Libertarian Party

Inside the Libertarian Party's Decision To Host a Trump Speech

A party in disarray squabbles over its future in the shadow of the former president.


The nation's political eyes this weekend will be affixed on a spectacle that rarely attracts significant attention: the Libertarian National Convention in Washington, D.C. But instead of coming to watch presidential candidates such as Lars Mapstead, Michael Rectenwald, Chase Oliver, and Mike ter Maat duke it out for the Libertarian Party (L.P.) nomination, journalists will be there primarily to see the presumptive nominee from the Republican Party: former President Donald Trump.

It's certainly unusual for small political parties to invite their most charismatic rivals to come try to steal their voters. (As Trump himself said in the Libertarian Party's press release announcing the speech, "If Libertarians join me and the Republican Party, where we have many Libertarian views, the election won't even be close….WE WILL WORK TOGETHER AND WIN!") The move was controversial among L.P. members and candidates alike.

"I don't think that's good for the party," Oliver says. "It makes it seem like we're the Republican J.V. team."

But the L.P. leadership faction that engineered the stunt, including National Chair Angela McArdle, counter that it has already reaped a nearly unprecedented amount of media attention, bolstering the finances of a party that for the past two years has been bleeding money and membership.  

"Convention sales, and donations, have been explosive following the announcement of Trump (and others) since the beginning of this month," said Todd Hagopian, who has been L.P. treasurer since May 2022, via email. Hagopian, who opposed inviting L.P. competitors Trump, President Joe Biden, and the attending independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., said that full numbers won't be available until after the convention, but: "Best period of fundraising since I've been on the board."

'An Incredible Opportunity'

Trump, scheduled to talk Saturday night from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., has a clear motivation in mind: preventing the Libertarian candidate from beating the spread between him and Joe Biden, as 2020 nominee Jo Jorgensen did in three key states that he lost (Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona). So what's in it for the L.P., besides the publicity?

"He's agreed to respond to a list of Libertarian grievances" about his presidential record, McArdle told broadcaster Austin Petersen (who made a bid for the party's 2016 presidential nomination) in early May. Such critiques could include his failures to bring U.S. troops home, reduce spending and inflation, or pardon Julian Assange, she said. (McArdle declined to comment for this article.) The party has been soliciting (along with donations) potential topics of Libertarian interest for Trump to address, with "End the Fed" and "Peace Not War" starting off in a tie for first place, with 13 percent apiece. 

How, if at all, the mercurial former president chooses to interact with Libertarians remains a mystery, as does whether the famously fractious conventioneers will listen politely or take this rare opportunity to full-on heckle the once and future Most Powerful Man in the World. 

Doubters think it unlikely Trump will acknowledge the unique circumstances, except perhaps for some classic insult comedy aimed at the confused losers who would even consider voting third party when Biden must be crushed. Though there will certainly be Libertarian-specific pitches made by the slate of other outside politicos giving speeches or making appearances, including RFK Jr., Vivek Ramaswamy, Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), and three-time former presidential candidate (once for the L.P., twice for the GOP) Ron Paul.

To many in the L.P. who opposed the move, the Trump booking can be seen as pure cuckery, summoning an alpha male to manhandle their own voters while they watch, impotent and enthralled. The flip side of that notion is exactly what made many thought leaders from McArdle's faction, the Mises Caucus, portray this as the most baller move possible: What real Libertarian would be so weak-willed as to be swayed by a charismatic statist like Trump? 

"I can certainly understand that there are a handful of people allergic to relevance, afraid to confront their political opposition, afraid of losing control of the narrative," McArdle told The Washington Post. "But in 50-plus years, the Libertarian Party has never been on the main stage politically, and this is an incredible opportunity for us to bring someone who grabs the spotlight and put them on our stage."

Exactly how, when, and via whom the Trump-Libertarian link-up happened is unclear. Libertarian National Committee Communications Director Brian McWilliams declined to answer any direct questions about the negotiations for this article.

McArdle first made a public announcement on April 26 that she'd invited both Trump and Biden and that subsequently only Trump had said yes. But according to a memo obtained by Reason recounting a May 1 conference call between McArdle and some state party officials, the chair said it was Trump's campaign that asked her to give him a slot. McArdle additionally wrote in a May 18 tweet that "Trump & Kennedy were booked…because they asked to speak. We didn't originally plan for Trump or Kennedy to appear." So it seems even less a case of the L.P. getting something it wanted from Trump and more a case of Trump getting something he wanted from the L.P.

McArdle is wrapping up her two-year term as chair, a position she won at the Libertarian National Convention in 2022 in a Mises Caucus takeover known as the "Reno Reset." (She is also seeking reelection at the convention this weekend.) Some Mises Caucus foes point to the Trump booking as the ultimate proof that the caucus has always been right-wing and even MAGA at heart. It eliminated from the party platform in 2022 planks opposing bigotry and abortion restrictions and advocated this year in an internal strategy document to further rid references to sex work and free immigration. The Mises-dominated Colorado L.P. even promised to not run candidates against Republicans who said they'd be good for liberty.

McArdle could use a publicity and fundraising win. By many standard metrics of political-party success, such as donations, members, officeholders, and candidates, the past two years have seen a noticeable decline. According to a list on its website, the L.P. ran 100 candidates nationally in 2023, compared to 250 in 2021 before the Mises takeover, according to a party document prepared by Cara Schulz, then the L.P.'s national candidate recruiter. 

When it comes to officeholders, former Executive Director Tyler Harris, whose tenure began before the Reno Reset, recalls the party having over 300—a number that still appears on the L.P.'s "elected officials" page, though accompanied by only 179 names. (It is possible that the online database is not completely up to date.)

In April 2022, the last full month before the Mises Caucus takeover, the L.P.'s end-of-month financial report listed revenues of $125,542. In April 2024, that figure was $84,710, a drop of nearly one-third. The number of sustaining members (those who have donated at least $25 in the past year) has fallen from around 16,200 in April 2022 to 12,211 in April 2024

The party is very unlikely to repeat its ballot access success of the past two presidential cycles in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. While the 2024 efforts are not over yet, it looks as of now that New York, Illinois, and D.C. are likely to fall short. And in Massachusetts, the Libertarian ballot line is controlled by a party that is no longer affiliated with the national party, after one of several state-level rebellions against Mises Caucus leadership. 

With less revenue, the party is spending less money on ballot access, even though the price of collecting petition signatures has spiked. In 2022, a year with no presidential election, the L.P.'s annual budget included $199,500 for ballot access, according to the April 2022 report; the April 2024 report showed that in the first four months of this presidential year, the party had spent just $10,350. Legal expenses over that same period, on the other hand, were at $24,807. 

Bill Redpath, the party's veteran volunteer ballot access coordinator, says that the price of petition gatherers has "skyrocketed" while the ranks of volunteers willing to canvas farmers' markets and county fairs have dwindled.

Schulz asserts that the L.P. is facing member and donation challenges "because they are not acting as a political party….If you are asking for donations and people see you are spending it on suing members and affiliates and not on ballot access and not on helping candidates, they are not going to give you money." 

Mark Rutherford, a former seven-year Indiana state party chair who is challenging McArdle for the national chair position, sums it up this way: "Everything should be done to make sure we're running as many Libertarians as possible." 

The Presidential Hopefuls

Part of the McArdle/Mises Caucus pitch for having the Trump and RFK Jr. circuses at the convention is that the much lesser-known L.P. presidential candidates will have the kind of spotlight they never otherwise would have dreamed of. And political reporters will be witnessing a nominating race that is currently wide open.

The Mises Caucus is backing Michael Rectenwald, a former Marxist professor at New York University who became disillusioned with the politically correct "social justice creed taking over universities all across the country." Rectenwald railed against speech codes and microaggressions initially via an anonymous Twitter account, eventually suffering pushback from colleagues and the university. He retired in 2019 and embraced Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism.

Rectenwald thinks his already-established relationships with such right-leaning media stars as Tim Pool and Glenn Beck make him the candidate most likely to bring more new attention to the party. (The Mises Caucus thinks Rectenwald has what it takes to help pivot a growing L.P. audience into being the linchpin of a new media empire.) He prides himself as being the candidate most dedicated to loudly and proudly hating the state and feels qualified to throw elbows on stage with Trump, whose foreign policy he sees as essentially indistinguishable from Biden. Rectenwald has raised over $67,000 as of the start of May.

A wide range of party members and watchers from both sides of the divide think that the Mises Caucus will be coming into the convention with around 40 percent to 48 percent of the body, not a dominating majority. A Mises Caucus convention strategy memo circulating this week tells members to vote Rectenwald and for Liberty Lockdown podcaster Clint Russell for vice president. (The two votes are separate, with president going first.) Another old Mises Caucus stalwart who didn't get the group's official nod, Joshua Smith, is as of this writing coming in fifth in the donation-based straw poll that will define which five of the nine candidates listed get to debate at the convention.

Chase Oliver, another presidential hopeful, is an L.P. legend for having consigned the Republicans to a minority in the U.S. Senate in 2022, when he received over 2 percent of the vote in a Georgia Senate race, thus forcing a runoff that Republican Herschel Walker lost. He's been the only presidential hopeful to campaign in all 50 states, to "demonstrate the work ethic that I would bring to the table. So I feel great going into the convention, knowing so many delegates have gotten to see me face to face."

By doing so, Oliver believes he has beaten back the reputation his online detractors had tried to pin on him of being too lefty, too enamored of identity politics. "I came to the party as part of the antiwar movement within the Democratic Party," he admits, but now says he's a "hardcore free marketer" and a straight-line Libertarian on everything from foreign policy to taxes to guns and has no tolerance for "socialism and communism." His appeal could roughly be described as more normie political-traditional than the fire breathers he is mostly competing with. Oliver has raised over $74,000 as of the start of May.

Lars Mapstead, a tech entrepreneur who hit it big in early social media, is offering both an unusual strategic vision for L.P. impact and the ability to self-finance his campaign in the seven figures. Mapstead's strategy is to concentrate on the states of Maine and Nebraska, which divvy up their electoral college votes rather than being winner-takes-all, which could net an actual electoral vote or two and prevent either major candidate from getting a clean win. He tweeted following the Trump/L.P. convention booking that "I have the only plan to spoil this rotten election." He can tell he has gotten the Republican's attention, he says, because Trump's team has included him in internal polling where he's pulled about 1 percent. Mapstead has raised over $737,000 as of the beginning of May, around $719,000 of which came out of his own pocket.

Mike ter Maat is that rarity, a Libertarian former cop (from Florida), though he stresses he was able to avoid vice squad duty or anything else that would cause him to violate libertarian principles. "You learn that your last line of defense of the Constitution is a cop in many cases," he says. In an L.P. nominating process that goes to as many rounds as it takes for someone to win a bare majority of the delegate vote, with the lowest-vote candidate dropped each round, ter Maat thinks his ability to "take support from every element of the Libertarian Party," from the Mises Caucus to the Classical Liberal Caucus to the Christian Caucus, makes him a strong contender. His large staff and "background in policy and public service" give him a combination of policy boldness and the credibility needed in a general election, he insists, where he intends to borrow as much money as necessary to run a campaign that can "disrupt American politics." Ter Maat has raised over $233,000 as of the start of May, with $209,000 of that loaned or donated by himself.

Convention Agonistes

In the normal course of Libertarian convention events, the presidential pick wouldn't happen until after Trump's scheduled Saturday night speech. But the Mises Caucus and various candidates are planning to try to convince the convention body to change the agenda, so that the party chooses its standard bearer before Trump speaks, thus creating a golden opportunity to rebut. 

Other hot floor action may arise from burgeoning attempts on the part of the Mises faction to disqualify Mises Caucus–averse state delegations. This week Oklahoma's entire alternate slate was disallowed over a difference of opinion over what the word "during" was modifying in an Oklahoma bylaw. (This result came despite the state's own judicial committee ruling the opposite way, plus a national bylaw that reads "The autonomy of the affiliate…parties shall not be abridged by the National Committee or any other committee of the Party, except as provided by these bylaws.") Libertarian National Secretary Caryn Ann Harlos led the challenge on Oklahoma, has threatened similar actions, and just this week was added as an alternate to the convention's credentials committee, a body that tries to approve or deny membership in a voting body in which she's running for reelection. (Harlos declined an invitation to comment.)

A dizzying multiyear series of conflicts and lawsuits over which body legally constitutes the Libertarian Party in Michigan came to a head of sorts this week, when the secretary of the Libertarian National Committee–recognized Michigan L.P. was ordered by Cheboygan County Circuit Court Judge Aaron J. Gauthier to promptly submit to the national credentials committee a list of 27 delegates made up of people who recognize an alternate set of party leaders, under penalty of being found in contempt of court. The credentials committee seems unwilling to seat this bloc anyway.

A floor fight may well break out over whether the body of the convention will accept the credentials committee's decision on this and other delegation denials. All these fights are couched by participants in terms of scrupulous attempts to properly follow bylaws, or questions of state party independence, though those on either side generally accuse the other of pure political jockeying in the larger "Mises Caucus leadership vs. everyone else" conflicts within the party.

Meanwhile, though only Rectenwald supports the Trump appearance, the rest of the Libertarian presidential field does not seem inclined to whine about it, though all are full of comments about where they differ from Trump, from spending to trade to foreign policy to COVID lockdowns. Trump's appearance and the resulting publicity is "something our candidate will have to overcome," Oliver says. "I want to be an extreme contrast to Biden and Trump, and send a loud and clear message that we are not the party of Trump."