Throughout the rise of Trump and the alt-right, I struggled to understand why countless of my nominally libertarian friends and acquaintances became enthralled with white nationalism. The reason, I’ve concluded, is their mutual disaffection with the state.

In the years between 2008 and 2012, the bookends of Ron Paul’s final foray into national politics, an online community of libertarian anarchists and anarcho-capitalists thrived. In particular, a dozen or so Youtube Ancaps, as they became known, engaged in a lively back-and-forth discourse on anti-statist strategy, while promulgating videos explaining how a stateless society would build roads, issue currency, and so on.

Immigration policy, however, always proved to be a point of irresolvable tension. While some favored opening the border, others argued for shutting it down on the theory that it would approximate a world where all land was privatized and immigration was restricted in the same way private property restricts a trespasser.

Unfortunately, the hang-up on immigration was more than a passing phase. As the Ron Paul frenzy died down, the same Youtubers I trusted to criticize the evils of the state slowly began drifting into videos on “race realism,” and the need to deport the hoards of government-loving immigrants who threatened to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” In under a year, Ancap Youtube, and their associated web forums, seamlessly transitioned into what’s now known as the alt-right. For the most popular voices, like Stefan Molyneux and Chris Cantwell, the evolution from free market anarchist into Trump-grovelling ethnonationalist has been so complete that it’s hard to recall them as ever having a mainstream libertarian affiliation.

Right-wing Populism’s Dangerous Success

The appeal of white nationalism to libertarian anti-statists should not be surprising. After all, nationalist and revanchist movements have historically represented powerful tools for mobilizing secession and other forms of political resistance to “the state.” Their common cause is all the stronger in multicultural, liberal democracies where ethnic grievances can be called upon to portray “the state” less as a political compact between competing groups, and more as tyrannical sovereign infringing on some sub-group’s right to self-determination.

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. By harnessing the white working class, Rothbard argued, a Pat Buchanan-style nominee could potentially “short-circuit the dominant media and intellectual elites,” “marginalize Bush conservatives” and create an opening to steal the Republican nomination. Once in power, Rothbard’s crypto-libertarian would then take to “dismantling the existing areas of State and elite rule” by slashing taxes, abolishing welfare, reversing the civil rights act, “unleashing” local police on crooks and vagrants, and enacting an “America First” foreign policy. Sound familiar?

This weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a right-wing extremist rammed his car through a peaceful protest, killing one and injuring 19, were a shocking reminder of where this sort of anti-statism ultimately leads. Indeed, despite their surface renunciation of aggression, violence flows naturally from anti-statist ideologies like white nationalism and anarcho-capitalism, which reject the very idea of civil society.


Our Fading Appreciation for Civic Republicanism

How did it come to this? In standard libertarian political philosophy, legal prohibitions on violence are enforced by a common third party, the state, as part of a broader social contract, like a codified ceasefire between competing individuals or tribes. On the other hand, the concept of a monoethnic nation is motivated by a desire to rid society of any interests that are not already aligned by genetic fealty. If there’s any social contract at all, it’s Rousseau’s collectivist vision of the “general will,” where the interests of the nation and the individual are made one and the same. Mutual respect begins and ends at the boundaries of blood and soil, as if murder were solely prohibited on the basis of altruism to one’s kin.

This is the origin of the distinction between nation and state. Ethnonationalists believe, in Ernest Gellner’s famous formulation, that “the political and the national unit should be congruent.” In contrast, the motto of the American Revolution — “from many, one” — envisions the United States as a joint enterprise between people of diverse religious, ethnic and regional heritage. The state, and civil society more generally, are thus distinct from the nation. A nation is an ethnic group, while the state represent a common set of institutions, like democracy, rule of law and individual rights, which exist to protect and mediate our varied individual and group interests.

Libertarians aren’t big fans of government — no surprise there. And yet there is a major difference between working to resist encroachments on individual liberty and being “anti-state.” It’s an idea that traces back to Thomas Hobbes, who first highlighted the emptiness of anti-statist notions of negative freedom, defined simply as the absence of some external impediment or coercion. True self-government comes, instead, from relinquishing some of our “natural liberties” (like the liberty to steal or murder) in order to establish higher forms of cooperation that allow each person to apply peaceful means in pursuit of their unique ends.

Liberty Needs the State

Hobbes could be accused of being abstract, but as witness to the brutality of the English Civil War, his theory of freedom as non-domination, or independence from arbitrary power, was planted firmly in reality. (Correction: As a few folks have pointed out, I mistakenly conflated Hobbes’ view with the “neo-republican” interpretation of the English Civil War. In contrast, Hobbes was the progenitor of the theory of freedom as “non-interference.” The confusion stems from the fact that Hobbes’ goes on to admit that this sort of freedom is undesirable). It was also a revolutionary notion at a time when the state was typically viewed as a mere appendage of the church. By simply conceiving of the state as a mutually beneficial compact between competing interests, Hobbes created the germ of a contractarian framework for discerning limits on legitimate state conduct without being anti-state, per se.

And while the founders were more directly inspired by John Locke’s later, less absolutist view of state authority, the basic insight was the same: On some level, our negative rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness depend on positive prohibitions against trammeling on one another, enforced by a set of civic institutions to which we all belong.

Anti-statists, whether anarcho-capitalist or ethnonationalist, seek to make an assault on those institutions. In so doing, they threaten to undermine the very conditions for liberty and self-determination which they claim to crave. Of course, daydreams of a stateless society are not intrinsically nationalistic. But at the same time it’s naive to ignore how state sabotage automatically empowers the most dominant and dominating subgroups in our otherwise open society, increasing the risk that we will one day revert back to the proverbial state of nature where tribes were all we had.

Samuel Hammond is a Poverty and Welfare Analyst for the Niskanen Center