Three men stand behind presidential-looking podiums on a Fox News soundstage in midtown Manhattan. One is the former governor of New Mexico, who was the first major American politician to support legalizing marijuana. Another is a pioneer of antivirus software, whom Belize authorities still would like to question in connection with an unsolved murder. The third used to work in the building as a producer on the Andrew Napolitano–hosted show Freedom Watch, and is on record telling a hostile interviewer in 2015 that he swims in a "pyramid pile of pussy."
It's March 29 in an already-weird election year, and a live studio audience of 50 libertarians is buzzing with anticipation. One of these three candidates will almost certainly be on the ballot across the country this November for the most powerful political job in the world, as the Libertarian Party (L.P.) nominee. In a voting cycle that finds more voters than ever alienated from the major parties, how will the Libertarians handle this unprecedented opportunity to break through?
Not by playing it straight. When moderator John Stossel asks about gay marriage, the international fugitive, John McAfee, replies by relating his version of how he'd first encountered the former TV producer, Austin Petersen. "Austin and I met in a gay bar," McAfee says. "Marry who you please." Irreverent and direct, respectful not of politesse, but of liberty. Later in the conversation, the former governor, Gary Johnson, plants a wet one on McAfee's cheek.
No matter which of these very different candidates (or any of their estimated 13 challengers) ends up winning the nomination, the core attributes and attitudes of the Libertarian Party appear likely to remain intact, in a year when more eyeballs than usual will be searching for a third-party alternative.
McAfee, for one, hadn't even heard of the L.P. one year ago (or so he says: the software magnate has an avowed penchant for spinning tall tales to the media). And despite his self-tended reputation as a gun-toting former drug dealer who has burned through a hundred million bucks, he might just get the nomination. Petersen has his own coterie of online supporters, and 2012 nominee Johnson has the apparent advantage of being treated by The New York Times and other political outlets as the presumptive frontrunner. But Libertarian Party members don't tend to let the Times call their tune.
Longtime L.P. activists see the 2016 election as a unique opportunity. Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News and America's foremost expert in third parties, said in late March that Republicans especially face the "sudden shocking realization" that their party is "having a terrible problem and therefore people are interested in looking for alternatives."
At press time, America's major party presidential candidates seem likely to be Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both are historically unpopular: Clinton's aggregated disapproval rating as of mid-April was 55.6 percent, and Trump's was 64.4 percent. With Trump running on a blustery platform of protectionist "greatness," Republicans who are dedicated to the old GOP verities of limiting government, or just appalled by Trump's personal style, seem more ready than in the past to look beyond their party's candidate for something that reminds them of the things they used to like about being Republican.
It's also a year of novelty and upheaval in national politics all around, symbolized not just by the rise of outsider Trump, but by the surprising challenge to Clinton's glide path to the nomination from independent democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. Surely, many hope, this must be the year for that epitome of politics-not-as-usual, a third party, to shine.
Now firmly established as America's largest third party, the L.P. is coming off its all-time highest presidential vote totals in 2012, when Gary Johnson earned 1.27 million votes, or nearly a full percentage point. Heady stuff for a party that since its 1971 founding has treated national politics as an opportunity to engage in ideological education and outreach and had only broken even 550,000 votes once before in its history.
Johnson, after a career as a successful entrepreneur, was a popular two-term Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, then a very Democratic state. He stood reasonably firm for spending and tax cuts through his prodigious use of the veto pen. (He did not, however, succeed in cutting overall government spending through his tenure, though he would have if the legislature had accepted his proposed budgets.) He was the first sitting governor to call for legalizing marijuana, and after his 2012 L.P. bid became CEO of a publicly held marijuana product company, Cannabis Sativa Inc. He uses the product himself, and believes the company has the potential to become the Starbucks of pot.
Johnson is taking a sabbatical from the company to seek the L.P. nomination once more. A week before the Stossel debate, he hit a media home run: A Monmouth University poll placed him at 11 percent nationally against Trump and Clinton. (Confounding many pundits' expectations, the Libertarian drew more supporters from Clinton than from Trump.) Johnson admits that those impressive results were due not to the popularity or even awareness of his brand, but rather to the fact that when presented with any third option, 11 percent of respondents lunged at it.
Johnson might seem the obvious choice for the L.P., delivering the kind of experience and track record most third-party candidates lack. But many Libertarians think differently. In online and state convention straw polls, Johnson is coming out ahead of his competitors, but with less than the 50 percent support he'll need to win the nomination.
Rather than an easy coronation at the L.P. convention in Orlando this Memorial Day weekend, the 2012 nominee faces competition galore. There is McAfee, whose recent reputation is based less on his role in making his eponymous antivirus software and more on the fact he fled Belize in colorful fashion after being dubbed a "person of -interest" in the murder investigation of his neighbor there, and who has turned himself into a sort of living men's magazine profile—funny, accomplished, hard-living, and dangerous.There is Petersen, current editor of the movement news and commentary site The Libertarian Republic, who is an energetic salesman of libertarian ideas and "internet famous" among his ideological fellow travelers.
Then there are all the candidates who weren't on that stage with Stossel—like Darryl Perry, a man who refuses to fill out any forms with the Federal Election Commission or to receive donations in anything but metal or cryptocurrency. McAfee's then–campaign manager Christopher Thrasher told me he sees Perry as a legitimate rival for substantial delegate votes. (Thrasher says professional opportunities required him to leave full-time McAfee work in early April and that though he "will no longer oversee the day-to-day affairs of the campaign, I continue to believe that John McAfee is the best possible choice for the Libertarian Party.") The L.P. is a party with a number of purists and dreamers, and any of these men could snatch votes, and possibly even the nomination, from the presumed ex-Republican frontrunner.
'Libertarianism Really Is About…Love'
Petersen meets me in the coffee shop of my hotel the day of the Stossel debate. I rather suspect he hadn't stayed in a hotel himself. Petersen is proud of his thrift, vowing that his campaign would never go into debt, unlike his opponents'. His campaign manager, Tony Stiles, believes that in the internet age, an entire national campaign can be run on less than $20,000 (although Petersen's operation reported in mid-April having raised slightly over twice that already).
At 35, and with a boyish demeanor that makes him seem even younger than that, Petersen barely meets the constitutional age-threshold for the job. After jokingly being accused by Stossel of being "12," he earnestly reeled out a list of the surprisingly young ages of various under-35 Founding Fathers during the Revolution, and intoned that "it was young men that founded this country and young people will restore it!" Petersen's debating style features serial exclamation points.
A libertarian activist since the Ron Paul revolution exploded in 2007–08, Petersen has been a brash ("abrasive," in his own term) presence in movement social media, hyping his projects and his alleged army of "freedom ninjas," playing with pick-up-artist tropes and anti-P.C. braggadocio, and executing stunts that some might write off as silly, such as leading a "toy gun march" in Washington, D.C., or dressing and talking like a pirate to explain his position of taking care of foreign menaces via hiring privateers.
But in the hotel coffee shop, Petersen is more sober—yes, even presidential. He insists his support base is younger and more gender- and ethnically-balanced than is typical for the Libertarian Party. He's forever posting larky new videos on Facebook. He's proud of the lean road trips with his skeleton volunteer crew, including an overnight drive in their "Fun Bus" from Illinois to crash a Colorado L.P. convention to which he was specifically not invited. He brags of canvasing 17 cities in 15 days at one point to meet Libertarians face to face, and has personally at press time hit 16 of the state conventions where delegates to the national convention are selected.
Many party hardcore consider Petersen beyond the pale, because he questions the universal applicability of what Libertarian activists call the "non-aggression principle" (NAP)—the idea that one should never use force against someone who has not first used force against someone else's person or property. Petersen believes strict adherence to the NAP leads to moral absurdities, such as standing by while a parent deliberately starves his child to death.
"Pro-capitalist, pro–Golden Rule Missouri landscapers, that was my background," he tells me. That, Petersen thinks, makes him able to appeal to a wider swath of Americans than Johnson or McAfee, whose appeal seems more urban cosmopolite to him. He also thinks being the sole pro-life candidate among the L.P. leaders will make him more appealing to Republicans unhappy with Trump.
"I was raised on a farm, and you're just always taught to love and tolerate other people," Petersen says. "So I think that's where my policies come from. I think that libertarianism really is about a love and trust of your fellow man, because people are good and can be trusted with freedom."
It's not all peace and love with Petersen, though. He mocks the inclusion of a pledge against violence in the L.P.'s membership application, saying it was designed at the party's founding as a sop to Nixon-era fears—a way to say "we're not like the Black Panthers," and not dangerous street revolutionaries. "But I reserve the right to a revolution if this government becomes overly tyrannical. Aggression can be a good thing."
'The Legalizing Marijuana Issue Just Gave Me This Instant Credibility That I Didn't Have'
Later that day, Johnson meets me in the lobby of his midtown hotel. He's being filmed by a videographer working on an independent documentary on the former governor. The candidate is wearing a mesh hiking jacket and bright sneakers, an outfit that reflects his core outdoorsy personality—Johnson is a serious athlete who enjoys mountain climbing and other feats of derring-do, and he likes you to know it.
The reigning L.P. nominee was terribly disappointed with his 2012 run, in both results and process. To make this campaign less of a grind, Johnson is gleefully refusing to do the things he felt wasted most of his time last go-round. Internet radio? Forget it! Personal fundraising calls? No thanks! (Not that fundraising isn't an issue for him—his old campaign is still around $1.5 million in debt, and the Federal Election Commission dunned it in early April for $332,191 in federal matching funds that the government insists were misspent.)
Johnson assures Libertarians that despite his GOP past, he has always seen himself as a libertarian. He'd been voting for the L.P. before he ever ran for governor as a Republican. He even thought briefly, he says, about launching his original political career under the L.P. banner until he realized that would make it so much harder to actually win.
During his second gubernatorial term, when Johnson made pot legalization a big crusade, it flipped his image in the media. "The legalizing marijuana issue just gave me this instant credibility that I didn't have," he says. "Prior to that, I was just a Republican: I hated the elderly, I hated teachers, you know, I was all about survival of the fittest, I was anti-environment. But I come out in favor of legalizing marijuana and all of a sudden all that stuff just dried up."
Over an hour-plus conversation, Johnson says he wants to eliminate the IRS and all taxes personal and corporate, except for a consumption tax. He's reasonably consistent if not totally doctrinaire about not using military force overseas. (At the debate later that night he answered Stossel's question about when military force was warranted with a succinct, two-word reply: "When attacked.") He hypes the "Uber economy" as a way to open up entrepreneurial energy in an overregulated nation. He insists a President Johnson could calmly explain to the American people even in the wake of a Brussels-style terror attack why an expanded surveillance state couldn't give us total safety.
So what's a Libertarian not to love about Johnson? For one, he comes off as pragmatic and squishy on libertarian-principle issues that strike two-party voters as extreme; he flinches away from full-throated support of legalized prostitution and from opposing restrictions on certain potentially "dangerous" types of gun owners, such as the mentally ill. He firmly believes in this post–gay marriage era that civil rights laws should be used to prevent private businesses from discriminating on religious, ideological, or political grounds.
At the Fox debate, Petersen pressed the 2012 standard-bearer to admit he believes that a Jewish baker should be forced to make a hypothetical Nazi cake, which elicited grumbles from the audience. Johnson responds that he sees too much potential danger in giving a business—especially, say, a private utility—free rein to deny services on a whim. This does not sit well with many Libertarians. Petersen immediately accused him of "betray[ing] a fundamental lack of understanding of the free market."
Yet Johnson still says things no mainstream politician would. For one example, he's enthusiastic about the lost cause of repealing the 17th amendment's direct election of senators, which hinders states' ability to resist the ongoing expansion of the federal government. In March he went into a reverie to a Wall Street Journal reporter about what it's like to drive while high on pot. Though his point was that driving stoned is ultimately safer than driving drunk, the average reader would likely have a different takeaway.
At the end of our conversation, I ask the ultimate "spoiler" question: What if Johnson's presence in the general election prevents any candidate from getting a majority in the Electoral College, throwing the choice of president to the House of Representatives, with whatever unpredictable result? Would he be bothered?
"Believe me, I'm not," he replies. "I'll sleep more soundly if that occurs." Libertarians would then be impossible to ignore.
'For God's Sake, If You Care About Me, Keep the Fuck Out of My Life'
McAfee's schedule has been shifting all day. In fact, it would shift all night even after the debate, when the charismatic entrepreneur led a group of post-event drinkers to the unlikely destination of The Harvard Club (after telling some of us he was going somewhere else; the attempt to ditch us seemed sincere, but it's hard to always tell where prankster McAfee kicks in). After ordering a round, the bartender discovered none of us were members of the club, and we all had to shuffle out drinkless.
Just ahead of our interview, McAfee was polite enough to call and warn me that our face-to-face time would be limited to half an hour, as he needed to be motored over to CNN. He strode into the hotel lobby to meet me a minute later, a handsome intellectual roué in black suit and black tie, with a small and colorful entourage in tow.
A sober diplomat when he needs to be, McAfee tells me of the pleasures of meeting so many Libertarian Party leaders at so many state conventions, from "transhumanists to Iowa farmers." He can be cuttingly fundamental in his answers, as when I ask him whether the success of Sanders and Trump doesn't prove that what Americans most want is to be taken care of in some way.
"There's nothing worse than caring," McAfee snaps back. "If I care about you, I'm going to get myself involved in your life, won't I? I care about you, I want to tell you something: Stop womanizing, stop smoking weed, stop shooting up drugs. You've got to believe in government. That's what caring means."
He's going somewhere groovy with this: "Don't care about me, please. Commune with me. Dance with me. Laugh with me. But for God's sake, if you care about me, keep the fuck out of my life."
McAfee takes his core belief in personal autonomy more seriously than your average human, living it out in ways that led to arrests for drug dealing in his past, though he tells me the only time he did in jail was 48 hours recently for driving under the influence of Xanax. But the main reason this software maven got involved in politics, he tells me, is the threat of Chinese cyberattacks, which he feels uniquely capable of coping with. "The Chinese have declared cyber war on us, there's no question about that," he says.
Generally speaking, Libertarians do not run campaigns based on combating foreign menaces. McAfee stresses that he merely wants to defend from Chinese aggression, not counterattack, and that he understands why China feels aggrieved by the West in the grand historical scheme of things. But he sees the threat of a Chinese shutdown of America's computer systems as a real, inevitable, and existential threat.
Even while gearing up for full cyberwar defense, McAfee believes Americans can and should have pure digital privacy. When I suggest that the government might use cyberdefense as an excuse to try to surveil everything online, he insists that linking privacy and cybersecurity is "utter nonsense" and that "cybersecurity does not mean we want to invade your life," though he discusses the necessity of "pattern recognitions" in internet data flows that sound like what many privacy experts worry about in terms of metadata collection. McAfee believes the government can (and must) know enough to provide real cybersecurity without invading privacy in a way we should care about.
McAfee says the L.P. can win the White House with him, but only with him. "I can reach people," he says. "I'm here in New York, and CNN finds out through a third party I'm here, and they're tracking me down, saying: 'Please, come on our show.' I don't have to pitch anybody.
"And if I want to say something, I know the producer of every single television show in this country. I call them up and say, 'I want to come on your show.' And they say, 'Will it make good TV?' And I say, 'Yeah, of course it will, it's me.' 'OK. What time do you want to come on?' And maybe the reason I can do that is for bad reasons, maybe it's the negative aspects of my life, but does it matter?"
At the last minute, and at the expense of having one of his entourage sit on another one's lap, McAfee invites me to hop in the car sent to fetch him to CNN. I tell him I'll turn off my tape recorder for the drive. It doesn't matter, he replies coolly; our cellphones are recording everything we say anyway.
Then he starts hitting a theme that became dominant as our day went on: that he loves yanking people's chains. When Stossel asked him for a draft of his opening statement for that night's debate, McAfee says, he submitted an earnest-sounding confession of cannibalism. Then he warned the buttoned-down host that he had a ferocious tendency for passionate blasphemies and profanities, so could Stossel please type him a detailed list of every vulgar term McAfee was forbidden to use on the air?
On the way out of CNN, a meticulously coiffed blonde stops the enigmatic candidate for a photo op. It was kismet, she says: On the very day Anonymous had hacked her Facebook page, who should she run into but John McAfee!
On the drive back to his hotel, McAfee holds court like a dissolute baron, riffing on the ugliness of German poetry (with long recitations to demonstrate the point) and declaring that he has a habit of saying things on TV for the first time that are later understood by everyone to be true. Today, for example, he had just insisted on air that the Israeli firm Cellebrite had unlocked the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone for the FBI. (That theory is not considered certain as this article goes to press.)
Standing in the hotel doorway while the candidate smokes, McAfee's friend and bodyguard John Pool moves us away from the curb, because he fears McAfee would be too vulnerable to a snatch-and-grab from one of his many enemies. (Pool told me in the CNN green room that the Sinaloa cartel wants his boss' head—just his head.) McAfee wonders aloud if he should be looking for black-suited spooks trailing or menacing him, given his public comments about cybersecurity. This apparent paranoia is a steady theme in McAfee profiles, and he seems to enjoy playing it up. He certainly doesn't act as if anyone might find his behavior peculiar or delusional.
Back in his hotel room, McAfee rehearses his real opening statement for the debate—after predicting, correctly as it would turn out, that Johnson and Petersen would use theirs to "talk about themselves." Instead, he'll talk about the party, not by name, but by defining his meaning of liberty. His opening statement informs America that "liberty means our bodies and our minds belong to ourselves" and concludes that liberty is "the foundation of a sane and prosperous society."
We are joined by a writer and photographer from Playboy working on a McAfee profile, and the conversation quickly goes meta, as McAfee chews on how the perceptions of his life have been shaped by journalists from Wired and Fast Company, whom he accuses of bad-faith attempts to make their names by traducing his, turning him into just some wild clown.
The Fast Company journalist tried to make the fact that McAfee likes to sit and improvise on piano sound weird and sinister! The Wired guy misunderstood his sleight-of-hand "Russian roulette" trick as actual recklessness with his life! You don't know what the person interviewing you is really like, or their true intentions, until you see the story, McAfee says. He's been letting the Spike cable network make a six-hour documentary series about him, and whether or not he likes the end result, he says he's been having fun.
Right before I leave, McAfee insists I watch a video of him on the run in Guatemala after sneaking in from Belize, with reporters and videographers from Vice in tow. In fact, a Vice reporter neglected to clear geocache info from a video he posted, which revealed McAfee's whereabouts and wound up forcing him to quickly relocate. (He insists the Belizean government was really out to get him for refusing to pay bribes, and that the murder investigation is just a red herring.) In the clip, McAfee mugs along wildly to "Gimme Shelter" on the radio. See? he tells me. See the Vice guy next to me? He was pissing his pants literally at that very moment with fear!
Pretty much every Libertarian I spoke to about McAfee found him brilliant and compelling. Not all of those fans actually want to vote for him over the comparatively wooden Johnson. But many do.
Are Libertarians Hurting the Libertarian Party's Chances?
The Libertarian Party controls a valuable prize: ballot access for the most powerful office in the world in probably every state and the District of Columbia. (At press time, the L.P. is officially on the ballot in 32 states, and with many deadlines still ahead the national party expects to eventually get on all 51.) The cost of winning this prize is surprisingly small. While a political campaign can of course spend as much as it wants, all a L.P. presidential candidate needs to do is convince a simple majority of the delegates to back him.
The candidates who can afford it start the process early by visiting the various state party conventions. There the delegates are selected who have the right to represent the state at the national convention and vote on the presidential and vice presidential candidates. Depending on how many people show up for the party's national convention, "enough delegates" could be as few as 300 people. If every state sends its full permitted delegation, which often doesn't happen, that would amount to 1,051, making the largest minimum necessary vote total just 526.
It isn't always easy to figure out where a delegate stands. Petersen's volunteer coordinator, Laura Meyers, says the party provides delegate lists, but those lists don't always come with any contact info at all beyond the name. Also, being a delegate doesn't mean you can afford to get yourself to Orlando and vote. So well-organized campaigns and their supporters also try to raise money to transport friendly delegates to the convention and lodge them.
The competition for that delegate-wooing was getting pretty nasty by mid-April. McAfee had been selling himself as an enthusiastic new convert who was concerned with building up the Libertarian Party into something successful. But the man he wants as his running mate, photographer Judd Weiss, was making openly contemptuous statements about the L.P., saying that it wasted too much time with infighting. In Weiss' own announcement seeking the vice presidential mantle (chosen by the delegates separate from the president) he asserts that "the Libertarian Party is by far the biggest sinkhole of time, energy, money, resources, and emotion in the wider liberty scene."
Meanwhile, McAfee announced on Facebook that his promise of party loyalty would no longer apply if Gary Johnson were the nominee, because of sinister actions the rest of us would soon learn about. At press time, McAfee refuses to name what they are, though Petersen's campaign and Weiss both relate tales of attempts to bribe other campaigns' workers to jump ship and of sneakily renting every available room at the hotel where the convention will be held. None of the accusers have provided verifiable evidence for their claims, and sources within the Johnson campaign, the national L.P., and the hotel all deny it or declare it very unlikely.
Libertarian activists may care about a candidate's long-term dedication to the party; Johnson, for example, is often criticized for more or less walking away between his presidential runs. But how a L.P. candidate performs in the general election will ultimately have nothing to do with that sort of thing.
Many political parties have a gap between what their activist base wants in a candidate and what can succeed nationally, but that gap has frequently become a grand canyon for Libertarians. No major party would likely consider rejecting a popular two-term governor for an eager-beaver 35-year-old internet celebrity or an admitted drug dealer and suspected killer.
But political projects that are nurtured for decades on the margins tend to attract non-mainstream personalities and ideas. In an unusual political year, it's impossible to predict how the small group of L.P. activists will respond to a colorful choice, such as McAfee, or even just one they feel speaks more directly to their libertarian movement concerns, such as a Petersen or even a Perry.
The L.P.'s history provides some examples. Charles and David Koch, the oil and industrial billionaires who have lately become notorious for their political funding in a Republican Party context, were involved with the L.P. in the late '70s and early '80s; David (who is a trustee of the Reason Foundation, which publishes this magazine) was even its vice presidential candidate in 1980.
In 1984, the Kochs and their team wanted Earl Ravenal, a respected Georgetown University foreign policy specialist and former Robert McNamara aide, to win the nomination. The rank and file preferred one of their own, David Bergland, a stalwart Libertarian activist who had been their vice presidential pick in 1976. The party regular won over the Georgetown professor (and member of the Council on Foreign Relations!), and the Kochs and their money departed the party, never to return.
And when Ron Paul sought, and won, the nomination of the L.P. in 1988 as a former GOP congressman, he was stunned to find that he barely squeaked by. Paul got his majority by just five votes, with his closest competitor being Russell Means, an Indian rights activist who had been involved in a long standoff against federal agents at Wounded Knee in 1973. Republican congressman or armed rebel? It was a tough choice for the L.P.
Libertarian Party delegates often vote based on questions of self-image and whom they want representing them and their radical stances. "Real-world gravitas" in politics or the establishment is often a hard sell for them. That's a history that should give the Johnson campaign some pause. And it does. But in the general election, the 12,000 or so dues-paying national party members could prove irrelevant to the national candidate's chances of mass success.
The brass ring, for those sober enough to not speak of actual victory, would be getting 5 percent of the presidential vote. That would qualify the L.P. nationally for federal general election** funds (if it chose to accept them) and would guarantee petition-free ballot access in some states, saving the party a lot of money down the line. Johnson assures me that he's ready for the fight, for the nomination, and for the presidency. "We got our asses kicked in 2012, and I'm as competitive as anybody," he says. "And you know what? The best revenge for getting your ass kicked is success."
**The article originally incorrectly referred to "matching" funds. This particular form of public funding is not based on matching private contributions.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Who Will Be the Third Man?".