There is a lot of talk lately about fusionism, the term coined by National Review writer Frank Meyer in the Cold War to describe the alliance between conservatives and libertarians against communists that aligned them with the Republican Party. Some wonder if fusionism is truly dead; I wonder why it lived so long.
The alliance between social conservatives and libertarians didn’t make much sense to begin with, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have a significant effect on history. The main conservative think-tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, are known for openly promoting the fusionist mantra — like most of the other leading organizations in the American Right.
The combination of lower taxes, social conservatism, and hawkish foreign policy didn’t make a coherent ideology, but it was effective at winning elections. Reagan was a good example of that. After Reagan, everyone running for president for the Republican nomination wanted to be a clone of him. There were challenges to the consensus like Pat Buchanan in the 1990s, and Ron Paul in the 2000s, but it wasn’t until Trump that the cracks in their coalition were fully opened.
Fusionism has lived since the 1950s, but in Trump it might have found its most formidable enemy so far. Trump lacks knowledge of political philosophy, but his instincts are ethnonationalist and populist. He is not someone who likes to talk about liberty, nor is he a fan of free trade. He has openly espoused hate for immigrants and ethnic minorities and is well known for his love for dictators.
Conservatives before Trump, both politicians and activists, weren’t saints. Many of them have harboured the same prejudices as him — but at least they didn’t call nazis “fine people.” It is true that the libertarian element of fusionist alliance was at many times not considered enough, but as historian Joshua Tait has pointed out, free markets and conservatives have a complex relationship. Although there was criticism for fusionism from both conservatives and libertarians before Trump, these arguments take more power now.
If conservatives are abandoning any commitment to liberty, one wonders why some libertarians still want to stay on the right. Even the tax cuts were focused on helping the rich — many working class Americans have seen tax raises. While conservatives have used the rhetoric of freedom, most of the time they just defended capitalism — not real free markets.
While fusionism was originally a unique expression American political thought, the US has sought to use right-leaning libertarian think-tanks in Latin America to extend their influence in the region. As reported by The Intercept, some of these organizations even receive money from American government. The result of this political project is the victory of people like Jair Bolsonaro a radical right-wing populist in Brasil who ran on a racist, sexist, and homophobic platform but got support by libertarians for his vague free-market rhetoric. Now in power he is opposed to even mild libertarian reforms like drug decriminalization. Some libertarians are starting to express doubts about Bolsonaro but this seems too late since Bolsonaro has praised military dictators and was endorsed by neo-nazis. If anything, Bolsonaro shows that fusionism is a danger not only to America but to the world.
As pointed out by philosopher Charles Johnson, the great mistake many libertarians make is to use capitalism as a synonym of libertarianism. Today’s capitalism is corporate welfare, bureaucratic IP laws, and regulatory capture — not a free market, but a distortion of it. What happens in America is even more pathetic than usual. According to economist Samuel Hammond, if one is honest about the relevant indicators, Scandinavia — which has been attacked as “socialist” by American conservatives — is more of a free market than America.
The GOP now has literal nazis running in their primaries, and Trump keeps praising them. Conservatives have taken a more hardline position on immigration too, with policies separating children from their parents. Kids have been murdered and raped in what even the mainstream media calls concentration camps.
Why are libertarians waiting to leave conservativism? Fusionism was a terrible idea. It was the intellectual foundation of a system that promoted wars, at home and abroad, against the poor and marginalized. Fusionism was not that different than Trumpism. They were two shades of the same coin. Trumpism is even more repugnant, but at least libertarians should see this wannabe dictator as a sign to leave the past behind. If one is committed to the flourishing of liberty, one cannot be allied with a group whose goal is to promote authoritarian rule over others.
Conservatives never abandoned the free market, they were just never serious about it to begin with. Conservatives never abandoned liberty, they just used it as a campaign slogan. Were libertarians honest about politics? Maybe. Most likely, some used the term libertarian to sound hip and interesting. Maybe some of them really thought about the possibilities of liberty. The fact remains, fusionism was a dangerous game from the start, and we’re now seeing exactly where it can lead.