The fracture that Donald Trump’s campaign has caused in the Republican party has left an opening for a libertarian candidate to unite conservatives, libertarians, and small-government moderates. Austin Petersen, a Missouri businessman vying for the Libertarian party’s nomination, thinks he can be that candidate.
Petersen is the CEO of Stonegait, a media consulting firm, and the founder of the online magazine The Libertarian Republic. Although he’s unmistakably libertarian on foreign policy, Petersen falls somewhere closer to conservatism on one social issue in particular: He’s pro-life. Petersen tells National Review he believes the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness begins at conception.
His anti-abortion stance is a hard sell in the “live and let live” Libertarian party, but it doesn’t seem to faze Petersen. “What’s right isn’t always what’s popular,” he says. To Petersen, being pro-life also means opposing the death penalty, which his website says is the “consistent pro-life ethic.”
On almost every other social issue, Petersen is staunchly libertarian. “I want gay couples to be able to protect their marijuana fields with fully automatic rifles,” he says — a line he often uses to sum up his domestic policy. “That might terrify some people,” he says. “If you’re terrified of freedom, you might be better off with Bernie or Hillary.”
“My humor gets me into trouble sometimes,” Petersen says. His point was that government should get out of the business of marriage altogether. “It’s the golden rule: ‘Live and let live.’ The government should play no role.” He admits that untangling the government’s regulation of private life is a hefty undertaking, but one worth pursuing: “Before we talk about what’s feasible, we should talk about what’s right.”
“‘New York values’ are not reflective of flyover country,” Petersen says. “I’m sticking up for the little guy. I’ve always been a part of the middle class. I’m much more anti-establishment than Donald Trump.”
If elected, Petersen would support blanket amnesty and an “Ellis Island” approach to immigration, which he admits might cost him some support from former Republican voters during an election cycle in which immigration has been a major issue. “It will probably hurt me.” he says. “I think it’s realistic. . . . Ronald Reagan gave blanket amnesty. Republicans don’t like to talk about that.”Petersen’s goal, like that of many libertarians, is minimal government. His slogan, “Taking over government to leave everyone alone,” is a consistent message throughout his campaign. “If I were elected president. . . . I’d stall Congress in their schemes and plans, so in this eight-year period, the American people can go about their business and get things done,” he says. “We’ve authorized the executive branch with too much power.”
Petersen views 2016 as a “breakthrough year” for the Libertarian party (whose nominee will be on the ballot in all 50 states). The Libertarian nominee will certainly not garner enough support to make it to the White House in 2017, but a third-party candidate might be the only option on the ballot for “Never Trump” and “Never Hillary” voters. If it’s Petersen, he says he’s running on conscience, “damn the consequences.”
— Brooke A. Rogers is the assistant to the publisher at National Review.