This election cycle was supposed to be “the” cycle for libertarian Republicans. Ron Paul’s campaign in 2012 had brought in a swath of pocket Constitution-wielding activists, Rand Paul had freshly been coined the “most interesting man in politics,” and acute electoral observers were predicting that 2016 may finally be the year libertarians found success at the ballot box.
Yet as politics giveth, politics taketh away: like Clubber Lang in the first fight in Rocky III, reality has been landing body blows on libertarians throughout this election cycle – and the knockout came on August 30th when Kelli Ward, Mary Thomas, and Rebekah Bydlak all lost their primary challenges.
Now, as some libertarians turn their attention towards engaging in Simone Biles-tier mental gymnastics to argue that Gary Johnson is an ideologically pure libertarian candidate, it is not at all hyperbolic to designate this year as the worst year modern libertarians have ever had.
How did we get here? Grab your cake and let’s climb this mountain of history together.
The Randal Gets Handled
Most people can agree that Rand has handed over his “most interesting man in politics” title to Donald J. Trump. This year, however, he was definitely the most interesting man to get fifth place in the Iowa Caucus.
There has been a wealth of deconstruction and analysis of Rand’s 2016 presidential campaign. One of the best analyses is by Nick Gillespie over at Reason, who urges readers not to conflate Rand’s electoral failure this year with a lack of demand for libertarian policy. Trump, Gillespie argues, simply sucked the oxygen out of the room, and Rand was simply unable to compete. Perhaps Gary Johnson could have loaned him a mountaineering oxygen tank.
In each of the two major parties, there is a certain percentage of the electorate that is not driven by ideology or policy – instead, they are driven by the strong desire to burn the establishment to the ground. They’re mad as hell and certainly not going to take it anymore, which makes them inclined to vote for the first guy to stand up to the party bosses and tell them how they feel.
It could be argued that Rand’s sucking up to the establishment disqualified him from filling this role, but that is probably inaccurate. In a race without Trump, Rand’s ability to “[go] crazed spider monkey]” on the establishment candidates would have probably allowed him to claim the “screw it, let’s burn it down” mantle. Trump’s position as an outsider and his ability to be distinctly Trump-like made it no question who would attract the bulk of the anti-establishment vote this cycle.
Unable to unite the ideological libertarians, anti-establishment youth, and disgruntled longtime activists, Rand spent more time pandering to Black Lives Matter than he did to his libertarian base. Meanwhile, Donald Trump perfected the art of quality banter, received the blessing of meme magic, and rode it all the way to the nomination.
“Sad Sack” Gary and “The Original Libertarian”
Okay, fine, the only libertarian Republican presidential candidate lost, but at least the Libertarian Party is here. This is their golden opportunity to put up a small-government candidate who can get 15% in the polls against two candidates with record high unfavorability, qualify for debates, and make things interesting!
But, being the Libertarian Party, they take this opportunity to introduce the American electorate to a small-government party and blow it harder than the Seahawks blew the final play of the 2015 Super Bowl.
The Libertarian Party’s dumpster fire of a 2016 cycle didn’t begin with the infamous strip tease moment at the Libertarian National Convention, although if a party was looking to keep themselves relegated to “weird sweaty guys at bus stops and on the internet party” territory, having a candidate strip on stage live on CSPAN would be a great way to do it. No, even before that moment, the Libertarian Party was doomed for failure in 2016.
Nominating Gary “Sad Sack” Johnson and Bill Weld for president and vice president is the worst decision that the Libertarian Party could have made. Both of them have demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of libertarian small-government philosophy, and their 2016 candidacy is not only a massive failure for 2016 but will also damage the party moving forward. Why?
Let us consider the average American voter – they are largely unfamiliar with both the Libertarian Party and libertarian philosophy. They know that the Republicans make overtures to smaller government and that the Democrats generally want bigger government, but they don’t know who these “libertarians” are or what they want. Instinctively, most Americans are inclined to want less government.
We know Americans want less government, great. Now all the Libertarian Party has to do is nominate someone who can relay libertarian philosophy to the electorate, and theoretically they will find some moderate success.
Instead, they nominated a ticket that goes into a hilariously pathetic meltdown over the term “illegal immigrant,” wants more gun control, advocates “free market” carbon taxes, and doesn’t even believe in the freedom of association.
It’s ironic that Gary Johnson would lose his mind over the term “illegal immigrant,” and yet call Trump the “pussy.” Someone needs to put Gary Johnson back in his safe space.
Tuesday, Bloody Tuesday
Despite presidential woes, many pro-liberty Republicans were holding out hope that two Republican women could succeed in their primaries and join the ranks of Justin Amash and Thomas Massie in the House, and Rand Paul in the Senate.
The first of these women was Rebekah Bydlak, a 26-year-old woman running for Florida’s open 1st Congressional District. The $19 trillion national debt was a primary focus of her campaign, and she was joined on the campaign trail by Representative Justin Amash. Unfortunately for Bydlak, her opponents were more appealing to the 1st District’s electorate, and she finished a distant fifth.
In Arizona, libertarians and Trump backers joined forces to back Kelli Ward, who challenged John McCain for his seat in the Senate. Libertarians, upset with McCain’s support for unfettered NSA spying and big spending, and Trump Republicans, many angry at McCain for his rhetoric towards Trump (and some who thought McCain would be the “easiest cuck to take down”), came together to fight the longtime senator.
Beyond her opposition to McCain, Ward had an independently good platform as well. During her time in the Arizona State Senate, she chaired the Education Committee and served on the Public Safety, Military, and Technology Committee, as well. As a senator, she introduced legislation to resist NSA spying, to much libertarian plaudit.
Ward and her coalition were unable to unseat the longtime senator, however. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee captured 51.7% of the vote and will run against the Democratic nominee in November.
So, in all, 2016 has been an awful, terrible, no-good very bad year for libertarian Republican candidates – and an awful year for pseudo-libertarian presidential nominees, as well.
Many libertarians have climbed on board the Trump train, seeing it as the vehicle by which the political establishment can be destroyed. As others have written, this may be a wise move.
One thing is for certain: libertarian Republicans need to do much better in elections from here on out. If they get hammered again like they were in 2016, the only liberty “movement” will be towards the annals of history.