Election 2016

Exclusive: Gary Johnson Running For President, Call Trump's Plans "Just Whacked—Just Nuts!"

Johnson running to be a "spokesman for individual liberty" but would ban the wearing of burqas in United States.


Updated on January 7: Gary Johnson has reversed his views on banning burqas. Scroll below for new information.

In an exclusive interview with Reason today, Gary Johnson, the 2012 Libertarian Party (LP) presidential nominee and a former two-term governor of New Mexico, confirmed he is running for the LP's nod again.

In the last presidential election, Johnson and his running mate Judge Jim Gray received about 1 million votes and 1 percent of the popular vote, the best showing by an LP ticket since Ed Clark and David Koch pulled similar numbers back in 1980.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Johnson told me that one of his chief concerns is the rise of sharia law around the world and the way he believes it underwrites Islamic terrorism, which he says is a major global problem and a rising threat here in America.

Surprisingly for a libertarian, Johnson, who recently resigned as the CEO of Cannabis Sativa, a marijuana marketing form, said that he would sign a bill banning the wearing of burqas in America. Sharia, he insisted, was not an expression of religion but of "politics" and hence many of its practices could be banned or limited without running afoul of the Constitution.

"Under sharia law," he argued, "women are not afforded the same rights as men." Under a burqa, how do you know if a woman has been beaten?, he asked rhetorically. "Honor killings are allowed for under sharia law and so is deceiving non-Muslims." Likening followers of sharia to members of the Ku Klux Klan, Johnson said that he wouldn't censor the speech of people promoting sharia law but would mount a cultural campaign to counter its growth here. He said the Islamic terrorism proceeds directly from the same sources as the thinking behind sharia and that the United States government must make sure it is not inadvertently funding sharia overseas.

[Updated on January 7: Johnson says that when it comes to banning burqas, "My response was wrong….banning face veils wouldn't work, and would be impossible to enforce without infringing on basic rights." For full statement, go here.]

In 2012, Johnson hewed a non-interventionist line and he sounded a similar note today. "Our military interventions are not the reason for terrrorism," he said, but "our interventions are making things worse."

The biggest issues facing America are out-of-control spending and increasing national debt, said Johnson, who pledged to veto any budget bills that did not cut spending to bring it into balance with taxes. "You can't count on growing the [tax] pie," he said. "But you can count on balancing expenditures with revenue."

Johnson also espoused eliminating all individual income, corporate, and payroll taxes, and getting rid of the IRS. His preferred alternative to the status quo would be a national consumption tax. "Look at the fair tax and use that as a starting point" for reforms, he said, suggesting that a sales tax of about 28 percent could work as a replacement for current revenues. Using the example of a can of Coke that sells for $1.00, Johnson argued that there's a case that a 28 percent federal sales tax would "probably" not even raise the prices of most goods and services. "Most products already contain 28 percent in [tax] costs" when you add up corporate, income, and payroll taxes embedded in prices, he said. 

Johnson said that he isn't under any illusions about winning but thinks he can do better than his relatively strong showing in 2012. "Where are Republicans going to go" if Donald Trump is the candidate, he said.

"I was really disappointed with the showing I made in 2012," he confessed. "I don't view what happened in 2012 as a success, but others do." He expressed confidence that he could improve on those results because he will run a tighter, more effective campaign based on his experience.

For Johnson, whose official website is here, an important part of the reason to run again is to represent what he says is a broadly popular libertarian perspective in national politics. Nobody in either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party embodies what he said was the "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" viewpoint that he believes reflects the attitudes of most Americans.

Johnson assessed the major presidential candidates running for the Democratic and Republican nominations, dismissing them variously as upholders of a failing status quo, out of touch with reality, or dangerously reactionary when it comes to issues such as pot legalization, women's rights to abortion, and military intervention.

Hillary Clinton, he said, is "basically promising a Lear Jet in every driveway. Is she saying no to anybody?"

And if Bernie Sanders got his way, Johnson said, he would increase the national debt to a number approaching "$40 trillon."

"I get why Donald Trump is appealing," said Johnson. "I get the notion of 'I'm my own guy, I make my own decisions.' I made that same pitch in 2012. I don't think I said anything as stupid. He's going to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Muslims are going to be barred from entering the country! He's going to kill the families of terrorists! That is just whacked—just nuts. Holy cow! It's crazy!"

Ted Cruz, currently leading polls among Republicans in Iowa, is essentially acting as Trump-lite. "He wants to build this fence also," said Johnson. "Cruz is following Trump's lead on this whole deportation idea." Johnson also shrugs off Cruz as a "social conservative who believes in personal responsibility, except for certain areas [such as abortion]," where the state should be involved.

Johnson dismissed Marco Rubio as "the quintessential politician [who] will say whatever it takes to get elected." Johnson's terms as New Mexico's governor overlapped with those of Jeb Bush in Florida. He considers Jeb "a friend" and a "nice guy." But, Johnson said, "Are we really going to have a third Bush? How much of a change would that be?"

The appeal of Ben Carson, who has no political experience, leaves Johnson baffled. "This is where the political system is totally broken," he said. "Why give any attention to Ben Carson?"

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "still wants to lock people up for using marijuana," said Johnson, who supports an end to federal prohibition. "He's such a law and order guy, such a prosecutor." Johnson said the Christie represents the sort of thinking that leads to "mandatory sentences" that have packed the nation's prisons and have given the government enormous power over criminal defendants, who feel a need to plea bargain to avoid onerous sentences even when they are innocent.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is "really slick," says Johnson, and "not in a positive way." Many of the statements that she makes in a very convincing way during appearances, he said, turn out to be "kind of a stretch." Johnson pointed to Fiorina's invocation of her stepdaughter's death from an overdose. Lori Fiorina, he noted, had a long history of alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs, yet Fiorina invokes her daughter's death "as if it gives her some unique perspective about marijuana."

When it comes Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky, Johnson has some kind words. "He's the one I would vote for out of the current crop [if I had to]," Johnson told me. "But he is a social conservative and I'm not."

Johnson is at least the second person to throw his hat in the ring for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination. A few weeks ago, John McAfee, founder of the computer anti-virus program that bears his name, announced his bid. He spoke with Reason's Brian Doherty here.

Last July, Reason TV caught up with Johnson at FreedomFest, the annual gathering of libertarians held each summer in Las Vegas. Watch now: