It was the Libertarian National Convention's moment of truth. After selecting Gary Johnson as the party's presidential nominee on the second ballot, skeptical delegates—riven by a decades-old third-party conflict between purity and pragmatism—were now voting for a second time on whether to hold their noses and accept as their veep Johnson's pick, the internally unloved but externally impressive former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.
Weld, distrusted and openly booed by many of the assembled for his 1990s support of an assault weapons ban, his 2016 endorsement of Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president, and his 2006 broken promise to run for governor of New York as a Libertarian, had fallen a tantalizing eight votes short of the vice presidential nomination on the first ballot. Now the simmering conflict between the radicals and realists had burst out into the open, clogging the noisy convention floor aisles with sign-waving argument and prompting futile calls from the podium for decorum and quiet.
"Please, just look at this objectively," Johnson begged voters from the stage. "If it is Bill Weld there is an actual opportunity to take the White House.…Please! Please! Please!" Representing the loyal opposition was Johnson's vanquished presidential opponent, the fist-thumping avatar of the "Libertarian Party wing of the Libertarian Party," Darryl W. Perry. "If we nominate two Republican governors as our ticket, and we compromise what we believe to take a federal handout," he warned, referring to the possibility of the L.P. receiving money from the federal presidential election campaign fund should Johnson draw 5 percent of the vote in November, "THIS. PARTY. WILL. DIE!!!"
Since it was taking a while for the ballots to be counted, and since the convention still had other business to conduct before delegates could fly home, organizers decided to allow the four candidates running for the less sexy post of national committee chair to present their cases for 10 minutes apiece while Weld's fate was being decided.
That's how we ended up with the striptease heard 'round the world.
As the C-SPAN cameras rolled and an unprecedented throng of journalists waited tensely for the Weld denouement (the convention had issued more than 250 press credentials, up more than tenfold over 2012, according to party officials) a chubby young man with a wild red beard took the stage, turned on some music, and told delegates it was time to loosen up and put their hands together. I took that as my cue to go catch the last Sunday flight to New York, thus missing the most viral episode of the Libertarian Party's biggest-ever moment in the spotlight.
As I walked out of the hotel on my way to the airport, I passed two professional-looking young organizers near the exit, their faces beginning to curl with rage and incomprehension. "Who the fuck," one of them yelled, breaking into a jog toward the convention hall, "let a naked guy on stage?!"
The headlines wrote themselves. "The Libertarian Party Barely Takes Itself Seriously. Why Should We?" asked The Huffington Post's Eliot Nelson. From the right, The Blaze's Matthew Holloway seconded the notion: "An Open Letter to the Libertarian Party: I Really Tried to Take You Seriously, For About a Week." The freakshow atmosphere was exacerbated by the fact that the gathering took place right next door to MegaCon, a huge annual gathering of people dressed as characters from Harry Potter and other fan faves, who were constantly walking back and forth among the L.P. delegates. Instagram is filled with replica Hagrids hugging third-place presidential finisher John McAfee, and Johnson talking earnestly with the actor who played Draco Malfoy.
But the those freaks blew it narrative contains a fatal analytical flaw: The radicals and free spirits lost. Ten minutes after James Weeks II's man boobs and freedom jockstrap beamed into America's living rooms, the delegates nominated Weld. The 45-year-old party of anarchists and signature gatherers, Bitcoiners and sex workers, managed to select what The Washington Post described as "the most politically experienced minor party presidential ticket in recent history."
There are moments when marginalized movements stumble blinkingly out into the sunlight of the mainstream. Sudden breakthroughs of national acceptance, or at least tolerance, for once-outré ideas can be disorienting to activists who nurtured the lonely flame in the long darkness. Accustomed to brandishing their marginalization, their otherness, like a defiant and colorful shield against a hostile world—think gay pride parades in 1970s San Francisco—these frontline revolutionaries sometimes feel conflicted about the very success they've longed for. It's like the marijuana activists who felt upstaged when California dispensary owner Richard Lee jumped the gun on fully legal recreational marijuana with Proposition 19. Hey, who's this newcomer? Why is he discounting our decades of experience?
I heard many similar sentiments at the L.P. convention, and not only from the radicals. John McAfee, the antivirus software mogul who impressed many delegates with his most-interesting-man-in-the-world charisma, 10-foot-tall butterfly gals, and insanely compelling campaign art-videos (put together by his vice presidential pick, libertarian movement glamour photographer Judd Weiss), nonetheless ruffled feathers by only embracing the Libertarian Party after announcing his presidential ambitions. Weld may have described himself as a libertarian for much of his long public life, but he only joined the party two weeks before the convention.
Aside from institutional history, many activists want to be reassured that the values they've fought so long to maintain—adherence to the non-aggression principle and to the notion that taxation is theft—will survive being represented by leaders who have more experience governing than fighting for ideas.
All of these concerns are normal and even commendable. If anything, by barely losing the fight over Weld, radicals have issued a bracing challenge to the victorious pragmatists: If this is well and truly the Libertarian Party's moment, you damn well better show some results.
There is ample reason for optimism on that front. Not only do Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have higher unfavorable ratings than any major-party presidential nominees in modern history, they each represent the most statist wings of their parties. Trump is an authoritarian, collectivist bully who wants to preserve the welfare system, boost military spending, and create an unprecedented police state to enforce his protectionist trade and immigration policies. Hillary Clinton is the poster child for nanny-state liberalism, is bought and paid for by teachers unions, and might be the single most hawkish Democrat in national politics.
The two candidates are not only repellant personally, but they also run counter to the growing small-l libertarianism in American life. For almost two decades, Gallup has been asking Americans whether they think government does too much or too little, and whether it should be used as a tool to promote certain values. Based on the answers, the polling agency sorts people into four categories: conservatives, liberals, populists, and libertarians. Earlier this year, for the first time since Gallup has been asking those questions, the libertarians came out on top, with 27 percent (one point ahead of conservatives). That's up from 18 percent in 2000.
The pool of potential voters who describe themselves as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal"—the explicit sales pitch of Johnson and Weld—is even deeper: up to half of American adults, depending on how you frame the question. Those voters currently have no political home. It's no wonder that Johnson has hit double digits in several national polls.
With the worst big-party nominees since at least 1968, many traditional Democratic and Republican voters will be faced with a long-overdue challenge to their tribal loyalty. The Johnson-Weld 2016 ticket deserves to be taken seriously as an alternative, naked fat guys or not.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Libertarian Party Moment".