Politics & Policy

Libertarians Let It All Hang Out in Florida

“Vermin Supreme” (left) and supporters on the convention floor (Kevin Kolczynski)
At their convention, they proved themselves wildly entertaining and terminally unserious.

Orlando, Fla. — It’s a big weekend for the Libertarian party, supposedly. The two major American political parties have nominated as their candidates for president a crook and a clown, a chunk of each party is in revolt, and there’s never been a better opportunity for America’s third-largest party to create a competitive electoral coalition. In recent weeks, three polls have found Gary Johnson, businessman, two-term New Mexico governor, and the Libertarian nominee in 2012, polling at 10 percent against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and so just about everyone here at the Libertarian Convention (hashtag: #LegalizeFreedom) is feeling a Chris Matthews–style tingle. “This is our year to break through.” “We have the opportunity to reach millions and millions of people.” “We can achieve major-party status.” More than 250 reporters applied for press credentials.

Heading into the convention, Johnson was the clear favorite, but he faced an upstart challenge from 35-year-old Austin Petersen, former Fox News producer, former staffer with FreedomWorks — per his (brief) bio a sort of Libertarian jack-of-all-trades. Petersen, who is anti-abortion, is pulling support from at least a few disillusioned Republicans: I talked to a Rubio supporter who, after Trump stitched up the GOP nomination, settled on Petersen (style-wise, there are similarities between Petersen and the Florida senator).

But at the beginning of the weekend there were actually 16 candidates officially recognized by the party, which by Saturday afternoon were narrowed down to six. You’ll be able to speculate about the candidates who didn’t make it by knowing something about the six who did. Besides Johnson and Petersen, there’s John McAfee, of McAfee computer-security fame, who has purchase here in part because, as he announced during Saturday evening’s presidential debate, he has ingested “as many drugs as his body can handle.” There’s anesthesiologist Marc Allan Feldman, known in Libertarian circles for rapping his closing statement at Florida’s Libertarian-party presidential debate in 2016. There’s Darryl Perry, “advocate & activist for peace and liberty” who announced at one point that he believes government has no legitimate function, period. And there’s Kevin McCormick, who said he decided to run because of his “emotions.”

RELATED: Is the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson a Plausible Alternative to Trump and Clinton?

And as if the candidates were not colorful enough, McAfee is introduced by “Starchild,” an “erotic service provider” from California who is currently wearing a leopard-print leotard and carrying a matching umbrella.

So, yes. It’s that kind of event.

The Libertarian party is a reminder that no one truly grows out of Dungeons and Dragons. Around the Rosen Centre, there are lots of suits-with-sneakers and punk-rock hairstyles and impromptu chants of “Taxation is theft!” Organization-wise, it’s the political equivalent of the cantina scene from Star Wars. Since its founding in 1971, the Libertarian party has been a catchall for political misfits. “We’re weirdos,” says a Georgia delegate who has been in the party since 1972. “We’ve always been weirdos.” No offense, but no kidding. (And in a display of pure, untrammeled, glorious cosmic irony — enough to make me revise my disbelief in Fate — MegaCon, an annual gathering of 80,000 comic book fans, sci-fi cosplayers, fantasy-lovers, and gamers, is taking place over the same 48 hours, and at the very same Orlando hotel.)

None of this is a knock. This is the “you do you” party, and it’s wildly entertaining. But while everyone claims to feel the Spirit of History moving through the room, no one seems keen on doing the legwork necessary to ride it.

Consider Saturday evening’s debate, during which the five candidates (McCormick missed the cut) opined on such pressing issues as whether the United States was justified in intervening in World Wars I and II, and whether they would have supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s almost as if the debate organizers wrote the questions with the express purpose of disqualifying the candidate from national consideration. The audience doesn’t help: When Gary Johnson suggested that perhaps the government should be able to deny blind people drivers’ licenses, boos were audible. Likewise when Petersen suggested that maybe, just maybe, there should be laws against selling heroin to five-year-olds. And the candidates themselves offered up some good ol’-fashioned bat-guano crazy: Perry said that, “contra the fear-mongering,” Iran is actually just pursuing nuclear energy. Petersen peddled Howard Zinn–style history to explain why “the rest of the world hates us.” And, sure enough, Feldman rapped his closing statement. Vermin Supreme, a beloved party regular who wears a rubber boot on his head and who received 18 votes toward the nomination, spent the debate handing out toast.

In other words, the problem with the Libertarian party is . . . that it’s the Libertarian party.

#share#The basic theory goes like this: To be a viable alternative in November’s election, the Libertarians need to claim a non-negligible slice of Democrats who cannot stomach voting for Hillary Clinton, as well as Republicans who refuse to pull the lever for Trump. That will require some moderation, something like: “We want to marijuana legalize nationally, but we’ll give way on bath salts, because there’s strong evidence that they cause people to eat each other’s faces off.” That would strike most Americans as a reasonable compromise.

RELATED: Gary Johnson Asks You to Google Him

But this is a crowd for whom “compromise” is a scurrilous notion. The result is that the Libertarian wish list, instead of providing common ground on which to erect a “big tent,” is likely to alienate just about everyone who isn’t a capital-L Libertarian. Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialists won’t mind the laissez-faire approach to abortion and marriage, but they’re not going to dig the end of all welfare programs on the tenuous rationale that, in Darryl Perry’s words, “nobody will abandon Grandma.” And while Never Trump conservatives will find much to like in Libertarians’ devotion to free trade and lower taxes and their machete-swinging approach to the federal bureaucracy, they’re unlikely to be enthused about open borders, polygamy, and on-demand crystal meth. It’s not that Libertarians can’t please all the people all the time. It’s that they can’t please any of the people any of the time.

Such is the Libertarian curse. It’s tough for people who think politics is a fundamentally illegitimate enterprise to build durable political bridges.

This Herculean task the delegates decided to give to to Johnson and his running mate, Bill Weld, the two-term Republican governor of Massachusetts (who joined the Libertarian party two weeks ago, but who assures everyone that he’s “read the platform”). As elected officials, they’re likely to be willing to bend a bit more than the average convention delegate. But it’s hard to imagine the next five months of outreach going well. In fact, Johnson has already managed to alienate a number of conservatives by saying that Jewish bakers should have to bake cakes for Nazis (so much for Libertarians’ “freedom of association” plank).

That’s not to say they can’t build momentum. It’s a topsy-turvy year, to put it mildly. But Johnson is a pro-choice, anti-interventionist candidate running to win Marco Rubio voters; an anti-Medicaid, anti–income tax candidate running to win Bernie Sanders voters; and he hedged on whether the U.S. was justified in going to war against Nazi Germany. “Bold alternative” is not the description that comes to mind.

And he’s running as a Libertarian, with all of the party’s attendant baggage. For example: On Sunday afternoon, shortly before the votes were tallied, giving Weld the vice-presidential nomination, a convention speaker — a gentleman of the huskier variety — took to the stage and proceeded to remove his suit coat, suspenders, and pants, and parade around the stage in a thong, before finally announcing that “it was a dare” and exiting. The whole thing aired on C-Span.

Just when millions of Americans were looking for a serious alternative, the Libertarians proved themselves, once again, a tragically unserious party. And lots of Americans will have to keep looking.

Anyone know what Deez Nuts is up to these days?


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