Gary Johnson: 'You Cannot Set a Life-or-Death Goal of Getting to the Top of the Mountain, or You're Gonna Blow Your Brains out'

Libertarian nominee, inching down toward 5%, is philosophical and defiant about whether his campaign is a "failure."


The loneliness of the long-distance runner. ||| Matt Welch
Matt Welch

For each of the past 152 days, Gary Johnson has been asked what it's like to be a "spoiler." For the past 47, the Libertarian Party presidential nominee has been forced to revisit the deadly six-letter word "Aleppo," with the additional twist over the previous 28 about whether he can even name a single foreign leader. It's not particularly fun to be ridiculed on a daily basis as a "fucking idiot" (Bill Maher), "laughable" (Stephen Colbert) and "around 80 percent sure that he's running for president" (John Oliver).

Then in recent days a particularly unpleasant new line of inquiry has been added to the mix. What does it feel like, reporters and even libertarian fellow travelers are asking in light of Johnson's September-October polling slide from 9 percent to 6, to be a failure? The question has stung candidate and campaign staff alike. For someone who is both a fierce competitor and a cheerful loser—Johnson has played chess against a computer just about every day for the past two years without winning even once, for example—the answer can oscillate between bewilderment, defiance, and Zen. On Tuesday, when swatting around Facebook Live softballs from the publisher of his slim new book Common Sense for the Common Good: Libertarianism as the End of Two-Party Tyranny, Johnson responded to an innocuous question about climbing Mt. Everest with a pretty direct metaphor for his campaign:

What Everest says, and everything that I've done in my life, and everything that all of us do in our lives, is just put one foot in front of the other. I mean that's the key to living, and in that context, you know what? Things go wrong, every single day of our lives something goes wrong. Do you crawl up in a ball, do you declare yourself a victim and give up? Or you know what, get up the next day, smile on your face, it's part of the process….It's about the process, it's not about the end result; you can't predict the end result. But what you can predict is that if you get involved in the process, and you keep after it, that's what you should consider success. So climbing mountains, being involved as the Libertarian nominee for president….

Johnson returned to the mountain metaphor a little while later when I asked him in an interview whether he would either do anything differently in this campaign looking back, or whether there were any moments that surpassed all previous expectations. After stressing that he's a strictly no-regrets kinda guy, he said this:

It is what it is. And you can certainly look at mistakes, but to think that you as a human being are not going to make mistakes, by that I mean little mistakes? Yes, of course. But in the context of moving forward—well, that's the other part of the equation, too, which is, man, you've got to keep moving forward. How does it turn out? I have always believed that life is a process, and you cannot set a life-or-death goal of getting to the top of the mountain, or you're gonna blow your brains out if you don't get there. You put yourself in position to get to the top of the mountain—you're physically fit, you're not ill, you're doing all the right things—and in that context using that as analogy, that's always worked in my life. Always. And come Election Day, that's what I did in this cycle, and everybody I was associated with.

"It is what it is" is the same formulation Johnson has used previously when asked about the surely irritating rise of independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin in the Johnson-campaign-headquartered state of Utah.

In the course of our short interview, Johnson veered from bullishness to fatalism, gratitude to near-bitterness. Here's a selection:

Still probably not. ||| Reason

There's a lot of anxiety in the libertarian universe right now about the 5 percent threshold, for obvious reasons. First, are you anxious about it yourself; like, do you feel like you're gonna clear that well, is it something that you're worried about, how are you focused on it?

Well,…I thought we had the opportunity to be at 5 percent in 2012! Based on being on the streets right now as opposed to 2012, there's twentyfold the response today…than there was in 2012. Will that equate to 5 percent? I don't know, we'll see.

If you had a choice between 5 percent or winning a state, what would it be?

…First of all, if I'm gonna win one state, I may very well win eight states. I think it's a water-level-raises-all-boats kinda thing. So that's the—New Mexico? You know, we'll see. But polls, I understand polls, I got my degree in political science. I understand polls. I understand right now that the poll shift from registered voters a couple of months out to likely voters; because it shifted to likely voters, which underweigh young people and independents, that's really where our polling has [been strongest]. That's the factor involved in the drop in polls. […]

You were talking to me yesterday when we weren't in an interview situation about media people and the question of "What's it like to be a failure?"…It's amazing to watch the different kinds of interpretations of what this campaign has been—kind of a Goldilocks thing of, "Oh, it has exceeded all expectations," "it undershot all expectations," "it is where it is." How do you assess where you're at right now compared to expectations?

My expectations—beyond my wildest dreams has this election or my candidacy gone forward. Everywhere I walk in this country now, I'm known. Everywhere!

And you're offered weed. (Note: During his just-completed Facebook Live interview, Johnson volunteered in a humorous aside that "I get offered weed ALL the time.")

And I'm offered weed, every single time. The guy who makes the pizza wants to put weed on the pizza, you know?

Do you feel confident that the Libertarian Party now is the third party in this country?

(Pause) Yeah, I think that, um, of course.

Now, you get back to this 5 percent, and just how much of a game-changer that is going forward—not for me, but for the party going forward….Regardless, I think that this is a game changer for the Libertarian Party. But it's what the Libertarian Party does with this going forward. And you know, OK, Johnson's a dismal, miserable failure. Um, I probably won't even know that. I may not even listen to the news again for the rest of my life! So I'll be in ignorant bliss.

Reason on Gary Johnson here. Below, here's that Facebook Live video from Tuesday: