"I always thought that honesty would rule the day. I always thought integrity would rule the day. I always thought that telling the truth would rule the day. And it doesn't," says Gary Johnson, the 2016 Libertarian presidential candidate and a two-time former governor of New Mexico, in an exclusive new interview with Reason.
Visiting Washington, D.C. in late February to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in late February, Johnson talks candidly with Nick Gillespie about his presidential run, which mixed memorable gaffes ("Aleppo") with historic triumphs (he pulled 3.27 percent of the final vote, more than tripling the best of any previous LP candidate). "I'm done with elected political office," he avers, even as he discusses his ongoing work with Our America Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to training libertarian candidates and promoting libertarian positions on immigration, sentencing reform, occupational licensing, and more; his involvement in CB1, a hedge fund devoted to publicly traded marijuana investments; and why he's done with running for office.
Johnson also weighs in of the presidency of Donald Trump, whom he said was appealing to racist sentiments during the 2016 campaign. Trump's tone, says the former governor, remains absolutely awful, but some of his policies, such as those regarding regulation and corporate taxes, are worth celebrating. When asked whether Hillary Clinton would have been a better president than Trump, Johnson says, "I think we would have kind of a myriad of other issues with Hillary that would probably be equally as bad…. I think it would be horrible if Hillary would have been president, but I think Trump's got his horrible also."
Edited by Mark McDaniel. Cameras by Todd Krainin and McDaniel.
"Moon Love" by Ketsa is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
Photo Credit: Christopher Brown/Polaris/Newscom.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. PLEASE CHECK QUOTATIONS AGAINST AUDIO FOR ACCURACY.
Nick Gillespie: So, you are in D.C., and we're talking before you go talk at CPAC, the annual convention of conservative action people in D.C. Why are you speaking at CPAC?
Gary Johnson: Well, I think it's an opportunity to give a Libertarian perspective on things. Now, I'm going to be on a panel when it comes to economics and tax policy, so that is a Trump plus, the reduction of taxes.
Gillespie: Okay, well I was going to ask, what do you think about Trump so far? I mean, you ran against Trump, and you did historically well for a Libertarian Party candidate against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump's been in office over a year. What is your evaluation?
Johnson: Well, he has not told the truth. Building a wall across the border is crazy. Now, he did say he was going to build a wall across the border, but he said he wasn't going to involve himself in states' rights, or he was going to stand up for states' rights. And here we have Jeff Sessions that has come out very vocally against marijuana. Ultimately, that may lead to legislation that will not make marijuana a Class I narcotic, which is really a good thing.
Gillespie: So those are two things, though, where Trump's bluster, or his bark is worse … He's got a lot of bark, but no bite. Because we haven't actually started building the border wall, and Sessions is saying 'I'm going to … Let's start looking at these states that have legalized marijuana.' But nothing has happened yet.
Johnson: Nothing has happened. And, like I say, it may lead to legislation. On the Dreamers, hey, here it is. We may have legislation that clears all this up, but his rhetoric is horrible.
Gillespie: Are you looking for a position in his cabinet?
Gillespie: But no, I mean, in a weird way, Trump is actually delivering the opposite of what he promised. There's no wall, we may get the … Dreamers may be legalized, and pot may be descheduled or rescheduled.
Johnson: But, that isn't something that he is advocating, but as a consequence of what he's doing, that may actually happen.
Gillespie: You mentioned, on economics or on tax policy, obviously, he and the Republicans put through a major tax plan, do you like that tax plan? And how does it stack up to what you were arguing for on the campaign?
Johnson: Well, that corporate tax rates lower to 20%, that's a positive. I was advocating zero corporate tax, which I think would be amazing, and that individuals, that we would do away with income tax. That we would abolish the IRS. I just think that that would have an enormous positive impact on all of our lives, including being able to fund government.
Gillespie: And that would have been replaced by essentially a national sales tax.
Johnson: Well, in … What I advocated was, was that we switch then to a consumption tax, and I held up the fair tax as a model for how you would or could accomplish that.
Gillespie: And certainly Trump's, or the Republican tax reform, whatever else you can say about it, it really does build in bigger and bigger deficits, and it doesn't simplify things very much.
Johnson: Yeah, and that's the half … What about spending? That's the … If you want to hold an optimism for Trump and the future is, is that he would actually at some point address spending. But he hasn't. Spending has, as you know, increased.
So what difference does it make whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, and that's where I come in, is I'm a Libertarian.
Gillespie: What about regulations? Do you think Trump has been good?
Johnson: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Gillespie: You know, and particularly as a western state governor. He's pulled back the EPA a little bit. Is that … I mean, talk in relation to both what Trump has done, but also your experience as a western state governor, with what? New Mexico has basically more federal lands than, as a percentage of its mass, than almost any other state, right?
Johnson: Well, the western states have that phenomenon, and west of the … So here it is, Washington D.C., east of the Mississippi. There is absolutely no comprehension whatsoever of what public lands actually are. Well, west of the Mississippi, you've got all these public lands, and they pass laws regarding public lands.
Like access to public lands, which you and I, we look at that, and we think well, yeah, you should have access to public lands. Well it's not even possible to have access to … Because they're laid out in checkerboard fashion.
So leaving those decisions to the states, the deregulation if you will, getting the federal government off the backs of states that are well meaning? Yeah, you bet. That's a good thing. That's a good thing.
Gillespie: What about at the FDA? Trump, you know, his appointee seems to have pulled back from some of the over regulation of medical devices and pharmaceuticals.
Johnson: All positive. Companies are not going to be able to sell products that are dangerous to the public, because there are attorneys out there. And I think attorneys do a much better job of policing than the federal government does.
Gillespie: But then you also mentioned …
Johnson: But here it is. Trump has this press conference where 'I am going to challenge the pharmaceutical industry to come up with a non-addictive substitute for opioids.' Hello! What about Cannabis? Marijuana? Come on. So there's a deafness that exists, but …
And, all of this deregulation that is, in fact happening … And I only guessed at this, because I don't know the specifics. But I wish that he would articulate what he's doing and why. That, I think is a very important part of governing.
Gillespie: Yeah. Talk about … You mentioned his rhetoric as being, you know, awful and divisive. How does his failure to kind of articulate either larger principles when it comes to deregulation, or … You know, on that level, he seems to be mostly silent. He deregulates stuff but doesn't explain why it's good. But then, when it comes to things like immigration, he's over the top, and you know, people coming from 'shithole countries,' blah, blah, blah.
How does his rhetoric influence your views of him?
Johnson: Well, they influence my views on him in a very negative way. I mean, gosh, getting elected President of the United States, come on, we all recognize that he has an agenda, and saw that up front. Well how about telling us why there are benefits to this?
Now, when it comes to immigration, when it comes to marriage equality, a woman's right to choose, I … You know what, I don't buy into his arguments at all. But at least he perhaps tries arguing those points. The deregulation part, the getting into the weeds policy-wise, you know I kind of found that interesting as governor of New Mexico, and yes, I think I did an incredible … I think I turned the whole system on its head, but I was upfront about everything it was that I was doing, so my legacy is 'Well, gee, I didn't necessarily agree with anything Johnson did, but you know what? He had reasons for it, and we understood what those reasons were.'
Gillespie: Do you think Trump overall, is better than Hillary Clinton would have been as president?
Johnson: I think we would have kind of a myriad of other issues with Hillary that would probably be equally as bad, and that was something that I said during the election. So one or the other, and it would have been horrible … I think it would be horrible if Hillary would have been president, but I think Trump's got his horrible also.
Gillespie: As somebody who was involved in the 2016 presidential campaign, do you have any take on whether or not Russian agents of influence were screwing around with you, or with the vote totals? That seems to be a lingering shadow.
Johnson: Okay, it's okay … It's not okay for the Russians to do it, but it's okay for Hillary Clinton to do it? There's an article that appeared—
Gillespie: But I agree with that, but …
Johnson: Let me speak to you about what happened to me. Not that you're not aware. About six weeks to go in the campaign, The New York Times comes out with an article that says 'Watch out, Hillary. Johnson is garnering more millennial support than you are.' That was on a Friday. On a Saturday, 200 … I'll say 200 Internet trolls descended on my space, and now you had 20 news organizations, call it fake news if you want, but you had 20 pop ups that appeared. 'Here's what Johnson has said.'
And if you read any of them, you probably read a few, your takeaway was that this is the dumbest guy that's ever walked the planet. And at that point, I stopped Googling myself. And to this day, I don't Google myself. I don't look at what people are saying about me.
Gillespie: So you assume that was Russian bots? Or was that our people, or …
Johnson: There were articles written that Hillary Clinton spent $50 million to discredit me. Now, was it $50 million? We spent $12 million on our campaign, that's what we raised. So did it effect the election, did it effect me? Well, like I say, Google me today, and your takeaway is going to be 'It's good we didn't have that guy.'
Gillespie: So, it's … I mean, what you're saying is that, or if I may, are you saying that the question of Russian influence is less important than the ways in which people were … Everybody was trying to—
Johnson: Everybody was trying to manipulate this. And when it comes to the Internet, I mean, you pay for those, where does your website pop up? Well, if you're talking about $50 million, gee, the first 20 things you're going to read are going to be potentially subsidized by that $20 million.
When it comes to the Russian influence, I just read where they, among other things, just promoted Bernie Sanders. Well, that would have been … That was a negative … That was a negative for Hillary Clinton.
Gillespie: But she also was bringing her own kind of baggage to the party, right? Well, let me ask you, if it was a question of Hillary Clinton being able to say, 'Okay, flying monkeys, go destroy Johnson. Here's $50 million, here's $20 million.'
Would that mean that you would want to limit the ways in which people can spend their campaign money?
Johnson: No, but it is … So, back to policy, back to getting elected, being in office. What potentially could be done to fix that? Nick, I can't tell you what potentially could be done to fix that, but there are ideas out there. And certainly the best ideas launched would be, in this case, Facebook themselves, Twitter themselves dealing with this. But looking at governments, and even as a Libertarian, look, a takeaway from reading Hayek is, if you're an elected official, if you're in the public policy arena, you should always be looking to improve things. Always, improve things.
So having been governor of New Mexico, that was always my task.
Gillespie: What, say on the 2016 campaign a bit. Obviously, people remember the Aleppo moment. Do you … How do you feel about that now? You know, it's been a while, and it's in the rear view mirror. Were there moments, was that a turning point do you think in your campaign? Yes or no, how do you feel about it?
Johnson: Well, that was … It was going to happen. I would hypothesize that it happened to Trump about 150 times. All right, well okay, it happens to me. Well, what do you do when something like that happens? Well, we had … They each had a billion eight. So when it came to goffs, they had the firepower to come back.
Gillespie: Do they … Could I just ask, you mean 'gaffs', right, not 'goffs'?
Johnson: Thank you, I learned something.
Gillespie: Okay, this is a gaff. This is a—
Johnson: So I said 'goff.' See? There we go. That could be a testament to my intellect right there.
Gillespie: Yeah. But basically they were able to bounce back, and it is … What …
Johnson: So for us, immediately, within days of that, I did a major foreign policy speech in Chicago. And guess what? Nobody carried it. Well, you know, our firepower was very limited. But we did all the right things. And it was going to happen. Gaffs happen.
Johnson: I always thought that honesty would rule the day. I always thought that integrity would rule the day. I always thought that telling the truth would rule the day. And it doesn't.
Gillespie: Do you hate America, then?
Johnson: I don't hate America, I hate—
Gillespie: Do you hate Americans?
Johnson: I hate politics. I think political office today is toxic.
Gillespie: So are you, you know, here you are, it's whatever it is, it's late February, early March of 2018, you're speaking at CPAC. Are you thinking about running again in the future?
Johnson: No. No.
Gillespie: Absolutely not?
Johnson: No. I'm done. I'm done with elected political office. But my political arm, Our America, we're going to dedicate ourselves to well, how do you change this? And don't you have to vote for another party to change this? And so Libertarians, I think really have an opportunity here.
And the opportunity rests solely in having really good candidates, and having some really good candidates win.
Gillespie: And the Our America Initiative is your non-profit that looks at a variety of policy issues. And is it affiliated with the Libertarian Party? Are you still … I mean, you were a two-term governor as a Republican, you renounced your Republican-ness, or your membership. Are you still fully enmeshed in the Libertarian Party? Or, how do you think about party policies?
Johnson: Well, by enmeshed, I do think the Libertarian Party emulates the feelings of most Americans, and I summarized that during the 2016 election by saying most Americans, I think, are fiscally conservative and socially, they don't care. Socially liberal. You should be able to make decisions in your own life, as long as those decisions don't adversely affect others. I think most people feel that way.
The Republican Party doesn't emulate that, and the Democratic Party certainly doesn't emulate that either, when it comes to dollars and cents. Neither of them do when it comes to dollars and cents, right now.
Gillespie: Right. And foreign policy, too. They seem to be pretty similar, right?
Johnson: It's all lock step. And you know, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, they never visualized, or never believed that there would be political parties. And if there were going to be political parties, that might be the demise of our republic.
Gillespie: What … In terms of foreign policy in the presidential kind of mess of issues, or mass of issues … Obviously, terrorism like bothers people in a way, but did you find that people … You know, were they responsive to your vision of a non-interventionist foreign policy, or of having a defense department as opposed to a war department?
Johnson: No. No, they weren't. I think everybody … And that's the fear, that politics really are people running for office, that 'Look, drugs are the scourge of the earth. Terrorism is the scourge of the earth. Afghanistan is the scourge of the … Iran is the scourge of the earth. Elect me, and I will protect you from all of these threats and evils.'
And that's what politics is, and I've never been a part of that.
Gillespie: Well, one of the things you used to say a lot during the campaign was 'Google Johnson.' You're no longer doing that, you said. But you also used to say 'Uber everything.'
Johnson: Uber everything.
Gillespie: Like you were trying to get Uber for everything. Do you still believe in that?
Gillespie: Will that carry America forward in progress?
Johnson: I absolutely believe that, that whatever it is that you do in your life, if you can directly deal with the end user and get paid such, that's a good thing. And I look at Uber as a model for that. You've got drivers that own their own cars, and I realize that's in not all the cases, but maybe it is. But you know, you own your own cars, you're your own boss, you can do what you want. You give a piece to Uber because they've arranged to do all this.
Well, that could be a model for plumbers, that could be a model for lawyers, that could be a model for … you name it. That's … I do ultimately think that that's the way things are going to evolve. Eliminate the middleman, let me get paid the $75 an hour instead of getting paid $25. And now we raise all sorts of liability issues, but insurance can change, that a person becomes insured from a liability standpoint to be able to do anything.
If you did away with income tax? Holy cow, you could go help your neighbor, and get paid to help your neighbor. You know, your neighbor needs help moving some boxes. Hey, I'll pay you 20 bucks to do that. Well, today, if you take that 20 bucks, technically you're in violation of the law, because you're not going to claim that as income.
Gillespie: One of the issues that was particularly front-and-center to you was drug legalization, particularly pot legal … Or the end of pot prohibition, marijuana prohibition. You're involved with some marijuana companies. What's going on in that area of your life, your business life?
Johnson: Well, currently I'm involved with CB-1, which they do have a website, but it's a hedge fund that's buying stock of publicly-traded companies in the marijuana space. Very exciting, and I do believe that it could be one of the biggest investment opportunities in the next decade. Because 65% of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. Maybe it's not sixty-five, but it's the highest that it's ever been before. It's going to happen, and it's a positive.
And I say a positive, because the alternatives from a medical standpoint, opioids, a replacement for opioids. And on the alcohol front, I haven't had a drink of alcohol in thirty years. I do use marijuana occasionally, and it's much, much safer.
Gillespie: Let me ask you, so you would drink and you would get drunk, right?
Johnson: I would drink, and why have one beer when you could have three and catch a buzz. And then three beers the next morning really had an effect. For me, anyway. For me. I have no problem with anybody drinking, as long as they're not doing harm to others.
Gillespie: But then, so with pot, what does pot do for you that's better than drinking? And I understand that there's the larger arguments, which I mostly agree with to the extent that I'm aware of them, that pot is less dangerous, it screws up your mind less, it doesn't hurt your liver, you don't have to smoke it anymore, but do you get high when you use pot?
Johnson: Well, I do, and I've always said that it's kind of, it's a mind Rolf.
Gillespie: Okay, Rolfing. Now we're going back to what, the 70s, weird massage thing.
Johnson: Yeah, kind of a brain Rolf, if you will. Rearrange the bookshelves, in a good way, not a bad way. That's my experience. And for anybody that has problems with substances, and really, there's a very small amount of people that do have problems with marijuana. That's going to always exist.
Gillespie: Did you … What was … And you see pot or marijuana-derived products as one possible way of lessening the reliance on opioids, whether we're talking about heroin or we're talking about prescription drugs?
Johnson: Absolutely, absolutely.
Gillespie: When you were governor of New Mexico, what were the drugs that you were most often dealing with, that were causing real social harm, not simply because of their—
Johnson: Well, there's the perception and there's the reality. And the perception was, is that when I was the governor of New Mexico, that drugs were the scourge of the Earth. Including marijuana. Well, the reality, and I'm governor of New Mexico. Reality. Half of what we spend on law enforcement, half of what we spend in the courts, and half of what we spend in the prisons is drug related. Do you know, that in 2017, the number one arrest offense in the United States was still, is still marijuana? And I'll bet that's the case in 2018.
So with all this talk about legalization, that is still the fact. And it's wrong. It's wrong to criminalize an activity that, like I say, you're not doing any harm to anyone, arguably other than yourself. Should that be an arrestable offense? I don't believe so.
Gillespie: Can you sketch out the scenario as you see it, where pot is now kind of … I mean, it is legal at the state level in a handful of states, and Massachusetts is actually going to joining the pot club, the marijuana club later on this year with recreational legalization. It's in dozens of states, medical marijuana is legal. What happens next? Because there is going to be a showdown, isn't there, between the federal government, or federal laws and state laws.
Johnson: The one thing that the Federal government needs to do is to de-schedule marijuana as a Class I Narcotic, alongside of heroin. Give me a break. So there is all this conjecture, there is all this hypothesis of what are the benefits of marijuana? Well, Nick, there's no research happening in the United States, it's happening in other countries.
But the research needs to take place, and will take place, if marijuana is de-scheduled as a Class I Narcotic. So a very simple step for the Federal government. Declassify marijuana. The President of the United States could order the Surgeon General to do that.
Gillespie: We're a week or so after a particularly disturbing mass shooting. I guess to say one is more disturbing than the other is wrong. Seventeen people were killed in a school in Florida. Did you have to deal with that kind of advance in … And how do you deal with that as a governor or as a chief executive, and is there a good solution to this type of violence?
Johnson: What I said numerous times during the presidential campaign, and as governor, look, we need to be open to a discussion on how you keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill individuals. To say anything other than that would be stupid. So an open mind on how do we deal with this. But Nick, I have not heard any suggestions that would actually bring about real change.
President Trump's saying that we should arm teachers. As governor of New Mexico, after Columbine, I was asked what do you do to prevent a further Columbine? And my answer was look, you're not going to want to hear the answer, but you would lessen the impact of any shooter, active shooter, by requiring that teachers be armed.
And I'm not advocating that, but yesterday now, or this morning, I read that 75% of teachers don't want to be armed. That means that 25% would actually arm themselves if allowed to do that. Wouldn't that, and again, I'm not saying this is the solution, but here is a concrete way of deterring these things from happening, these active shootings from happening in the future.
If 25% of teachers are carrying, to me that would be a deterrent to a lot of … I think it would be a deterrent. Maybe it doesn't turn out that way, but I have to feel … Forget about the actual crossfire that would occur, forget about an actual gunfight that's going to occur. Think about the fact that well, gee, I'm not going to do the school thing anymore, or I'm not going to … Because people that contemplate this kind of thing aren't going to think about schools anymore, because I'm going to end up dead.
And many of them don't care anyway. So that's why it's not a solution to it, but it certainly would have to be a deterrent.
Gillespie: Do you, you know, in a broader sense, do you feel like even since the 2016 campaign, has the ability of America to kind of have these conversations, is it growing, or is it shrinking, or is it staying the same? Is it always a struggle? I mean, because in a lot of ways …
Johnson: Maybe it is growing. Maybe it is growing, because looking at the outrage over Sessions and what he's saying regarding marijuana. Well, because of what he's doing when it comes to marijuana, which is wanting to crack down on marijuana. In fact, it may turn out to be the opposite. May turn out to be that way.
Gillespie: Well, you know, let's end on this note. One of the things that I found genuinely interesting, apart from generally agreeing with your policy positions, it was your demeanor as a politician. To say like honesty, let's talk about this stuff. You're also a baby boomer, right? What year were you born?
Gillespie: Okay, so you're about 10 years younger, or six or seven years younger than Trump or Hillary, all of that kind of, you know, Bernie Sanders. These were early baby boomers, and they were all incredibly negative and cynical about America. You know, Trump talked about American carnage in his inauguration speech. Hillary Clinton was talking about how everything was kind of going to hell in a hand basket. Bernie Sanders was like, I mean, he lived in a world that was like out of a Little Rascals short, like Hooverville in black and white.
You were optimistic. What undergirded your optimism, and what keeps it going, in the face of situations where, you know, people are saying 'oh, my God they're killing kids, the economy's in the crapper, China's taking over'?
Johnson: One of the offshoots of Trump, and all … It really hasn't happened, but the talk of cutting back, and entitlements need to be reformed, which Trump isn't touching. But because of his rhetoric I think now, for example, we're seeing companies step up and actually doing more. There's more of a … Seems to me today that there's more of a corporate responsibility that's rising to the top. Well, that's the private sector that's rising to the top. So I remain optimistic. And if government weren't there to provide all the services that it provides, we as Americans would be filling in that gap. We would be filling it in completely. I'm completely in that belief.
Gillespie: And we would be buzzed on top of it.
Johnson: We would be happy. By buzz? Yeah, so we would be buzzed.
Gillespie: Okay, so it could be a natural high, or it could be an artificial high, but we'd be in a better place. Usually when government yields, freedom—
Johnson: And I Uber everything, so I'm making a whole lot more money, I'm able to do things that I haven't been able to do before because I'm making more money. One of the things that Trump said was that by repatriating, which I believe. If we would repatriate all that corporate money that's overseas, that we would see that money invested in the United States. Well, it's happened. So, that's another positive on the Trump side.
Gillespie: Well, we will leave it there. We've been talking with Governor Gary Johnson, two-term governor of New Mexico. A two-time Libertarian Party presidential candidate. Governor, thanks so much for talking.
Johnson: Nick, thanks.
Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie.