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Monday, 08 January 2018 06:54

Meet Murray Rothbard, the Father of Modern Right-Wing Populism

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Rothbard 0108wrp optRothbard the t-shirt. (Photo: James LeVeque / Flickr)The name may not ring a bell, but Murray Rothbard may be one the most influential figures in the modern history of right-wing populism, the alt-right, and Trumpism itself. Although relatively unknown, John Ganz, in an essay in The Baffler titled "The Forgotten Man," writes, "you will find [Rothbard's name] scrawled on the seamy underbelly of the web, in the message boards of the alt-right, where fewer voices are more in the air than Rothbard's."

Rothbard was born in the Bronx to immigrant Jewish parents from Eastern Europe. He was an economist, philosopher, political theorist, and historian who joyfully went to war against the elite conservative establishment. He helped establish libertarianism as a viable political entity, and convinced Charles Koch to pony up money to establish the Cato Institute, the nation's premier libertarian think tank.

He was "contemptuous and hostile" of the civil rights and women's suffrage movement, according to Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History at George Mason University. He called for the repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the overturning of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. He was an advocate of unleashing the police to "clear the streets of bums and vagrants," and "allow [the police] to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error." And, he repeatedly expressed admiration for David Duke, Roy Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Ganz writes:

Trump may not be a man of ideas, but his presidency and political style were imagined by one man: the libertarian economist and philosopher Murray N. Rothbard, who died in 1995. Not long before his death, Rothbard rejoiced when he saw in the emergence of David Duke and Pat Buchanan, in 1992, his long-held vision for America's right and concluded that what was needed was more of the same."

Rothbard himself wrote:

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.

"The influential anarcho-capitalist and 'enemy of the state' himself, Murray Rothbard, spelled out the paleo-libertarian strategy of 'right-wing populism' with perfect candor — more than two decades before the Trump presidential campaign executed it with astonishing success," Samuel Hammond, a Poverty and Welfare Analyst for the Niskanen Center, wrote in August, after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The emergence of Donald Trump from the pack of Republican Party presidential wannabes, and his ultimate winning of the presidency, set the stage for rolling back civil rights, dismantling government agencies' ability to protect the environment, limiting support for the public schools, and accelerating deregulation, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and establishing an America First foreign policy.

Ganz, a writer living in Brooklyn and executive editor at Genius, pointed out that Rothbard's anti-statist "prolific writing" in many ways provided a road map for twenty-first century white nationalists, racists and right-wing populists like the late Andrew Brietbart, Steve Bannon, former White House chief of staff, Richard Spencer, who is widely credited with coming up with the term Alternative Right, and such neo-Nazis as Mike Enoch, the founder of the "Daily Shoah" podcast, and Chris Cantwell, "the crying Nazi of Vice News notoriety, [who] says he was a 'big fan of Murray Rothbard.'"

Rothbard's "entire life', according to Ganz, "was dedicated to destroying the state," a goal repeated ad nauseum by the likes of Steve Bannon. "For a time before his death," Ganz pointed out, "Rothbard had the ear of Pat Buchanan." 

Although Rothbard grew up in an immigrant family with a deep predilection for leftist thought, and he was surrounded by an assortment of relatives that were Communist Party members, at the private Birch-Wathen Lenox school on the Upper East Side – where he was sent after being unhappy in the public school system, which he later called "debasing and egalitarian" – he became "the class contrarian and sole right-leaning voice."  

"I soon became established as the school conservative, arguing strongly in the eighth grade against Roosevelt's introduction of the capital-gains tax in 1938 and later against Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's left-wing policy of coddling criminals," Rothbard wrote in a short memoir for Chronicles.

According to Ganz, as Rothbard grew older, he "liked to cozy up with the yellow journalism of the New York Sun and the Hearst newspapers, and America First Committee founder and Flynn's anti-Roosevelt conspiracy theories in the Chicago Tribune."

He even went so far as to "defend Charles Lindbergh and the America Firsters from charges of anti-Semitism, but also averred that what anti-Semitism there was, was caused by the Jews themselves."

Rothbard opposed Roosevelt's New Deal and wrote that entering World War II was a critical mistake. By the late 1940s, he was proud to have led a meeting of a Students for Thurmond group at Columbia University," where he received his PhD. 

As Ganz pointed out, "it was Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism that provided Rothbard with one of his main political inspirations":

Rothbard's McCarthyism was idiosyncratic: he mostly liked that it was directed at the Federal bureaucracies, because he hated the very existence of those institutions. He did not find himself at home with the New Right rallying around William F. Buckley's National Review: he objected on principle to any and all foreign interventionism; and besides, he thought the New Deal consensus at home was a far greater and more important enemy than communist regimes abroad. 

"[T]here was another reason for my own fascination with the McCarthy phenomenon: his populism . . . there was a vital need to appeal directly to the masses, emotionally, even demagogically, over the heads of the Establishment: of the Ivy League, of the mass media, the liberal intellectuals, of the Republican-Democrat political party structure . . . in sum, by a populist short-circuit," Rothbard wrote.

In a 1961 memo entitled "What Is To Be Done," ironically named after Vladimir Lenin's 1901 pamphlet of the same name, Rothbard outlined a strategy for the movement:

Here we stand, then, a 'hard core' of libertarian-individualist 'revolutionaries,' anxious not only to develop our own understanding of this wonderful system of thought, but also anxious to spread its principles—and its policies—to the rest of society. How do we go about it? I think that here we can learn a great deal from Lenin and the Leninists—not too much, of course—but particularly the idea that the Leninist party is the main, or indeed only, moral principle.

Apparently, Rothbard played a major role in convincing Charles Koch to found the highly influential Cato Institute. Internal squabbles forced him out of Cato, but he landed on his feet at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which he co-founded in the early 1980s.

Rothbard became a hearty supporter of Ron Paul's "bid as Libertarian candidate in 1988." Ganz pointed out that "The writing Rockwell produced on behalf of Ron Paul in the 1980s and early 1990s is quite frank in its racism, homophobia, and paranoia about AIDS—part of what Rothbard described as an 'Outreach to the Rednecks.'"

In a 1992 article, after having discussed David Duke's politics in glowing terms two tears earlier, in an article entitled "Right Wing Populism," from the Rockwell-Rothbard Report, Rothbard "fully puts Duke's politics in the context of his earlier articulated 'populist short-circuit' strategy. There he encourages emulation of Duke:

It is fascinating that there was nothing in Duke's current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleo-libertarians: lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy, slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites: what's wrong with any of that?

It took some twenty-plus-years after Rothbard's death for his ideas, writings, and political relationships, to move from the cranky margins to, if not the mainstream, at least to the threshold of the White House.