Friday at the first full day of the Libertarian Party National Convention, I found supporters of both Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen for president expressing confidence that things were going their way in the quest for the presidential slot. (Johnson's vice presidential choice William Weld, however, has very little independent love, and even people who told me they intended to pick him were doing so out of the belief they should give Johnson, their presidential pick, what he wanted.)
Fewer people, though, seemed loudly dedicated to voting for antivirus software pioneer John McAfee than I expected.
When I first caught up to John McAfee, generally considered to be the third serious contender as the convention began, on Friday, he kept striding (he was being taken by a New York Times team for a quieter place to talk), put his arm around me with his usual warm avuncularity, and assured me everything was going "perfectly."
I would have known that, he said, had I caught a presidential candidate debate Thursday night, which I had not as I was still in transit. (I later watched some video of it, in which he described the experience of running for the nomination as like "a five month acid trip" and openly declared that victory for the L.P. would mean helping the activists and lower-level candidates listening to him, but that "I don't believe any of us will become president" and that even if they did, the system would crush them rather than allow them to change things.)
Later I found McAfee, still surrounded by the media that churn like wavelets in his wake, sitting behind the table for U.S. Term Limits, signing a pledge to limit himself to just one term.
The McAfee I had spent some time with last week in Las Vegas told me he was certain he was going to win—though not at all certain how. Now he was talking about "the laws of physics changing, reality gets warped" as a necessary prelude to him becoming president.
About an hour after that I found him in his hospitality suite, talking to Tom Maciejewski, a delegate from New Jersey. McAfee was riffing on how the party needed to stop seeing something like an increase in votes "from half a percent to one percent" as any kind of victory.
Do small vote total increases, he asked us, get "taxes reduced or make the IRS disappear? Did it get the federal government to accept my body as mine, and that it's unjust to tell me what I can and cannot do? Did it get the NSA to stop spying? Then it's not a victory, it's zero."
He starts talking more about the possibilities on "the local level—we are half a million strong." If those half a million all tried to do something smaller, that could be a victory. But he insists that "if we can't have a honest conversation about that simple concept"—that losing an election is losing—Libertarians are in trouble. "We lose soundly and convince ourselves we won. What madness is this? No!"
"We need to do sane things, like a military strategist. If we're not gonna win, can we slow them down? Blow up the bridge? We are half a million strong," he says again, adding that Libertarians need to come up with a way to sell themselves "that doesn't take two hours to explain, so the listener falls asleep."
He reels off a complicated metaphor about facing dark truths involving whether your wife is having an affair. "I have to accept the truth," he says. But in the face of concentrated Libertarian power, "I promise you, congressmen are going to be terrified and take action of some kind. The American people are made to feel powerless. That's the illusion [government sells], that we control you, we tell you what's right and wrong. We believe that, until you find that, no, 'I have the power.'"
He keeps on going. "We gotta fix this. And if we can't do it this year, when will we?"
He seems alternately hopeful and depressed about the realities of the Libertarian Present. "We gotta stop lying to ourselves," he says.
"The truth is this year at least there's maybe a 0.005 percent chance that any candidate on this [L.P.] stage wins the election. If we don't, if we get 20 percent, I promise you, if we don't do something to win in a real sense, this world is going to collapse." He tells me, as he's told me before, that if Donald Trump wins the election and follows through on his apparent intentions, he doesn't believe there will be another election.
At the same time, McAfee says that compromising "the principles that founded this movement" is not the way to accomplish anything. "If you are willing to accept compromise in order to win, then I can't stand with you. I know what compromise means. It means we become the same thing we are fighting against."
Noticing the unusual lack of bravado, I ask him if he still is confident he can win the nomination.
"That's the quickest way to do this in my mind," he says. "But if I don't, I'm still going to win, just in a different way. I will continue to move with the party. If someone else is nominated, we're still going to win. Let's win. Of course the nomination will be the simplest way. I'm old. I tire easily. But I'm not gonna stop. I'm not going to give in to frustration and fear. I will not let this go on to my children, on the backs of my blood. I will not do that. I'm not giving up."