ORLANDO — When I told friends I was headed to the Libertarian National Convention, many assumed I would be surrounded by a group of gun-toting, pot-smoking Republicans who advocate total anarchy.
This proved to be untrue—mostly.
Note: This is part one of a two-part series by Andy Lyman on the weekend at the Libertarian National Convention. Part two will run on Saturday.
For all of Andy Lyman’s stories from Orlando, see The 2016 Libertarian National Convention series.
Aside from a rotund candidate for national Libertarian Party chair stripping down to a thong while dancing on stage and some outspokenly frustrated anarchists, the conference was largely tame.
Instead, I witnessed a political party as divided as Democrats and Republicans.
Were there some delegates advocating for total cessation from the United States? Not many, but some. They were outnumbered by those who saw this election year as an opportunity to get their party on election ballots in all 50 states, who believed a hard-nosed approach to completely abolishing the federal government may not sit well with the “politically homeless” who are looking for a candidate not named Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Before I left for my trip, I spoke with both the party’s national chairman and an editor for the Libertarian media outlet Reason to try and get a handle on what to expect. They told me Libertarians take the idea of liberty and freedom literally and advocate for little-to-no government oversight when it comes to alcohol, guns, drugs and marriage.
The party’s chairman said they wouldn’t hire much security, since Florida has a concealed carry law, so attendees packing guns could protect themselves.
I relayed this to my editor and he left me with some compassionate words.
“Please don’t get killed, I don’t want to have to hire another reporter,” he said.
Stepping into the fray
I arrived in muggy Orlando the day before the real action started and met up with former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. I already knew some factions within the party saw Johnson as a Republican in Libertarian’s clothing. Even though Johnson secured the party’s presidential nomination in 2012, his stance in favor of government intervening in businesses that discriminate on religious or political views left many delegates wondering if he was true to party principles.
That weekend, I listened in on conversations between Johnson and delegates and his attempt to get their votes for the nomination.
Some didn’t need much convincing and already supported him wholeheartedly, but others grilled him on issues.
Alexis Walker, a 19-year-old delegate from New Jersey, asked Johnson about his thoughts on immigration. The daughter of an immigrant, Walker told me she was “still kind of on the fence about taking in Middle Eastern refugees.”
Johnson told Walker that when it comes to Syrian refugees, the United States should accept a certain amount of responsibility for why they are leaving their countries in the first place and “take our fair share” of refugees. As the conversation shifted to immigration policies in general, Johnson reminded Walker and two other delegates from New Jersey about his experience governing a border state. Johnson criticized what Trump has long said about Mexican immigrants.
“They’re not murderers or rapists,” Johnson said. “They’re the cream of the crop.”
Trump probably wouldn’t utter “cream of the crop” when talking about those crossing the Mexico border.
Like most politicians, Johnson had his list of go-to phrases when discussing policies, and his pro-immigration speech didn’t change much. He told countless delegates about his plan to allow more immigrants into the U.S. using a work visa program and background checks to vet them.
The mention of background checks would usually make a Libertarian clench their copy of the U.S. Constitution in disgust, but Rob Tannen, another New Jersey delegate, seemed to overlook Johnson’s vetting process and instead raised his concern that a lax border would end with a flood of foreign terrorists coming into the country.
“Immigrants are great, terrorists are not so fun,” Tannen said.
Johnson held his stance of more open borders, acknowledging there is always a chance of terrorists coming to the country but calling it a “baby with the bathwater sort of thing.” He maintained more immigrants would be good for the economy. Tannen went on to argue that more immigrants would mean lower salaries for everybody.
“I come from an economics background and it seems to me that if you’ve got five or six applicants all qualified, the one who has the lowest salary demand is going to get the job,” Tannen said.
“Well, I respectfully disagree,” Johnson countered.
Tannen left and told me he would not be voting for Johnson.
“That was a very disappointing response,” Tannen said.
Tannen had many other options to choose from.
The other candidates
The convention was filled with a cast of colorful characters, candidates included. Some were on stage with Johnson while others were unable to collect enough votes to even get on the ballot, let alone get to the debate stage.
One of the most high-profile candidates was John McAfee. He previously made a name for himself by creating McAfee Anti-Virus software. He later made headlines for his time on the run from the Belize government, which said McAfee was a person of interest in the death of a neighbor. McAfee has long denied any wrongdoing, instead offering up his theory that he was a target of the Belize government.
Throughout most of the convention, McAfee was followed around by a Spike TV film crew. I usually spotted him drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette outside.
I realized celebrity status here was contained in a vacuum when, as I took a picture of McAfee, a hotel patron not involved in the convention asked me who the man surrounded by cameras was.
“John McAfee,” I answered.
The man stared at me for a second and asked again, “Who’s that?”
From the start McAfee started to criticize what he saw as complacency within the party. In his first debate of the weekend, McAfee all but denounced running for president under the Libertarian Party.
“I’d like to make an announcement,” McAfee said during a debate on Thursday night. “I am a fraud.”
McAfee spent his entire opening statement during the first debate encouraging the party to push for lower offices instead of president, arguing that it’s delusional to think any of the candidates have a chance in the general election.
“This is a fucking fraud,” McAfee said.
He still received 14 percent of the vote from the delegates in both rounds of voting a couple days later.
When I spoke with McAfee the day after his first debate appearance, the two of us were surrounded by cameras and microphones as I asked him to clarify his statements from the night before. His quiet and calm voice was countered by his intense demeanor as he grabbed my shoulders and tried to make his point. He explained to me why this nomination was pointless, using space travel and locust metaphors.
“I’m a practical man, if someone comes and says, ‘I want to fly to the moon without a spacesuit or an oxygen tank,’ I go, ‘I don’t want to get involved in it,’” McAfee told me.
He continued by saying the party will never advance if their only concern is increasing voting numbers in the presidential election.
“We come out of the ground every four years like locusts and go back into the ground after the campaign,” McAfee said.
McAfee had already made it known that he would help support the party, but not Johnson in the general election. When I asked him why, McAfee went into a long explanation reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz.
“Do you really think that Gary Johnson is good for this party?” McAfee asked. “Then tell me why.”
After a brief silence, I realized he was legitimately asking my opinion. As I awkwardly shrugged, he said, “I’m sorry, you’re supposed to ask the questions and I’m supposed to answer them.”
“What is it we’re fighting against? We’re not fighting against Trump, we’re not fighting against Hillary, we’re not fighting against the Democrats or Republicans. We’re fighting against this thing behind the curtain, which was created by Trump and Clinton, and the process of debates and the entire media circus which is the outface of this machine.”
Still, McAfee was far from the most eccentric person at the convention. Libertarians will sometimes use costumes or attention grabbing props to make their point, I was told before leaving New Mexico. They were right.
MegaCon—think ComicCon—was in the next building, so it was sometimes hard for me to tell who was attending which convention.
Vermin Supreme, a tongue-in-cheek political activist, could have attended either convention. With his trademark rubber boot on his head and oversized toothbrush, it’s hard to ignore Supreme. The first night I saw the candidate— yes, running for the Libertarian Party nomination—he was at an outdoor table surrounded by young attendees asking for votes.
I asked Supreme how his campaigning was going and if he was going to be on the ballot.
“The metrics one uses in my campaign is very important,” Supreme said. “I have mad support, mad love. Does it translate into actual votes or financial contributions? Not necessarily.”
I asked Supreme to explain his headgear to me.
“The boot stands for all that is great with America, is my throw away line,” Supreme said. “I’ve told the media that the boot is a full pile of shit and they are the flies that buzz around it.”
Finally, he gave me an extended explanation.
“The most important part, I think, about the boot is if you take my picture in any crowd, show it to any child and ask what’s wrong with this photo, they’ll say, ‘That guy has a boot on his head.’
“So really it’s a signifier that what I’m going to present might not be linear in nature and it’s a simple, elegant and extremely effective device that has helped me amplify my free speech about a million times,” Supreme said.
I still don’t know if what he said was true or if he told that to every reporter.
He told me that he has been involved in numerous political parties but that, “The political parties are simply flags of convenience that I fly for my own fun.”
Supreme received one write-in vote on the first round for the Libertarian nomination at the convention. Earlier this year he received 260 votes in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, coming in fourth, behind former Maryland Governor and former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.
During the evenings after party business ended, the other party business began. While I was expecting a blatant display of pot smoking and all around debauchery based on what others told me, I witnessed very few instances that would raise eyebrows at any other convention. There were a few times when I could smell the faint scent of marijuana by the hotel pool, but nothing too conspicuous, or different from many other conventions.
I soon realized technology may have been the reason I didn’t see any joints or pipes being passed around. During a candidate party an attendee offered up a small, pen sized vaporizer to a group of press standing around. Spoiler alert: none of us accepted the offer.
One night on the outdoor patio by the pool, I started talking to a MegaCon attendee, who was dressed as a Ghostbuster. Armed with a proton pack and a full jumpsuit, Patrick Creel gave me his thoughts on politics. After explaining, to the best of my ability, to him some of the Libertarian Party ideals he offered his thoughts on politics in general.
“I’m hip to anything that promotes good will to everyone,” Creel said. “What’s wrong with being human to each other? Isn’t that just the basic principles of life?”
I’m sure many libertarians would argue that Creel’s thoughts fit right in with their ideals. I continually heard about how they were the party of acceptance and understanding. One speaker talked about how she was “adopted” by the party. Another person spoke of the party serving as a home to the “politically homeless.” A major theme of the weekend was spreading the message of liberty and expanding the party’s reach.
By Sunday, the whole weekend would eventually culminate into what one delegate, who supported Johnson, called a “pissing contest” to see who was the most committed to liberty.