The nomination of Donald Trump by the Republican party opens up an enormous opportunity for liberals to take back ownership of the liberty concept, which they relinquished to Republicans for the last four decades.
With Trump, Republicans can no longer continue the fiction of claiming to be the true party of liberty. That is a moral position that they had fairly successfully articulated since at least the time of Reagan. The claim has been something like this:
Republicans are the true defenders of liberty, both as understood by the American founders, as articulated by the Constitution, and as given by God to humankind. Liberty and the protection of individual rights have been the code words to summarize and symbolize the right’s critique of big government, of taxes, of abortion, of affirmative action, of Obamacare, of abortion, as well as the fierce protection of the second amendment, and free markets.
At the same time, the right has positioned the left as leaning towards socialism and thus abandoning the value of liberty as expressed by our founding “fathers” and God, in whom we trust. Liberty, in other words, has been the key symbol by which the conservative right and “movement conservatism” has summarized its moral and political positions.
While it is clear that this is only one interpretation of what liberty has and can mean, the left has been complicit in acquiescing to the right’s claim to own the liberty concept. To be sure, the left has not been silent on the issues – of racism, gay rights, immigration, inequality, and so forth. But the left has generally preferred framing its positions as matters of “justice” rather than as matters of “liberty.” In doing so, the right’s claim to be the party of liberty has gone uncontested. Perhaps the word “liberty” seemed too trite, overused, or too patriotic to the left. Whatever the reason, the result has been that the right, not the left, has organized under the banner of liberty.
Bernie Sanders, in fact, fell into this trap when he framed his own positions as “socialist” in leaning, That was a mistake. Instead, he should have been arguing that his positions were actually the logical fulfillment of liberty concept, rather than a departure from it. He should have taken his cue from FDR who was quite comfortable framing his safety net programs as fulfilling America’s vision of liberty.
Trump Could Care Less About Liberty
With the rise of Trump, progressives now have a wonderful opportunity to call the right’s bluff and reclaim liberty as a progressive concept, after the tradition of FDR. It is arguable, that Republicans have trouble swallowing Trump precisely because he couldn’t care less about liberty, as republicans have traditionally understood it. Let’s look at some reasons why this is so.
Trump, after all, barely talks about the concepts of liberty or rights at all.
While Trump seemingly would be pro-business, he does not completely embrace the tenets of free market capitalism, which has been one of the hallmarks of conservatism since the time of Reagan. Instead, he talks about limiting and renegotiating trade agreements such as NAFTA. This is troubling indeed to that strand of the republican party that embraces and celebrates free market capitalism and economic liberty as core to the liberty concept.
Nor does Trump apologize for positions that threaten the religious liberties of American Muslims, not ruling out intrusion into their lives. Trump has talked about forbidding Muslims to enter the United States. In other instances, he declared “we’re going to have no choice” but to shut down some mosques in the United States. Equally troubling for those who embrace the liberty concept are Trump’s criticism that the federal judge, Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, presiding in a fraud case against Trump University in California could be biased against him simply because the judge is Hispanic.
He also said in follow up interviews that Muslim judges would possibly treat him unfairly because of his repeated calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. Even Gingrich, who was until recently being considered for a Trump running mater, called Trump’s remarks “inexcusable.”
Why Trump So Discomforts Republicans
One of the reasons such comments so discomfort Republicans is that they don’t disguise the racism, xenophobia, and hatred of republican party rank and file which parades under the banner of liberty. The right has argued in the past that its positions are simply protections of liberty, not protections of wealth, or racism, or privilege. Liberty, the right has argued, leads to fairness of all. That argument falls apart in the rhetoric of Trump. In Trump’s ideology, liberty has no crucial symbolic or conceptual function and what is left is simply naked racism, hate and a retreat to the vision of America as a white man’s country.
The Left’s Opportunity With Liberty
With Trump as the heir apparent of the republican nomination, the left has a great opportunity to reclaim the mantle as the party of liberty. In the tradition of FDR, liberty implies an inclusive society in which the protection of individual rights is also complemented with a safety net for those in need, regardless of their race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Liberty in this view includes notions of citizenship and responsibility for those in need and trouble. Justice and liberty are not opposing concepts but fulfillments of each other. Liberty inherently rejects rules based on race, religion, gender or sex. Liberty inherently embraces equality as a value.
Now is the time for the left to reclaim the liberty concept, to take it back from the right, and remind American citizens that liberty is not the opposite of justice but the fulfillment of justice.