics. Grounded in his analysis contrasting the tone of nineteenth-century politics relative to the twentieth century, Murray recognized the degree to which the establishment feared energy and excitement in politics:
It is important to realize that the establishment doesn’t want excitement in politics, it wants the masses to continue to be lulled to sleep. It wants kinder, gentler; it wants the measured, judicious, mushy tone, and content, of a James Reston, a David Broder, or a Washington Week in Review. It doesn’t want a Pat Buchanan, not only for the excitement and hard edge of his content, but also for his similar tone and style.
And so the proper strategy for the right-wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.
At the time, Rothbard was inspired by the campaign of Pat Buchanan—who himself was certainly no devotee of Ludwig von Mises. Ideological purity, however, was secondary to the creation of a coalition powerful enough to stand up against the forces of the standing regime. Shaping this view was an understanding of the Old Right and other antiprogressive coalitions where libertarian scholars—such as Mises and others—had influence far greater than the number of “libertarians” within the movement.
As he noted in the same article, “[L]ibertarian intellectuals were in the minority, they necessarily set the terms and the rhetoric of the debate, since theirs was the only thought-out, contrasting ideology to the New Deal.”
How often can it truly be said that “libertarians … set the terms and rhetoric of the debate” in the modern era?
It is precisely Rothbard’s determination to make libertarian ideas relevant and powerful in an age of American empire that has made him the subject of so much scorn by certain types of scholars content to reside with what they (perhaps incorrectly) see as the safe confines of academia. This anti-Rothbard cult criticizes him for becoming too political or, most absurdly, imply that he sold out to vulgar right-wing politics.
As is the case for those who most closely resemble the intellectuals of the modern right, the political aim for Murray Rothbard was not simply to win an election for a candidate seen as valuable, but to weaken the power of a dangerous, antihuman regime that poses the greatest threat to the civilized world. To that end, the collapse of the Soviet Union helped to inspire one of Rothbard’s great political articles, “Nations by Consent.”
Arguably his most Misesian political work, in it Rothbard acknowledged many points used against libertarians today:
Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one or several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. He is generally born into a “country.” He is always born into a specific historical context of time and place, meaning neighborhood and land area.
This stands in contrast to the current political order:
The modern European nation-state, the typical “major power,” began not as a nation at all, but as an “imperial” conquest of one nationality—usually at the “center” of the resulting country, and based in the capital city—over other nationalities at the periphery. Since a “nation” is a complex of subjective feelings of nationality based on objective realities, the imperial central states have had varying degrees of success in forging among their subject nationalities at the periphery a sense of national unity incorporating submission to the imperial center.
Written in 1994, one of the last journal articles he ever published, Rothbard’s analysis has tremendous relevance to revived discussions on nationalism both in America and abroad. The breakup of globalist institutions, such as the European Union, should be the top political aim of any “conservative” movement wanting to restore traditional social bonds and civil society—even if the underlying motivations for the secessionist cause are not purely “libertarian.”
The greatest flaw with the uniquely American nationalist crowd—a natural extension from those who still idolize Abraham Lincoln—is the failure to appreciate that there is no singular American nation. The most exciting aspect of the modern political stage is a growing acknowledgment of this issue.
In conclusion, history is not shaped merely by great men but is instead molded by the prevailing ideology of a time. Ultimately, however, the strength and lasting power of a movement depend upon the rigor and strength of its intellectual inspiration. The modern American right has succeeded in acknowledging many of the institutional causes that have given rise to the rule of the “evangelical left,” but the aim of replacing them with simply another variety of progressive statism is unlikely to result in their desired ends.
To truly threaten the modern progressive state, America needs a Rothbardian right.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.