NeverTrump really means “forever war.” Proof of this could be seen in the 2016 election, where anti-Trump Republicans fielded a candidate of their own, ex-CIA man Evan McMullin, rather than casting their votes for a third-party ticket with two non-Trump Republicans on it. That ticket was the Libertarian Party’s, with former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson at its head and former Massachusetts governor William Weld in the vice-presidential slot. Weld had even endorsed George W. Bush’s foreign policy in the midst of the Iraq War, saying in 2004 that Bush had “risen to the international challenge.” But the Libertarian Party has a reputation for being an antiwar party—even as it is surely an anti-Trump party—so the neocon protest vote went to McMullin, who received less than a sixth of the 3.27-percent share of the popular vote that went to Johnson-Weld.
Now Weld looks set to become the Libertarian Party’s nominee in 2020. Will this lead to a grand four-percent alliance between Libertarians and NeverTrump? The numbers are marginal, but marginal political agents often imagine they can make the difference in a close race. Yet even with Weld as the face of the LP, a marriage seems implausible. Bill Kristol dreams instead of a Republican challenger to Trump in the primaries, perhaps Nikki Haley, one of the few Trump administration figures deeply admired by neoconservatives—a fact that the President ought to weigh when considering her future. In June, George Will wrote a Washington Post column about Weld, asking, “Can this libertarian restore conservatism?” He answered with an implied yes. Just two days later, however, Will published another column calling for his readers—whatever is left of them—to vote for the Democrats in this year’s midterms. If Will takes seriously his own apocalyptic rhetoric about Trump, he won’t be voting third party come 2020.
Then again, even if he’s the Libertarian nominee, William Weld might be voting for the Democrat too. His status as Gary Johnson’s running mate didn’t stop him from proclaiming near the end of the 2016 race that he was “not sure anybody is more qualified than Hillary Clinton to be president of the United States.” He subsequently tried to downplay what he had said, just as he has tried over the past two years to downplay among Libertarians his distinctly un-libertarian record as a Republican governor. In the 1990’s, Governor Weld spent prodigiously and supported gun measures, though he won favor in some libertarian circles by being reliably left-wing on social issues. He claims he has evolved since joining the LP, including on foreign policy. (“It’ll be a cold day in July before I could think of a U.S. land war that was worth starting,” he told Reason in 2017.) But in 2016 he was still calling the semiautomatic rifle “a weapon of mass destruction” in an interview with the Washington Post, a detail that did not escape the notice of the NRA Institute for Legislative Affairs, which ran a story on its website titled “Libertarian VP Candidate William F. Weld Continues to be Anti-Gun.”
As philosophically unreliable as Weld might be, he does appear dedicated to building the Libertarian Party, which has bought the former Massachusetts governor acceptance and perhaps support with the party’s institutional leaders. At the LP convention in early July, Weld’s status was a point of contention in the debate between candidates for the party’s national chairmanship. Incumbent chairman Nicholas Sarwark, who coasted to re-election, defended Weld:
[H]e is still in the Libertarian Party . . . raising money for and endorsing Libertarian candidates. He is fundraising for us. And the exposure of Bill Weld to the Libertarian Party has not made the Libertarian Party more like an establishment Republican, but has made Bill Weld a lot more like a Libertarian.
What it means to be a libertarian, big-L or small, is hardly clear in the politics of today. NeverTrump Republicans have in many instances taken to calling themselves “classical liberals,” a label over which libertarians once claimed legacy ownership. Positioning themselves as defenders of free markets and Enlightenment values has not led NeverTrump neocons to repent of their interventionist foreign policy, however. The NeverTrumpers may not have anything like the numbers that antiwar libertarians do, but they have much larger media platforms. So does the identity-politics left, to which many culturally progressive libertarians are drawn. In short, libertarianism risks being subsumed by richer and more influential (if not always more popular) movements that style themselves as standing up for freedom in the face of the greatest threat to liberty today: President Trump and the Deplorables. Does the latest LP plank on “sex work,” for example, really matter when border enforcement and traditional 19th-century Republican trade policy are being tarred with National Socialism? Even libertarian opposition to foreign interventionism surely has to take second place to opposing outright fascism at home. The premises of the cultural left and the NeverTrump elite leave no room for lesser issues. If Libertarians accept those premises, they cannot continue to be libertarians. Like George Will and William Weld, they might as well just become Democrats.