“I thought there was no chance that Trump could win,” said Gary Johnson. “This could be the end of the republic as we know it.”
It was Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) had announced that he would reject the politics of President Trump by retiring. Johnson, the 2016 (and 2012) Libertarian Party nominee for president, was in town for another sort of protest. He had sued to be included in the 2016 presidential debates, and he was filing the same lawsuit in another court.
Not that he was running for president.
“I’m never going to be a candidate again,” said Johnson over a latte in downtown Washington. “I don’t aspire to be president of the United States anymore, because Trump holds the office. Politics is just toxic. In Arizona, there’s going to be crazies running for office. That’s because of Trump — crazies are lining up to run. And they’re obsessed with immigration! You know, DACA’s one of the most successful immigration programs of all time and space.”
Johnson, who turned 64 this year, was the highest vote-getter of any third-party candidate since the 1990s. He had wanted to win — that he did not is part on himself, part on the Commission on Presidential Debates. Instead, he had collected 4,489,235 votes, the most in the Libertarian Party’s history, and gotten that party on a few more state ballots.
And then, he disappeared. That was always the plan, if he lost. (Johnson’s friendly, scattered mien led some to think he was joking.) Johnson vacationed in Aruba, then “spent 110 days skiing,” then trained for a bike ride across the continental divide, from Mexico to Canada.
“I did it in 35 days,” Johnson said proudly. “The record is 14. I think everything being equal I can knock between three and seven days off that time when I do it again. I haven’t missed a beat, athletically, since Thanksgiving.”
For a short time in 2016, Johnson speculated about blowing up the two-party system. There had never been a better chance, with two cosmically unpopular candidates nominated by the Democrats and Republicans. He cracked into double digits in some polls, better in some states, but Hillary Clinton’s campaign “must have spent $50 million to stop that.”
Johnson, who is not bitter about much, is bitter about that. He remembers the Web ads — Snapchat ads — that showed him speculating about space mining and muffing a question about the war in Syria. An online search for his name still, in October 2017, suggests “Aleppo” as a companion term
“If you saw that, you’d think I was the dumbest [expletive] on the planet,” Johnson said.
But the campaign was only partially successful. The Libertarians did beat their records, and turn hundreds of thousands of young and first-time voters into party-crashers. Johnson mostly escaped the rage directed at Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate who got more votes in Michigan and Wisconsin than the winning margin for President Trump. In both states, Johnson tripled up her vote. When she instantly raised millions of dollars to recount the election, he was already out of the country.
“I think that money ended up in the Green Party’s coffers,” Johnson said.
Neither the Libertarians nor the Greens, with their breakthrough votes, have done much in the shocked country that the election built. Both the Democratic and Republican parties, in many states, have shed voters; the Libertarians have gained some. Just not too many, Johnson said.
“They’re up by leaps and bounds,” he says, “but when you start out at such a low number, leaps and bounds doesn’t say as much.”
Johnson, by his own admission, was not doing anything to help. He was not campaigning for Cliff Hyra, the Libertarian nominee in next month’s Virginia gubernatorial election. He had not heard much from Libertarians who wanted a star speaker — something he heard a lot of between 2012 and 2016. Mostly, he was surprised that the party had not grown and won since he retreated into retirement.
“How can the Libertarian Party not gain in this kind of environment?” Johnson asked. “What the Libertarian Party needs is to win, for someone to actually govern. Here’s a person with libertarian principles — here’s how he governed. Anything! Anything, above dogcatcher.”
The lingering question is: How? Johnson returned to the subject of Flake, who inveighed against Trump like a Roman senator warning about Caesar — and then, basically, said that it was up to someone else to fix the Republican Party.
“Nobody is saying the emperor has no clothes,” Johnson said. “He’s getting away with stuff that nobody would have gotten away with. It is crazy. It is crazy. It’s just amazing to me that every day, there’s a new page. The page turns, and it gets crazier.”
Why, then, wasn’t the Libertarian Party surging? Why hadn’t Johnson — who tried to define the LP as a safe alternative to two dangerous extremes — done better? Pro-choice, but anti-taxes. Antiwar, pro-criminal justice reform. The Johnson-branded LP’s agenda lined up, in polls, with millions of voters, who then chose sides between Trump and Clinton.
Why? Johnson blamed his own way with words. He could not think that the country really wanted what Trump offered.
“I maintain that what came out of my mouth reflected the feelings of a majority,” he said, “but I’m not a spokesman.”
For years, peaking with Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid and Johnson’s 2016 bid, libertarians said they were destined to break through. Blaming Johnson’s gaffes was one way to explain why they faltered. Another, more pessimistic take was that libertarianism simply could not command majority support.
Inside the GOP, libertarian-leaning politicians such as Flake had come around to that conclusion. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), an ally of the Pauls, said that campaigning for them and against Trump convinced him that voter anger was not really about the desire for smaller government.
“I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans,” he said in March. “But after some soul searching, I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas — they were voting for the craziest son of a b—- in the race.”
Asked about Massie’s comment, Johnson agreed with the premise: Voters had wanted the “crazy” candidate.
“Trump was the one who was going to blow things up,” he said. “Make everybody think you’re crazy, and then at the end, show you’re not so crazy. Well, he did everything but the last part.”
Johnson, having been confident about where the country needed to go in 2016, was no longer making predictions. It would be good for Libertarians if someone like Flake jumped over, he said, but he didn’t see why he would. “He’d find out what I found out,” said Johnson, referring to ballot and debate rules. (Austin Petersen, the runner-up for the 2016 LP nomination, has since left to run as a Republican for Senate from Missouri.)
At the same time, Flake was willing to predict the end of the GOP, the only party he’d won elections with.
“I think the Republican Party’s done for,” he said, “at the end of Trump’s tenure.”
Why did he think that, given that the party had done fairly well in elections all year? Because of the “crazies,” the people he’d mentioned before.
But why would the “crazies” lose? Asked when and how voters would reject right-wing politics, Johnson kept speculating that politicians were simply stuck in a feedback loop. Presidential nominees needed to win in New Hampshire and Iowa, and Republican voters there demanded anti-immigration policies.
“That’s what a candidate has to do to win the nomination,” he said.
Johnson’s repeated criticism of Trump prompted an obvious question, one he got visibly sick of in 2016. Trump, he acknowledged, posed a unique threat to the country. Trump made him worry about nuclear war.
But unlike Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts who ran as Johnson’s vice presidential nominee last year, Johnson was unwilling to suggest that Clinton would have been a better choice. “I never got on the ‘lesser evil’ thing,” he said. The republic, he said, would have been in some danger had she won — less, but some.
“You know that during Hillary’s entire tenure, it was going to be about the emails,” Johnson said. “It was going to be about pay-to-play.”
I pointed out that in conservative media, the defeated Clinton was still being hounded over the scandals that sunk her in 2016.
“Yeah, I guess she is,” Johnson said.