ORLANDO, Florida—It was just a couple of hours before the Libertarian Party’s final presidential debate. C-SPAN cameras were firing up; delegates were filing in. But one debate participant was still on the dance floor adjacent to the convention hall, swaying to techno music with a goblet of beer sloshing in his hand. John McAfee, founder of the eponymous anti-virus software company and a major candidate in the Libertarian race, had apparently eschewed traditional debate prep. Instead he was rocking out, pausing only to deep-tongue-kiss his wife—for what seemed an awkward and unnecessarily prolonged span of time—as his mesmerized constituents grew increasingly disquieted.
A young man in shorts and combat boots, spotting a break in the frenching, scrambled up to McAfee to shake the candidate’s hand and shout, “You’re awesome!” When I pulled this guy aside and asked why he favored McAfee, he began, “My main concern is interstate commerce legislation,” launching a runon sentence that somehow ended, after several minutes and some really surprising detours, with an avowal that “humans will be displaced by A.I. the same way we displaced the whales and the rhinoceroses, and so it’s important to remember that bigotry is better than slavery.” As he reached his conclusion, a woman suddenly towered over us on stilts, wearing 12-foot-wide strap-on butterfly wings and waving a McAfee campaign sign to the beat.
That pretty much sums up the Libertarian convention, which met in Orlando over Memorial Day weekend. Our current Donald Trump–shaped moment is almost certainly the party’s best-ever shot to a make an impact on a presidential election, as voters disappointed in their major party options look around for an alternative. But after spending 48 hours amid loony Libertarians, it’s pretty clear to me that the only way for the party’s ticket to succeed in a big way—to get on the debate stage with the major-party candidates in the fall, and to reach double digits in November—is for the ticket to leave the party behind.
The convention this year was subject to unprecedented levels of outside scrutiny, a result of 1) the widespread distaste for the two major party candidates and 2) the likelihood that the Libertarians will be the only third-party option to appear on all 50 state ballots in November. The mountain of media credentials issued, according to the party’s press operation, was 20 times larger than at any previous Libertarian event. Party chairman Nicholas Sarwark told me he’s “been on the phone with the press pretty much nonstop since Ted Cruz dropped out.” But while all this new attention was welcomed by the party chairman, the rank and file were much less prepared for it and much more ambivalent about it.
Some delegates seemed to resent the brighter spotlight, wishing things could go back to how they’d been before—a desire that, when voiced by men wearing T-shirts adorned with stipple-dot portraits of Friedrich Hayek, sounded a lot like a high school kid whining that his favorite indie band had signed with a major label. Meanwhile, others I talked to saw this moment not as an opportunity for Libertarians to meet nonwoke America halfway, but rather as a chance to let their freak flag flap before an exponentially wider audience. And oh, did it flap: Among the leading candidates for the party’s nomination were men who, by nigh any external standard, qualify as total nutters.
Consider: McAfee—who fled his own Central American residential compound while under suspicion by the Belizean government for the murder of his neighbor; who openly admits that said compound featured a harem of teenage Belizean sex workers; who likes to talk about the time a 16-year-old Belizean prostitute tried to shoot him in the head at point blank range; who bounced around the hotel halls wearing a three-piece suit and a pair of Nikes like some kind of Mad Hatter on meth—had regularly polled in third place for the nomination in the lead-up to the convention and even seemed to have a puncher’s chance to win. Further consider: He was barely the weirdest candidate on the scene.
Polling second coming into the convention, just ahead of McAfee, was a guy named Austin Petersen. Petersen’s 35 and looks 14, but question if he’s seasoned enough and he’ll yelp, “Tell that to the Marquis de Lafayette.” His go-to applause line: “I want gay couples to defend their marijuana fields with fully automatic weapons.” Polling fourth, one slot behind McAfee, was a fellow named Darryl W. Perry, who accepts campaign donations only in the form of precious metals and cryptocurrency and who opted to have his nominating speech delivered by an “erotic services provider” who goes by the moniker “Starchild.” Perry’s most animated moment in the debate came when he slammed his fist against his lectern, forehead veins a-popping, as he insisted that 5-year-old children should have the legal right to inject heroin without adult supervision.
At the middle of this madness—literally, given that he stood at the center lectern when the debate stage lights flashed on and the microphones went live—was Gary Johnson. Johnson served as the Libertarian presidential candidate back in 2012. He received 1 percent of the vote. You might also remember him as a generally respected former two-term governor of New Mexico who was re-elected by a solid margin.
Despite his establishment bona fides, Johnson is still outside the norm for a politician with White House aspirations. He believes in total abolition of the income tax, he has invested in a cannabis company, and he freely admits he’s consumed marijuana within the past month. But in the land of the freakish candidate, the merely refreshingly odd candidate is king. Johnson looks like a typical politician, with a typical politician haircut, and he exhibits no outwardly evident desire to surround himself with teenage sex workers. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps in spite of it, he was the clear favorite to win the Libertarian nomination as the debate kicked off.
And gosh did that debate demonstrate that the Libertarian Party isn’t close to ready—or maybe doesn’t ever want to be ready—for political prime time. The moderator routinely got the candidates’ names wrong. There was an audio failure that made them sound like they were speaking through kazoos. A man dressed as Jesus Christ walked directly in front of the stage, holding a McAfee sign aloft, and nobody bothered to stop him. Candidate Marc Allan Feldman (oh, right, there was a fifth candidate—an anesthesiologist whom no one had heard of and who had apparently never even voted until after he was 50 years old, who somehow also made it into the debate) performed a bizarre Libertarian rap that had him spluttering sputum into his microphone while delineating the principles of freedom.
Throughout all this, Johnson remained calm in the eye of the storm—even keeping his cool when he was roundly booed by much of the audience. The first boos came when Johnson admitted that, given the chance, he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Boooooooo! A second hail of raspberries came when Johnson, alone among the candidates, said he thought a driver’s license was a reasonable thing to require before allowing someone to drive. “I’d like to see some demonstration of basic competency,” Johnson acknowledged, rather meekly. Boooooooo! (Perry seized the moment, basically insisting that blind 4-year-olds should be legally permitted to drive without any sort of government imprimatur.)
When it was over, I found Johnson upstairs at the postdebate party in his campaign suite, looking mildly relieved. When I asked if he’d prepared any tactical plan to deal with these “nontraditional” candidates, he said, a little defensively, “I figure myself to be in the nontraditional category, too. But yeah, all you can do is provide the voice of reason. And I try to provide that all the time. There’s a vocal group in there, but I think—outside of a Libertarian convention setting—what I say resonates with most people in a big way.”
Johnson was guarded as we spoke, parrying my efforts to get him to admit that the core of his party is a pack of weirdos. So I threw him a change-up: As a marijuana user, did he prefer indica or sativa? (Indica is associated with a couch-bound “body high,” while sativa is associated with a thoughtful “head high.”) “I tell the truth,” he laughed, “and in fact I did some marijuana product four weeks ago. It was sativa, and it was one of the Colorado products. But I’m not doing any more right now. The knife needs to be sharp.” The fact that Johnson has managed not to get stoned for a full lunar cycle doesn’t exactly make him Mitt Romney, but I guess it’s a step on the path to becoming a more widely palatable mainstream candidate.
Delegate voting began the next morning. When the first wave of ballots came in, a little before lunch, Johnson was only five votes short of clinching the nomination. One vote had gone to Ron Paul (who wasn’t running). One vote had gone to Vermin Supreme (a longtime campaign performance artist who was wandering the convention hall with a rubber boot on his head). Sixty-three votes had gone to Perry (who, oh yeah, I forgot to mention, had spent a strangely inordinate amount of airtime during the debate talking about a trans adult film star named Buck Angel).
The media on hand got giddy: a contested convention at last! And now the arm-twisting of delegates began, as candidates wrangled votes for the second ballot. A group of Petersen supporters surrounded Johnson and chanted in his face, “Austin, McAfee, Perry! Anyone but Gary!” until Petersen came over and asked them to stand down.
The second ballot did it for Johnson. He got 55.8 percent. Petersen conceded, and when I last saw him, he seemed at peace—carrying what appeared to be an antique flintlock pistol through the halls of the hotel.
It seemed that Johnson’s pleas for compromise and maturity had, in the end, won over the room, despite the room’s misgivings. Johnson might be a squishy heretic who wants drivers to continue to obtain driver’s licenses. But he’s the closest thing this party has to a credible, mainstream advocate for its worldview. Johnson’s strong résumé and sane, non-Starchild-ish mien might even be enough to get him to 15 percent in the polls during this crazy election cycle (he’s already hit 10 percent in at least one of them), and that would mean appearing onstage at the big-league debates in the fall—alongside Hillary Clinton and Trump. Sure, Johnson’s a bit of a drip, with little charisma. But if he can articulate a moderate, Libertarian-ish platform, some disaffected voters might be tempted to give the party, or at least the candidate, a look.
Fresh off his second ballot victory, Johnson took the stage and begged the crowd to go ahead and nominate his vice presidential choice, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. The 70-year-old Weld had only been a Libertarian for two weeks and was guilty of many policy heresies in the eyes of party purists, but Johnson argued that he’d bring credibility—and a fundraising Rolodex—that no other candidate could offer the ticket. I guess Johnson knew that, for all their battiness, even the Libertarians want some standing in the process.
Earlier in the morning, I’d spotted Weld sitting all by himself in the back of the convention hall. I asked if I could talk with him, and he patted a neighboring chair and invited me to sit. He was studying an anti-Johnson leaflet someone had been handing out. “I always like to know what the opposition is saying,” he explained. “They don’t seem to like Gary’s advocacy for a consumption tax. But neither do I. I think it's regressive.”
Like Johnson, Weld got booed repeatedly over the course of the convention. Did he think he could square himself with a party that was putting up so much resistance? “I’ve read the Libertarian Party platform, and it’s pretty good,” he said, with the air of a man who is pleasantly surprised when he gets his car repair bill. “There’s not a lot in there that’s way out. It’s all principles of nonintervention and less government. Ninety-eight percent of it was music to my ears.”
Weld looked wildly out of place here. I couldn’t resist asking if he even knew the difference between indica and sativa. “I'm so sorry to say, but I’ve never smoked a cigarette of any kind,” he said. “I know—booooring.”
Weld failed to clinch on the first nomination ballot. As he waited for the revote, some candidates vying to replace Sarwark as party chair gave their speeches. The first of these put his cellphone on the lectern, played a song into the microphone, and stripped down to his underwear, shaking rolls of fat in some sort of demented burlesque. Several rounds of parliamentary debate followed, as delegates asked if it was possible to strip the stripper of his party membership. It was somewhere in the middle of this that Weld won the nomination on the second ballot.
Weld and Johnson walked together down the hotel concourse, headed for their first press conference as a united presidential ticket. They’d won the only real prize at stake in Orlando. No, not the hearts and minds of 1,000 diehard Libertarians. Weld and Johnson don’t need them—these guys can get free media on their own, and they can get their funding from their rich Republican #NeverTrump pals and maybe even from the Kochs. The only thing they needed from this convention was the ballot access. With that in hand, Weld and Johnson can now leave Starchild, and the butterfly woman, and Darryl Perry’s popping veins, far behind.
The press pack trailed the newly anointed duo as they veered into an ancillary ballroom, where the regular convention attendees were not allowed to follow. The weekend was over, and it was suddenly clear that the freaks had lost. We passed a woman who angrily hissed: “Congratulations, establishment!”