Biloxi, Miss.—Now that Donald Trump has all but secured the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, those in the party who oppose him are in a bind. Some have decided to hold their noses and endorse. Others have gone in for Hillary Clinton. Some have floated the idea of supporting an independent Republican ticket headed by a respected figure such as Mitt Romney.
There is also, of course, the Libertarian Party option, which is beginning to look attractive to some Republicans who disagree with Trump’s don’t-touch position on Social Security and Medicare and his immigration restrictionism. Search traffic for its candidates has surged recently, as have registrations with the party that ran Ron Paul against George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988.
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As it happens, I was able to get up close and personal with virtually the entire Libertarian presidential field back in February, when I attended the party’s first official debate ahead of the cycle in Biloxi, Mississippi, at the Beau Rivage.
The Beau Rivage is an oceanfront resort and casino with no view of the ocean. On my last night there I walked outside and followed the sidewalk in both directions to find the water. The closest I came was a sign that said "No Beach Access," and when I asked at the front desk whether there was any way to see the ocean from the hotel grounds, the receptionist looked baffled.
The Beau Rivage is the tallest building in the state of Mississippi. It features 72,000 square feet of gaming space, just under half the size of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It has six restaurants, four bars, a spa offering packages such as the Southern Gentleman’s Relaxation Retreat (how about a "Bourbon Bubbler MAN-icure"?), a shopping center, a convention area with three ballrooms, and a concert hall where you can see Hall and Oates perform their greatest hits. You are allowed to smoke almost anywhere except in the guest rooms and suites and in the convention center. At the buffet restaurant just past the lobby—called, simply, The Buffet—people fill fruit basket-sized bowls with steamed crawfish. One of the gaming machines on the casino floor plays "Wagon Wheel" really loudly on an infinite loop.
The Beau Rivage is tacky. Everything about it is in bad taste. It was sad and demoralizing in a way that made me pity everyone there. It was also, I think, the perfect venue for the debate featuring 11 candidates seeking the 2016 presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party held in the Camellia Ballroom on February 27.
Manbuns, ponytails, goatees, and fedoras
In the morning and afternoon on the day the debate took place the Alabama and Mississippi state Libertarian Party chapters were holding something called the Gulf Coast Business and Entrepreneurship Seminar in the same room. Tickets cost $5. When I arrived there were maybe 15 people, most of them in the back loading up plates with sushi and spring rolls. I walked over to the registration desk to check in. The chairman of the Mississippi state party knew I was attending, but there weren’t any press passes to hand out. Instead someone wrote my name and "Washington Free Beacon" on a nametag.
There was a loose physical profile that many but not all the male attendees seemed to fit. Throughout the day I saw a lot of manbuns, ponytails, goatees, soul patches, prominent sideburns, and fedoras. Virtually no one who was not appearing on stage wore a tie, a proper shirt, or a jacket. As you might expect there were more men than women.
The first person to speak at the forum was Jack Robinson Jr., the owner of a machine shop in Spartansburg, S.C., and one of the 11 candidates who would be on the debate stage later that night. Robinson was a kindly looking white-haired man in a neat unobtrusive black suit. In his reasonable drawl he pushed his plan to save America, a program he calls "Birthloop Economics." This sounded like a version of the scheme to open a savings account for every American citizen at birth proposed by Chuck Schumer and Rick Santorum in 2005, though at the end of 20 minutes I wasn’t sure, especially when he adds that it is "the first zero-cost government program ever devised."
"I don’t have time to explain it," Robinson said.
John McAfee was next. If you don’t read Vice or Wired, you might not know that the man responsible for the virus scan software that probably came packaged with your Windows 98 machine has written numerous books about yoga, sold drugs in Central America, married a former teenage prostitute introduced to him by the owner of the brothel where she was being kept, and was wanted for questioning as recently as two years ago by the Belizean authorities in connection with the murder of another American expatriate. Pictures of him shirtless and tattooed and holding a gun to his head and lighting $100 bills on fire are all over the Internet. He was very forthright about all this. "My life is a very checkered piece of history," he said. "I’m ashamed to admit that I have been in jail more than one time and in more than one country. Not a pleasant situation. I have been sued in civil suits 209 times. I have paid more than $40 million in income taxes and received nothing—nothing. So I know we don’t need income taxes."
The last speaker was Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico who ran as the party’s presidential candidate in 2012. He talked about his recent experience "as an entrepreneur in the cannabis space" and his plan to sue the Commission on Presidential Debates in the hope of securing spots for the Libertarian and Green nominees during the general election. Johnson is the Libertarian equivalent of Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, the inevitable-seeming frontrunner who appears to have the backing of the party apparatus but is detested by a vocal minority of the base, an element that was represented in the audience.
"Whatever you think of the Democrat or Republican Party, their nominees who have lost an election do not run again," someone asked. "They do not exploit party notoriety, affection, admiration. For the good of the party they allow other candidates to come forward with new campaign strategies for ultimate victory. By running for the Libertarian Party candidacy again, are you not holding back the Libertarian Party?"
It turned out that this was Derrick Michael Reid, one of the governor’s fellow candidates.
"Look," said Johnson, sounding somewhat diffident, "obviously in your opinion I am. This is a process and we’ll see whether the Libertarian Party in fact agrees with you. If that’s the case, I’ll be glad to ride off into the sunset."
When I approached him after Johnson left the stage, Reid was very short with me. When I mentioned the example of Nixon, who went on to win two general elections after a bad loss in 1960, he told me that I was missing the point—namely that Johnson was preventing him from obtaining the nomination, the only thing standing between him and winning all 50 states and 90 percent of the popular vote. "You may not realize that I am an engineer, a lawyer, a military scientist, a bullion banking finance market analyst, and a geopolitical analyst." Donald Trump, he said, plagiarized "Make America Great Again" from him.
According to his website, TotalitarianDemocracy.com, which he urged me to visit, "The devil has no chance in tempting or corrupting Derrick Michael Reid." When he ran through his platform with me, a lot of it sounded indistinguishable from stuff you’d hear from Ted Cruz or Rand Paul: lower taxes, increased federalism, the gold standard, realist foreign policy, free trade. Reid said I should not be making this connection. "The Republican Party is a totalitarian socialistic fascist political power." Eventually I looked at the time and realized that we’d been talking for over half an hour. He promised me that there would be "fireworks" at the debate that night. I wished him good luck.
When I returned at 6:45 p.m. to the Camellia Ballroom and sat down at a front-row table, a woman came by and handed me five plastic gold coins emblazoned with a skull and crossbones.
"They will be explained later," she said mysteriously.
When the candidates took the stage I noticed that they were standing behind a backdrop of stars. Was this a metaphor for the infinite reaches of space into which we shall penetrate when we free ourselves from the shackles of government and enter, fire-imbibed, into the heavenly sanctuary—or, in reverse, the mere stardust fragments of authoritarianism that will remain after we all explode in a supernova of liberty?
Getting to know the candidates
Eventually our MC, the former Mississippi state party chairman Danny Bedwell, appeared and I learned what the doubloons are for. After one hour of debate, he said, there would be a 15-minute break, during which we were supposed to put our coins in the baskets of the best candidates. The five people with the most gold in their bins would go on to a second round.
Eleven is a lot of candidates to introduce, much less discuss in detail. The best thing to do is probably to divide the current Libertarian field into what I see as three distinct tiers. First you have what I like to think of as the "establishment" candidates, people with name recognition and what in Libertarian circles passes for national media profiles, namely Johnson, McAfee, and Petersen, a political consultant and former producer for Andrew Napolitano’s Fox Business show.
In the second tier you have unknowns who strike me as, for lack of a better word, credible. They are presentable, wear adult clothing, and, however extreme their views, do not sound conspiratorial or crazy. Marc Feldman, an anesthesiologist from Cleveland who refuses to accept campaign contributions of more than $5, Rhett Smith, a Texas-based Navy veteran and small businessman, and Robinson all belong here.
Everyone else is in the third tier, in which, for me anyway, the distinction between candidate and low-level activist blurs.
The applause for Gary Johnson was very loud. He talked about balancing the budget and dismantling the IRS and bragged about the number of official Liberty Torches he received from the ACLU when he ran in 2012 (21, three more than Ron Paul). I noticed that he had some kind of sneakers on under his suit. Ditto McAfee, for whose inimitable style I should have been prepared but was not. "I come to you untutored in the great thinkers of libertarianism," he said. "The first book I ever read cover to cover was Darwin’s Origin of Species at the age of 30. I read that book because I was dealing drugs in Mexico at the time and it was the only English-language book I could find. I was arrested and severely punished. I understand full well what the criminalization of drugs does in terms of fear and suffering in a society. I know a little bit about foreign policy. I was living in Belize when I was raided by 43 armed soldiers who were trained by the FBI in Quantico. My dog was shot in front of my eyes with an AR-15 given to them by the State Department, and I was tortured using techniques developed by the CIA." For some reason he pronounced Quantico "Kwan-TEEK-oh," which makes it sound exotic and extra menacing.
After a false start in which it sounded as if he were screaming into the microphone, Darryl Perry—he of the ponytail and cargo pants—said he was tired of "half measures" and such "incremental steps" as only supporting the legalization of marijuana and not the "quote un-quote hard stuff." He is for "100 percent liberty all the time, on every issue": If he is president Americans will "keep every dime of what you earn."
Austin Petersen, a self-described "son of the Ron Paul Revolution," told a quaint story about place names. "I was actually born in Independence, raised on a horse farm in Peculiar, just a short drive from a town called Liberty." He has fond memories of the time he saw his hero "tell Rudy Giuliani a thing or two about foreign policy," an exchange that even many of us who opposed the Iraq war remember as cringeworthy at best. After Petersen finished, Reid started with his job titles again. "My name is Derrick Michael Reed. I am from California. I am an experienced engineer, lawyer, military scientist, bullion banking finance market analyst, and geopolitical analyst." Under these lights and in front of this backdrop, I almost expected him to finish with "…and captain of the Starship Enterprise." This time he added that he had "analyzed the socioeconomic fabric of our society, determined what the systemic problems are, the causes of those problems, and devised a comprehensive solution set to save the country from social chaos and economic ruination."
Jack Robinson followed with another folksy rundown of Birthloop Economics. And though I am still not sure exactly what this plan involves, I do know that whatever it is is heresy to this audience. Robinson did not seem like a naïve guy, but he held his own, warning the audience against being "an irresponsible group and an irresponsible party." I heard hisses in the crowd.
Like Perry, Smith was very loud at the start of his turn; unlike the host of Peace, Love, Liberty Radio and various other podcasts, Smith, realized it and apologized immediately. "I didn’t mean to scream." He told us about his family history—e.g., his middle name, Rosenquist, is his mother’s maiden name—and his service in the Navy. He was very polite. "I guess I’m a true believer. I guess I like to believe that some way, somehow America can regain the initiative to lead the world."
Sterling, whose last name is spelled "Starling" in the press advisory for the debate that I saw before attending, is a former Obama campaign volunteer who recently completed some kind of space-related internship. "I was at NASA Goddard. They have a lot of scientists there." She is a non-denominational Protestant minister and a single mother. On her website she expresses her concerns about obesity ("I don't like it when society looks down on those who are obese and draws the conclusion that these individuals eat too much food") and chemtrails in her native Kentucky:
Ok, calm down Shawna4Freedom 🙂 You're an educated woman, you got two bachelors, one masters, are working on a doctorate and hell, you even did an internship at NASA recently, so you should have enough sense to know that the chemicals being sprayed in the skies of Kentucky are just innocent little, well, hell, I don't know what they are, uuuuu, but, hummm, you don't need to worry about them, because if they were dangerous, someone would tell us, right?
Let me ask you this question, you guys, would an enemy tell you that they are trying to kill you?
There are also some links to other sites there. If you follow some of them you find headlines such as "SECRET SOCIETY: POINDEXTER A LEADER OF THE SECRET ORDER OF ST. HUBERTUS INVITED JUSTICE SCALIA TO BE THE 36TH 666666 GUEST AT THE SECRET MEETING WHERE JUSTICE SCALIA WAS KILLED." (I can’t decide whether this is a parody.)
I never learned what Steve’s last name is because he never showed up. Instead the last candidate on the stage, the only one whose name was not in front of him on the podium, was Thomas Clemens, a genuinely heartbreaking figure. He is running because thanks to the Obama administration’s response to the BP oil spill he lost the business that he and his wife—whom he married even though she was divorced with several children and in the process of going through bankruptcy because he loved her so much—had put everything into and he doesn’t want to see something similar happen to anyone else. He is not any more qualified to be on this or any other stage running for office than Ince or Perry or Sterling, but my heart goes out to him.
It could be argued that, despite the logistical and technical issues that would plague it throughout the evening, this debate was in theory a better debate qua, well, debate than any of the ones put on by the major parties this year. Instead of allowing candidates to quote their previous remarks and ask for responses that invariably morph into miniature stump speeches, the moderators posed a single question to all 11 people, who each got one minute to respond. I say "in theory" because most of the candidates had the same answer to every question.
One issue on which the 11 candidates were not completely in lockstep was the death penalty. Clemens gingerly admitted that like most Louisianans, he is in favor of it. Reid, who had promised fireworks, went a bit further and got booed. "I am pro-death penalty. I am also for public execution. You take a 10-year-old to witness a public execution and watch those legs twitch, that 10-year-old is going to remember." He was also openly contemptuous of some of the other candidates’ plans for eliminating the national debt. "Communists," he said, almost spitting the word, "have five-year plans. Capitalists don’t."
When round one ended, we were told to go to the lobby to vote with our coins. Here I found myself between the horns of an ethical dilemma. As a journalist I wasn’t sure that I should be trying to influence the outcome of the partisan event that I was covering. On the other hand, I was genuinely worried about what some of these people would do if they lost and wanted me to shore up the vote for them. I ended up putting my coins on the floor in the lobby and going down the escalator to the casino again.
‘I’m pretty nutty, but I’m pretty intelligent’
I have no idea what the Republican and Democratic candidates and the cable-news anchor moderators do during the commercial breaks at their debates, but I am pretty sure that, unlike approximately one third of the current Libertarian field, they do not hold impromptu meet-and-greets with likely voters or smoke cigarettes. On the floor of the casino I saw McAfee, Ince, and Reid, all puffing away and talking enthusiastically with supporters. Danny the MC was there, too, and so was one of the moderators, who at one point sat down at a bench and chatted one on one with McAfee.
I was so taken with this that I got out my phone and begin snapping pictures when a Beau employee came over and told me that it is "illegal" to take photos on the floor of a casino. This isn’t true, of course, but it’s probably against the resort’s policy and I decided not to press the point because getting tossed out before the end of the debate would have made my work complicated. I ended up standing by myself near an ashtray for a minute or two until Ince walked up and we started having a conversation about foreign policy. He told me that things will be better when the 2.7 million-strong combined forces of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and National Guard will be replaced with more efficient state-level volunteer services. Does he think the Oregon State Militia would have been able to beat Hitler or win the Cold War? A debate attendee interjected before he could answer.
"The only way we’re going to destroy the war machine is by getting rid of the fiat currency," the voter said.
"Definitely," Ince said.
He and Ince talked for a few minutes about precious metals while I smoked silently. After the voter left, Ince picked up with a kind of response to my question. "There are a lot of things about, you know, World War II and World War I that people don’t know," he said. "Like, the Treaty of Versailles: it’s really just a continuation of the same war. And all the money that Germany paid went to the Federal Reserve."
When I got back to my table I noticed that Reid was sitting across from me. He was engrossed in a conversation with a guy in a black windbreaker and messy gray hair. In front of Reid’s new friend was a beat-up looking iPad and a notebook full of tiny handwriting intermittently highlighted in pink, green, and orange.
"You study geopolitical analysis?"
"Of course, of course!" Reid said with a manic Jerry Lewis-in-The Nutty Professor sort of expression.
The guy started talking about how he has spent the last four years studying global currency markets. He said that he knows more about them than his idiotic rich brother-in-law in Connecticut.
"I’m pretty nutty, but I’m pretty intelligent."
He asked Reid where he was staying.
"At the airport," Reid said. "I don’t have the money."
The party’s national chairman came on stage to thank "the 1,500 who watched" the first part of the debate online. Then Danny the MC announced that the doubloons had been counted: Feldman, Johnson, McAfee, Petersen, and Perry would advance to the next round.
Round two was a distillation of its predecessor. Everyone here was himself but in more concentrated form. Feldman said more about peace and told us charming stories about his grandfather, who sold chickens on the streets of Georgetown to pay his way through law school. McAfee talked about how he is great at attracting press coverage and made some incisive points about cybersecurity. Johnson, after thanking his "great partner, Kate," talked about flying in gas balloons at the championship level and participating in Iron Man Hawaii four times and having "climbed the Seven Summits." He had the night’s biggest applause line when he said, in his characteristic nasal whine, "Donald Trump’s a pussy." (Even McAfee said "Hear, hear" and clapped.) Petersen argued that if Trump wraps up his current party’s nominee it will be possible for Libertarians to make inroads with Republicans so long as their own eventual candidate is unabashedly pro-life. Perry called the United States "the largest terrorist organization in the world," endorsed secession, and admitted that if he were elected he is not sure he could actually take the Oath of Office.
"Wow," MC Danny said after everyone’s closing statements. "Wow. What a debate."