In 2016, the Libertarian Party's presidential ticket, former Republican Govs. Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, had the most executive experience in the field. And yet America's third party is more synonymous in the minds of many onlookers with viral video footage of a nearly naked and heavily tattooed James Weeks, a distant finisher in the race for L.P. national chair, performing a striptease live on C-SPAN at that year's convention.
So depending on where you sit politically, it was either surprising or predictable that Vermin Supreme—a gray-bearded performance artist and serial joke candidate who promises free ponies for everyone and wears a giant boot on his head—concluded the month of March in second place for the 2020 L.P. presidential nomination, behind only longtime libertarian activist and author Jacob Hornberger. Unlike Supreme's previous runs in the Democratic and Republican parties, he says his Libertarian campaign reflects his actual political beliefs. In March, the satirist spoke with Reason's Matt Welch about his candidacy.
Q: Is it more difficult to sell what looks like a satirical presidential campaign during a pandemic?
A: I don't believe so, because in the proposal that I'm putting forward, that is only the hook. That's only utilizing the notoriety that I have developed by running the satirical campaign for the past 30 years. And once again, the nation certainly could use a good laugh at this point. I am a beacon of hope to a vast number of young people and others who are still disillusioned and disgusted with the system.
Q: Talk a little bit about the difference between this run and your previous runs for office.
A: I've run as a Democrat, but I was not a Democrat. And when I ran as a Republican, I was not a Republican. I was just utilizing the New Hampshire primary as a vehicle to put forward my satirical critique of the system.
The No. 1 difference is that this is an actual and real campaign. Thirty years of notoriety have garnered me the audience, fan base, and potential voter pool that I believe that I'm able to make a legitimate offer to the Libertarian Party. I will say that if the L.P. was really smart, they would have siphoned me off into some sort of recruitment position and kept me out of the presidential race. However, they did not.
Q: Please explain the ponies.
A: I have been developing a set of iconographies, and the free ponies are indeed one of the more successful ones. The free ponies are used in a pejorative manner towards politicians and others that are promising free stuff.
Vermin Supreme promises free ponies for all Americans—that's sort of the tagline. And then the punchline is a federal pony identification system: You must have your pony with you at all times. So yes, it's a gift pony, but on the other hand, it is your identification card.
My mandatory toothbrushing law, for example—brush your teeth, it's the law!—that was inspired back in the early 1980s, when Massachusetts instituted the mandatory seat belt law. And of course, from there it spun into the dystopian nightmare that includes the secret dental police, and the dental re-education centers, and the preventative dental maintenance detention facilities, and all of these things. So, much like the ponies, it starts out as a critique of the giveaways or the nanny state, and then it quickly devolves into an authoritarian nightmare.
Q: Whenever you win a primary, there is one guaranteed reaction: "This is why I can't take the Libertarian Party seriously." In the wake of James Weeks in 2016 and other pratfalls that the party has taken, how do you respond to that reaction?
A: Can a serious party put up an individual perceived previously or continuously as a joke candidate? I say yes.
It's all in the framing. It would involve a very strong statement of getting ahead of the joke, owning the joke. We are the Libertarian Party, we are a very serious party of ideals and action, and we've been around for quite some time, and we are serious. However—and the pivot's always important!—the political duopoly electioneering of the presidential system has indeed risen to the level of a joke. And with love, and with spite, here is Vermin Supreme.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.