If you were a libertarian, 2016 was supposed to be your year.
Rand Paul was going to build from his father’s following, take the movement mainstream, and win the Republican presidential nomination. He would realign the party establishment around anti-interventionist, fiscally conservative, and (some) socially liberal policies. That didn’t work.
Then the Libertarian Party was going to capitalize on the historic unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and, especially, Donald Trump. Their nominees would run up the middle — if not to the White House, then certainly to official minor party status and the possibility of federal matching funds for future candidates. But their nominees were Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, and that didn’t work, either.
So now libertarians are, at best, back to where they were four years ago. Paul is talking about recapturing the magic of his 2013 filibuster. Johnson and Weld are just a phone call away (not that either should be waiting by the phone this time). President Trump turned out to be more of a foreign policy hawk than he let on, and he is pushing a law-and-order agenda that conflicts with the open-border, pro-criminal justice reform principles of libertarianism. Is his presidency an opportunity, or is it the snuffing out of an opportunity?
The movement remains ever in search of the perfect messenger. There are some prospects in the pipeline. Most conversations start with Paul and include names like Justin Amash and Mike Lee, two Republican lawmakers with libertarian leanings and the occasional ability to make national news. But capital-L Libertarian Party libertarians are often suspicious of Republicans who must compromise once they are in Congress — and this is one of the key measures of how fraught with tension big-tent libertarianism can be. Some want purity, others preach pragmatism. You can ask a dozen libertarians the same question on the future of the movement and come away with a dozen different answers.
“There are a lot of anti-establishment coalitions that are starting to realize they don’t like the game of politics the way it’s being played,” said Matt Kibbe, the former CEO of the tea party-aligned FreedomWorks who helped a Paul super PAC last cycle. “I do think that’s a profound opportunity for libertarians. But the liberty movement has some growing up to do, because being anti-establishment is not nearly enough.”
There also is renewed discussion of whether a third party is viable, as Trumpism splinters traditional Republicanism. But the early focus has been on Washington-friendly centrists: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, atop a hypothetical 2020 unity ticket with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. Such a bid would not advance the libertarian cause, but Weld could not hide his enthusiasm for it in a recent telephone interview. “I like the Kasich-Hickenlooper romance,” Weld said. “I’m not prepared to light candles against it. I think it would be a healthy thing.”
So the loop continues. The cycle repeats. Libertarians are the future of US politics — and always will be.
That future weighed on those who huddled inside a small hotel ballroom last month for the Libertarian National Committee’s summer conference in Kansas City, Missouri.
These two-dozen party leaders take their roles seriously — and the result felt a little like group therapy mixed with a college student government meeting.
Yes, they know they need to somehow figure out how to reactivate their coalition and cut through the noise in a post-Paul, all-Trump-all-the-time world. At the same time — point of clarification! — some of them would kindly appreciate it if only authorized entities use the Libertarian Party name.
Regardless of the heavy existential questions of what’s next or who’s next, most of the attendees were earnest and optimistic about the future. And during breaks over local barbecue served buffet-style or colorful cookies with the Libertarian torch eagle logo, they enjoyed each other’s company. The problem is they don’t often agree on the answers to any of the big questions.
In the opening hours of the weekend meeting, LNC member Jeff Hewitt raised the idea of a Coachella-style music festival: live entertainment and a celebrity speaker or two to attract a younger crowd.
“You’ve got to shake them a bit and say, ‘This is the cool one, these other two” — Democrats and Republicans — “are evil,” Hewitt, who serves as the mayor of Calimesa, California, told BuzzFeed News. “They’re what took your parents’ house away. They’re the ones where you keep going, ‘God, by the time I get my paycheck, there’s nothing left for me.’ Those are the issues we can drive home. But it’s kind of got to be sexy. It’s got to have the good rave-type music or whatever else that goes along with that.”
But is demonizing the two major parties as “evil” the best elevator pitch for a party looking to grow?
Libertarian National Committee Chairman Nicholas Sarwark believes in a more positive-reinforcement approach. Over lunch, he noted how, that morning, he had approvingly tweeted a link to a column on immigration that Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona who faces a tough reelection challenge from pro-Trump forces, had written for the New York Times. “We’re going out of our way to acknowledge those good people in the Republican and the Democratic parties when they do good things,” Sarwark said. “I think the realignment is going to come if [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and Trump just keep beating the crap out of their party members who are legislators with libertarian positions.”
“We’re nice,” Sarwark added. “Those guys are not nice.”
Then there’s the foreign policy approach.
These libertarians believe that the less-interventionist, more-isolationist themes espoused last year appealed to voters — and that the Libertarian Party can be a home for those disappointed that Trump has not lived up to all of the themes he embraced as a candidate. At the LNC meeting, for example, members approved a resolution calling for the US government’s immediate withdrawal from NATO.
But for every creative outreach idea or substantive policy discussion aimed at building a bigger tent, there’s some other proposal or remark that shows how suspicious they are of outsiders. In Kansas City, some members moved to restrict unauthorized libertarian groups from using the party’s name. The measure failed by a 3-13 vote, after considerable debate. The discussion frustrated the LNC’s most colorful member, Starchild, a prostitute from San Francisco who prefers the terms erotic service provider or companion. “The party is just a vehicle, a means to an end,” he said. “It’s ultimately not what’s important.”
Even so, Starchild and others remain disappointed in last year’s presidential campaign. Johnson and Weld, former Republican governors with national profiles, were attractive to the party’s pragmatists because of their potential crossover appeal. Purists found plenty to dislike, especially in the squishy Weld, who before his contentious nomination to be Johnson’s running mate had supported Kasich in the GOP primaries. Johnson and Weld staked their viability on qualifying for the televised presidential debates. But their poll numbers were never quite strong enough — and they worsened after Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” blunder in response to a question about the war-torn city in Syria. They won a record number of votes for a Libertarian ticket, but it was a letdown nonetheless. “Setback? No,” said Larry Sharpe, an LNC member and business consultant who nearly beat Weld for the VP nod and now is running for governor of New York. “Could we have done better? Yes.”
Another LNC member, alluding to Johnson’s admitted marijuana use, grumbled ruefully: “Pot-smoking goofball.”
When told of these comments in a telephone interview, Johnson chuckled. “I would say to anybody that thinks they can do better: ‘Sign up. Do better. Advance the cause.’”
Hewitt, the man behind the Libertarian Coachella proposal, believes a start would be branching out beyond what he framed as niche issues, such as legalized drugs and prostitution. “If that defines who we are, we will always be a — what do you call it? Like a craft beer,” Hewitt said. “We’ll never be the Budweiser.”
Rand Paul was supposed to close this space between fringe and mainstream, and in the process, capture the 2016 Republican nomination — or at the very least, radically transform the party’s priorities and view of government.
But why he never took off doesn’t really have a clean answer. Was it the candidate? The issues? Too much noise from Trump? Not libertarian enough? Peaked too early?
In the wounded period that followed the 2012 presidential election, Paul looked like the heir apparent: He stormed into national relevance in March 2013, with his nearly 13-hour filibuster of incoming CIA Director John Brennan’s confirmation. For the junior senator from Kentucky, it was an opportunity to raise questions about the Obama administration’s use of drones (and for the Republicans in the Senate, an opportunity to join a media-friendly cause that concurrently rebuked a Democratic president).
Soon, the Edward Snowden affair would invite scrutiny of US surveillance programs, right in the Fourth Amendment wheelhouse where many libertarians revel. Meanwhile, a war-weary nation was antsy over heightened expectations of US military intervention in Syria. No longer confined to the fringe of a major party, or to the backbenches of Congress, libertarians were confident this was their moment. “It’s true,” said Matt Welch, editor at large for the libertarian magazine Reason, “that 2013 was totally Libertarian Christmas for everyone.”
Paul struggled with the kinds of campaign mechanics that have felled some libertarian efforts, but he had no control over the rise of two other disruptive forces: Islamic terrorism and Donald Trump. ISIS beheading videos and ISIS-inspired attacks in the US began softening attitudes toward muscular foreign policy and surveillance programs. And Paul struggled to unite the insurgent populists who had backed the White House bids by his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, with the classic conservatives he would need to win the GOP nomination.
“I think Rand himself was a less-than-stellar candidate,” Welch said. “He couldn’t really develop a response for the Trump moments. He couldn’t sell his version of libertarianism as an authentically felt anti-establishment moment in a way others could.”
Rand Paul isn’t his father — a fact libertarian devotees acknowledge in different ways. His critics treat him like a sellout. “He’s just playing a different game,” said Sarwark, the LNC chairman. “The biggest frustration is he doesn’t speak for libertarians.”
Others are more nuanced. Liz Mair, a libertarian Republican strategist, wrote recently at RedState about a friend who observed that Ron Paul “telegraphs the belief that Americans (a traditionally majority white group) are exceptional. By contrast, Rand believes and tries to telegraph that America (an ideal, a dream, a concept, an idea undergirded by protection of a wide swath of fundamental liberties) is exceptional.” Trump clearly tapped more into the former.
"All this time, I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans,” Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian Republican from Kentucky, told the Washington Examiner in March. “But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren't voting for libertarian ideas — they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along."
Crazy sons of bitches can be a liability, though. They can be particularly dangerous for a libertarian movement where so many are resistant to authority, and where there can be a rush to have whoever will have them. It’s tough to weed out the unsavory characters.
“We haven’t been particularly good at policing ourselves,” Mair, who worked on the Johnson-Weld campaign, told BuzzFeed News. “We don’t want to be mainstream, but the only way to win is to mainstream ourselves.”
Consider the words the Libertarian Party has chosen to rally around at its 2018 convention in New Orleans: “I’m That Libertarian.” It’s a sentiment from a little-known Cleveland Clinic doctor who finished fifth in last year’s balloting for the party’s presidential nomination (and who died of natural causes less than a month later at age 56). In a stemwinder of a debate speech, Marc Allan Feldman presented himself as a libertarian for all tastes.
“I am that libertarian,” Feldman said, a note of defiance in his voice as he became more exercised. “That Muslim libertarian, that Jew libertarian. That Christian, atheist, Hindu libertarian. That Rothbard libertarian, that Jefferson libertarian, you-know-I’m-not-messing libertarian. That LGBTQ libertarian, no-sex Libertarian. That MLK Jr., Malcolm X libertarian. That revolutionary, honor hall Ron Paul libertarian.”
Asked recently what the theme meant to him, Johnson was stumped. “Boy, I don’t know,” he replied. “I was not even aware of that. I did think he was a real voice of reason. I enjoyed listening to him. … When he says, ‘I’m that libertarian,’ I’m not sure what it means.”
Among those name-checked by Feldman was the late Murray Rothbard, a forefather of modern libertarianism who, like Ron and Rand Paul, stirred racially charged debates. Rothbard wrote sympathetically of David Duke, the Louisiana politician and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. The elder Paul came under fire for racist newsletters that had been published under his name. The most doctrinaire of libertarians, including Rand Paul at one time, have spoken disapprovingly about parts of the Civil Rights Act, maintaining that while discrimination is wrong, the government should not interfere in private ownership. At the very least, those who hold oppressive views on race might see in libertarianism a cozy space to exercise their free-speech rights. “Marginal movements attract marginal people,” Welch said. “Once you go to a thrillingly out-there position … the existential reality of taking all this new flack can encourage you to go to an even more narrow-casted vision.”
There were reminders of this baggage in the recent white supremacist protests over removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Among the participants was Christopher Cantwell, a right-wing activist who has cited Rothbard as an influence and has identified as a libertarian in the past. (Vice News featured Cantwell in a Charlottesville documentary that was widely seen.)
The Charlottesville fallout prompted the Daily Beast’s Matt K. Lewis to declare libertarianism “a gateway drug to the alt-right” — a catchall term for the Trump-friendly following that includes white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis. His piece prompted polite pushback from several libertarian thinkers, including Mair and Jack Hunter, a former Rand Paul aide who lost his job after being outed for his past pro-Confederate beliefs. “There is no ‘pipeline,’” Hunter, who has renounced the views he pushed in his earlier days, wrote at Rare. “A slow drip, at best. Regardless, when it comes to racists, libertarians should always make clear, in no uncertain terms, that we are not them.”
Most libertarians who spoke to BuzzFeed News similarly stressed the need for an unequivocal disavowal. “Some people conflate being contrarian with being Libertarian,” the LNC’s Sarwark wrote to BuzzFeed News in an email after reading the Lewis piece. “Libertarians stand for all rights — of all people — all of the time. That ‘of all people’ part generally leads to white supremacists and nationalists feeling unwelcome within the Libertarian Party.”
Like many who face an uncertain future, libertarians tend to be sentimental.
Ron Paul, 82 years old and retired from the House, might still be their best and biggest draw. His Ron Paul Institute’s Peace and Prosperity Conference this month in the DC suburbs had a waiting list after selling out tickets at $75 a pop. (“If Ron Paul comes back to Congress and runs …” one Libertarian Party activist said wistfully on a recent conference call for members.)
But some libertarian ideas, if not the libertarian candidates themselves, have advanced. “We tend to interpret this libertarian moment thing through the lens of national, preferably presidential, politics — and I think that’s a mistake,” Welch said, noting the legalization of same-sex marriage and the rising number of states that have decriminalized marijuana. “We’ve moved to a lot of libertarian places in a 10-year period. The thing is, people tend to look at that and say, ‘OK, where’s our President Ron Paul?’”
A recent week in Congress showed the ebb and flow of where the movement might be headed. Led by Amash, the libertarian Republican from Michigan, the House voted to defund a civil asset forfeiture program championed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In the Senate, Paul was blocked in an effort to advance the libertarian cause on the use of military force.
Libertarians nonetheless see Trump’s increasingly hawkish foreign policy and his recent rollback of Obama-era restrictions on military gear for police as opportunities to stoke buyer’s remorse. But Paul, who has talked of staging another filibuster to protest the reauthorization of a surveillance measure, declined to be interviewed for this story. “I think libertarianism is alive and well and in a position to shape the national debate and the Republican Party,” Jesse Benton, a longtime Paul family adviser who is Rand Paul’s nephew by marriage, told BuzzFeed News. “And, first and foremost, I think that starts with Rand.”
If not Rand, then who? In a movement where consensus is elusive, a few names are consistently mentioned: Amash and Massie, Lee of Utah, and Sharpe, the Libertarian Party’s gubernatorial hopeful in New York. “Justin Amash — he’s my favorite,” said Starchild, the LNC member from San Francisco. “He’s the new Ron Paul. For a Republican, he’s pretty damn good.”
No one mentioned Johnson or Weld as a desirable option. Johnson’s vision of libertarianism was a “six-lane highway down the center of the road.” But he and Weld acknowledged that the message didn’t sell. Their failure to launch in 2016 may presage a similar dilemma in 2020.
“I do think there’s going to be a third-party challenge to Trump,” said Kibbe, the former Rand Paul super PAC hand. “I think that’s almost inevitable. The Libertarian Party is uniquely positioned because it’s done so much work getting ballot access. If it’s going to be a Republican who switches, that’s going to be dependent on if there’s a Kasich or someone who runs in the [GOP] primary, because that all dilutes the effort to defeat Trump.”
What will 2020 bring? In 2012, it was consensus that Mitt Romney was conservative enough. In 2016, it was Trumpism: nationalism and populism from a leader who said, “I alone can fix it.” In 2020, if and when there is a third-party bid, it could be libertarianism — or it could be a true independent, a unity ticket, or some splinter of one of the two major parties.
In other words: Libertarians might be having this same conversation again in four years.●
Henry Gomez is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Cleveland, Ohio.
Contact Henry J. Gomez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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