Four hours into my first Libertarian National Convention I wandered into a crowded hotel suite filled with sweaty young men drinking Carlo Rossi and found myself face to face with John McAfee, internet pioneer, Libertarian candidate for president and former international fugitive. One thing led to another, and soon I was asking him a rather direct question: Had he killed a man?
It wasn’t something I’d expected to address, not least because political journalists are often resigned to the fact that their access to a candidate will be restricted by any number of communications aides, but Libertarians have no such norms. As Starchild — a San Francisco-based activist and erotic services provider, dressed one day in a Speedo and a see-through raincoat emblazoned with “Demand Transparency” — would surely tell you, accountability is a Libertarian value.
But it was mostly that I had traveled to Orlando over Memorial Day weekend intent on talking to the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, not McAfee. Johnson, now the Libertarian nominee for president, was part of pretty much every conversation that weekend, his name invoked as a synonym for political pragmatism in the typical Libertarian debates over the legalization of heroin and the legitimacy of driver’s licenses.
McAfee, by contrast, is the personification of a certain strain of libertinism sometimes associated with the party. He was being filmed around the clock by a documentary crew and joked with a couple of reporters about Robert Durst’s caught-on-tape murder confession.
“I’m smarter than they think I am,” McAfee said, laughing and gesturing to the cameras.
That’s about the time my question, phrased as indelicately as Mike Wallace could have ever imagined, just sort of slipped out.
“I want to be perfectly clear, I had nothing to do with the murder of Gregory Faull,” McAfee replied testily. (Faull, his neighbor in Belize, was found shot in the back of the head in 2012. McAfee, named as a person of interest in the investigation, famously fled the country in the days after the death.) At points during his minutes-long rebuttal to my question, McAfee grasped my shoulders and gave me a little shake for emphasis. I was, after all, a member of the press, “perpetuating the problem with American media.”
Only after McAfee had finished and turned his attention to a young delegate did I glance down to see Johnson’s unwavering grin looking up at me; I’d forgotten that someone had handed me a giant novelty mask of his face earlier and had been holding it the entire time.
An Everest-climbing, Ironman-competing, self-made millionaire, Johnson notched 10 percent or more in a couple of recent national polls against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two most disliked presidential candidates in modern American history. He’s chosen another former Republican governor as a running mate, one with fundraising bona fides, and is seen by many as the great tan hope of the Libertarian Party, a man who, as Johnson recently described himself to a crowd of the faithful, might be able to take “your weekly meeting that’s occurring in the tree house” and move it to an auditorium.
“I think 30 million people here are up for grabs that are probably Libertarian; it’s that they just don’t know it,” he said to me.
In other words, Gary Johnson is looking to make libertarianism normal. In the year of Trump, Bernie Sanders and flipping the system the bird, he might just have a shot. Still, it all depends on how weird Americans are willing to let things get.
Johnson, 63, hasn’t even been a Libertarian all that long. He was a Republican when he served as New Mexico’s governor from 1994 to 2003, but he switched party affiliations in late 2011 and won the 2012 Libertarian nomination for president. Along with his running mate Judge Jim Gray, something of a movement hero for his efforts to legalize marijuana in California, Johnson got more than 1 million votes, a party record.
But that wasn’t enough for him. For a guy who personifies every bit of aw-shucks-ness you might assign to someone named “Gary” — he uniformly wears sneakers with his suits and says things like “I constantly apologize for being not the best candidate when it comes to articulating these issues” — Johnson’s ambitions are lofty this year. He dropped Gray from the ticket and asked William Weld, Republican governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997, to join instead.
At 70, Weld has a fading mop of Robert Redford-blond hair and looks like someone whose portrait you might see hanging in a members-only supper club. He is inclined toward unfashionable striped ties that seem straight out of a Beacon Hill cedar closet; when a delegate asked a question about the CIA’s involvement in the Middle East, Weld began his answer by saying, “It was my great-uncle-in-law, Kermit Roosevelt, who in 1953 came out of Groton and Harvard with a little walking-around money in his pockets and engineered the Mossadeq overthrow [in Iran], so maybe I’m a bad person to ask.” Weld is, by Johnson’s and others’ accounts, very good at raising money. The press also has an inkling of who he is.
“Jim Gray in 2012 didn’t make one national media appearance,” Johnson told the delegates during his victory speech at the convention. “Since Bill Weld announced that he is seeking the vice-presidential nomination, I would say at a minimum he’s made 25 national media appearances.”
This is not just petty cable clip counting; one of Johnson’s main goals is “earned media,” a page straight out of the Trump handbook, communicating what it is to be a Libertarian in a way that’s friendly to middle America — less McAfee libertine, more fiscal responsibility.
There’s another major Johnson campaign goal. “The only chance to get elected is to be in the presidential debates,” he said. Candidates must be polling at 15 percent nationally in order to score an invite from the Commission on Presidential Debates, and that has Johnson worried. “My name has appeared in three national polls,” he said. “During that same period of time, there have been 45 other national polls where my name has not been included.” Recently, a few more surveys have added Johnson’s name to the mix.
I caught up with Gray outside the convention hall one afternoon and asked about Johnson’s play for attention in choosing Weld instead of him. “Personally, I am supremely disappointed,” Gray said, a bit forlornly. Still, he’d be supporting Johnson.
Later, as Weld spoke during a news conference, Johnson caught Gray’s eye in the crowd and gave him the thumbs up. Gray reciprocated gamely. It was, in a single dissolved professional relationship, what might be happening to the Libertarian Party — shedding its purity for practicality and electability.
“Look, I’m pragmatic,” Johnson told me. “Pragmatically, can you go from A to Z? No, you can’t — but isn’t B valuable as opposed to sticking with A?”
For those Libertarians looking at 2016 to be a breakout year for the party, the biggest obstacle might be its image: white guys who love Ron Paul and like to argue about personal liberty at family weddings. (Ninety-four percent of Libertarians are white, and 68 percent are men, according to the 2013 American Values Survey.) Libertarianism may be seen as fringe, possibly even a little freaky, when embraced at its highest decibel of dissent against “the cult of the omnipotent state.” In some ways, Libertarians would be lucky if people knew enough about them to stereotype; according to a 2014 Pew survey, just 57 percent of Americans could correctly define the word “Libertarian,” and only 11 percent identified themselves as adhering to the ideology. The party itself is small but growing. In 2008 there were about 240,000 registered Libertarians; in 2016 there were more than 400,000.
But belonging to the Libertarian Party, identifying as a libertarian and being open to libertarian ideas are different things. Johnson is hoping to make inroads with the latter two groups. The shorthand pitch is social liberalism, fiscal conservatism — supporting the legalization of marijuana, the elimination of the IRS, abortion rights, and a balanced budget through cuts to entitlements and military spending.
According to a 2012 Gallup survey, only 3 percent of Americans would describe themselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. But when the General Social Survey asked Americans about their views on two questions calibrated to suss out degrees of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism — gay marriage and income redistribution — the results were not so clear-cut. Twenty-two percent of those surveyed said they were in favor of gay marriage and opposed to income distribution — a mesclun mix of political views that sorts out to something akin to libertarianism.
Johnson hopes this means we are approaching the party’s salad days.
Founded in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1971, the Libertarian Party has been dedicated to unflinching principles above everything else — including winning elections — since its inception. “Democrats and Republicans are so concerned with ‘winning’ that they are almost rabidly hostile to the idea of candidates who would ‘rather be right than President,’” party co-founder David Nolan once wrote. “A third party, in contrast, can take a long-range approach — running candidates with no intention of immediate victory, for the purpose of building up support and organization for future elections.”
In their first presidential bid, in 1972, the Libertarians got 3,674 votes. In 1976, they got more than 172,000, 0.2 percent of the popular vote. When Bob Barr ran in 2008, the last Libertarian candidate of the pre-Johnson era, he received more than 500,000 votes, or about 0.4 percent. Johnson’s 1 million mark in 2012 was quite a leap.
But 2016 may offer an opportunity to make 2012’s results look piddling. Clinton and Trump have historically high unfavorable ratings; America really doesn’t like either of them.
Their unpopularity could play to Johnson’s advantage. One of the more common questions he has been asked recently is which pool might he draw from more: disaffected Republicans or Democrats?
Given the seepage of Libertarian ideas into the Republican Party — how many times did Ted Cruz say he would abolish the IRS during the primary? — many intuit that Libertarians would collect more of the GOP’s runoff this year.
But in a March Monmouth poll, Johnson pulled more support away from Clinton, and when I asked the governor himself about Republican versus Democratic support, he brought up the I Side With quiz and his own “siding with Bernie, outside of myself, 73 percent.”
Culturally, Johnson gives off the vibes of a hey-hey lefty — until January, he ran a marijuana products business, and he once stripped down for a nude hot tub session in the presence of a reporter who was profiling him. That said, the fact that Johnson will say he’s “not smart enough to say whether global warming is manmade” could be a problem for disaffected Sanders voters looking for a vessel in which to place their anti-system anger.
The 2013 Virginia governor’s race provides a relatively recent example of how a Libertarian might do with voters in a race for an executive-branch office against two unpopular major-party candidates. That contest saw Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Libertarian Robert Sarvis square off, with Sarvis getting nearly 7 percent of the vote. Initially, many thought that Sarvis had played spoiler to Cuccinelli, who lost, but exit polls showed that the Libertarian received more votes from those who described their political ideology as “moderate” or “liberal” rather than “conservative” and that they lived in counties that had gone for McAuliffe. Some of Sarvis’s supporters also said they might not have otherwise voted — true third way believers.
While I stood at the back of the darkened hotel ballroom during the convention watching various delegates decry the watered-down state of the party and one perform a striptease in lieu of his planned speech, a British reporter remarked that he had expected the whole thing to be a bit more “American” — more flag-waving wholesomeness and less debate over whether we should have gotten into World War I. But to expect Libertarians to behave as Republicans or Democrats is to lick a lollipop expecting a Tootsie Roll center only to be met by tamarind — they look a bit alike, but once you bite in, there’s no comparison.
Part of Johnson’s job will be to settle any queasy feeling Americans might have about libertarianism straying too far from the mainstream. He thinks he just needs to be given a couple of minutes to talk people through things, though that might not be enough time to win the public over to some of his views.
For instance: How would his stance on the legalization of drugs play with the electorate, I asked Johnson, in a country in the midst of an opioid epidemic?
“How many people die from cocaine and heroin overdose?” Johnson asked. “The number is 8,000 people a year.” (It was closer to 16,000 deaths in 2014, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Illegal drugs are a “political boogeyman,” Johnson went on. “We need to be saving ourselves from legal prescription drugs, alcohol, tobacco.” (There were close to 19,000 prescription opioid deaths in 2014, according to the same CDC figures.) A narrow majority of Americans, 53 percent, think that marijuana should be legal, according to a 2015 Pew poll, up from only 12 percent in 1969, when the question was first posed in a national survey. Johnson’s pitch might find a receptive audience. Or it might not: A 2013 YouGov poll showed that only 9 percent of Americans think heroin should be legal, while 11 percent thought the same of cocaine.
A number of Johnson’s views have been heard before. He has spoken in favor of cutting Medicare and Medicaid by 43 percent and turning them into block grant programs at the state level, which Paul Ryan also pushed for in his 2014 budget proposal. These programs are popular with Democrats and the public, though; a 2011 CBS News poll found that 68 percent thought Medicare was “worth the cost” to taxpayers. Fifty-eight percent were in favor of a Medicare-for-all program, according to a 2015 Morning Consult survey.
Many of Johnson’s policy views are premised upon the basic libertarian tenet of do no harm, then do what you want. “Responsible adults should be free to marry whom they want, arm themselves if they want, make their own decisions about their bodies, and lead their personal lives as they see fit,” an issue statement on his website reads. “As long as no harm is done to others.” Johnson supports abortion rights and has called himself a “skeptic” of foreign interventions.
The simplicity of the Libertarian ideology is enticing, especially in a year of political turmoil, but the harm principle opens up a whole host of moral quandaries — doesn’t a heroin user inflict emotional harm on his family? If we had the sort of small government that many Libertarians desire with no public social safety net and another Hurricane Katrina struck, would we trust enough in our fellow American to provide sufficient care? Are there sins of omission? Harm done because precautions were not taken?
On the Saturday night of the convention, the presidential candidates gathered for a debate of sorts; there was no cross-talk between the men on stage, no parrying. Questions were posed, and candidates stated their positions. Sometimes they clapped for one another. Various hypotheticals came up: Would the candidates have signed the Civil Rights Act into law? Should children be prevented from doing illegal drugs?
When asked what one might do about Social Security, the party’s Radical Caucus candidate, 38-year-old Darryl Perry, answered by asking, “How many people in here, by a show of hands, love grandmas? How many of you will donate money to feed grandmas?” A number of hands went up. “I do not see a single person that did not raise their hands — that’s how you provide Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare,” he said.
It was a nice sentiment, that we would all take care of each other — beautiful, even — but fairly disengaged from the reality of modern America, where the indigent often die alone or in the care of the state.
In between sessions, I walked with Perry to get a snack at the deli inside the hotel. He has a bit of a wild look about him. He wears his hair long and slicked back, and when he speaks in public, he can get worked up enough that his forehead veins throb. But he’s earnest and open in conversation. Sitting in the deli, Perry talked about the last few years of his life. He’d bounced around a couple of jobs and cities — baggage handler, carwash attendant; San Antonio, Birmingham, Alabama, some other spots in between. At one point he had $124 in his bank account when he went to live on a friend’s couch. He’d been on unemployment a couple of times, Perry told me, but he considered it “a form of insurance” unlike food stamps, which he would never take on principle. Hardship can make a person more inclined toward cynicism or can expand the bounds of their imagination to wonder what might make things better. Perry had clearly chosen the latter route.
I asked if it ever felt lonely to be at the fringes of the party.
“On the one hand, kind of lonely, but at the same time, I’m surrounded by like-minded people” — Perry lives in a small New Hampshire town — “I just wish everybody else could realize how much sense my philosophy makes.” This sentiment echoed, spoken and unspoken, throughout the Rosen Centre Hotel.
When it comes down to it, all Gary Johnson wants is a chance to make his case.
“Why aren’t these guys included in the polls?” he asked me, very much rhetorically, referring to his own ticket. “Two former Republican governors in heavily blue states, both re-elected, that made a name for themselves being small-government guys?”
It was the most animated he got during our conversation and reminded me of something Starchild, the Libertarian activist, had said in passing on the first day of the convention, that “people who want the job, you don’t want.” It seemed to distill everything that was wrong and right about the Libertarian Party. When Plato imagined the ideal rulers in his “Republic,” they were philosophers, men and women preoccupied not by their own advancement but by the mysteries of the universe, pondering how we should live in it. The prospective leaders who are “least eager to rule” would be the best, he wrote.
Johnson is no philosopher king — he’s eager for office, eager to lash his party to reality and to provide a third way for the American voter come November. The Libertarian Party has struck a bargain of sorts, sullying itself with a true politician in the hopes that its ideas will find an audience outside treehouse meetings. Still, that doesn’t mean Johnson is exactly normal.
“This is not fringe here,” he said, speaking about his ticket, then stopped short, reconsidering. “Or it’s totally fringe! Donald Trump said I was a fringe guy; I embrace that completely.”