Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson has been on an unprecedented roll. As a result of soaring in both national polls consistently putting him at 8-11% (or as high as 13% in states like Colorado, 15% in Ohio), and from conducting a record number of high-profile media interviews, he has achieved a new milestone for a modern third party candidate—he’s actually receiving return fire from both conservatives and liberals trying to arrest his momentum. Johnson has been hailed as a tactical genius for running what may be the most successful alternative campaign since Ross Perot in 1992 (i.e., on track to getting at least half of the 19% Perot got). But he has also been savaged as a nerdy “psychopath” who is acting as a spoiler to elect either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, depending on which side is complaining about his presence in the race.
Clearly, somebody is scared. According to an analysis at the Libertarian Republic, Johnson in theory even has a better chance of victory than Donald Trump, given the billionaire’s high negatives. What is upsetting the “big boys is not only the fact of Johnson’s much higher than normal national poll numbers, but the ‘hang time’ of his popularity—he simply hasn’t faded as we enter the final months of the campaign. This breaks the mold, this is a tremor in the force, as far as the movers and shakers are concerned. It’s an indicator, among other things, that the political establishment’s control over the public’s perceptions (telling the voters who to pay attention to, who to disregard) is now broken, and didn’t stop being broken at the end of the major party primary season. From Trump and Sanders, to now Johnson and Jill Stein (of the Green Party), We the People are deciding on the merits who to consider a serious candidate, not the media pundits and mega donors. No wonder The Powers That Be are sweating hard.
Who Knows What Aleppo Is?
The most peculiar, electrifying, watershed moment in the campaign so far has certainly been Johnson’s gaffe on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program on September 8, where he was cryptically asked “What do we do about Aleppo?” His oblivious response—“So what is Aleppo?” was followed by a more or less on-point answer about the mess created or aggravated by US meddling, blundering and presumption in Syria and the Mideast region. But the damage had been done, as the Main Stream Media now had their magic “Rick Perry–oops” moment sound bite to beat him up with, including instantly spreading the meme that he was now “disqualified” as a candidate:
This is a blessing in disguise for Johnson. LP candidates are usually not treated as important enough by the media to have their own flaps. Apparently somebody at NBC networks finally noticed Johnson has been pulling crucial votes away from Hillary, and is not happy about it. Gary is “too high” in the polls, and has gotten “too big for his britches,” so it was time to bury him. Notice in the video that host Joe Scarborough immediately piled on (probably having gotten talking points fed to his ear piece). Johnson’s important enough to get a news cycle!
His eventual answer to the question, while clearly showing signs he was caught off-guard, was a sensible expression of how US foreign intervention was and is making a bad situation worse. Senator Rand Paul (the other liberty candidate of the year, Republican division) would have said substantially the same, except more confidently, and without initially appearing uninformed. Perhaps he can make lemonade out of that substance, from the lemon that was his way of presenting it. Gary can also mention that the New York Times also got the details wrong about Aleppo, Syria in reporting the Johnson flap, twice. They first erred in calling it the capital of the Islamic State (wrong, ISIS’s de facto capital is Raqqa), then later “correcting” that to say Aleppo was the capital of Syria itself (wrong, Damascus is). I wonder, is the Times now “disqualified” from doing reporting, following the media’s new “one strike, you’re out” gaffe standard?
Again, the crucial aspect of the episode is that the media bothered with trying to bury Johnson at all. The MSM wouldn’t do that unless, unless—Gary Johnson matters. Being at 8% or higher may not earn him a slot at the upcoming debates (falling short of the 15% bar as per the stilted, third-party excluding criteria of the Commission on Presidential Debates, or CPD), but it is certainly more than an asterisk, as it shows the LP option has real drawing power this year. So much so, in fact, that traps were set for him to fall into, to ensure the CPD would have the cover to keep him out of the big Donald/Hillary face-off, and from there drop the LP’s poll numbers back down to obscurity, “to restore the normal order of things.”
As extra insurance that third parties would be kept out of the debates, TPTB even managed to get the judge overseeing a long standing lawsuit Johnson has running against the unfairness of the debate commission to drag out the proceedings, intending to stall the progress of the case until—you guessed it—after the election, even though discovery had been completed and the briefs had been filed. Then in August, the judge tossed out the suit altogether, perhaps because the delay tactics had become too obvious. Translation: the elite establishment covers all the bases when it comes to steering who gets to be seen by tens of millions in the fall election struggle. The outsider trend of the past year has thrown the overlords for a loop, but they still expect to use foils like their Commission to control the finish line. The entire point of the CPD’s existence, in fact, has always been to look like an official public body as it excludes other choices, while taking the brunt of the criticism (including legal challenges) for doing so, that should have been directed squarely at the Republican and Democratic party machines that are behind the excluding. Through such devices, they maintain a rigged system while keeping their direct fingerprints off the dirty work.
Is Johnson Hillary’s Running Mate?
On the other end of the spectrum, both establishment conservatives and the “alt-right” have also laid into Johnson, out of concern that he may be a stalking horse for Hillary, and over his seeming embrace of certain anti-liberty, slavishly PC notions (see later). Heading the pack on the mainstream side have been organs like National Review, or most reporters on FOX News. The latter savaged Johnson over the Aleppo remark (they were less offended by his lapse in knowledge, as by Johnson’s lack of commitment to prioritizing foreign policy down to the most recent headline details, to suit their fixation on the subject). Within the alternative media, both Breitbart and Alex Jones’ Infowars show have taken Johnson to task:
At least the alt-right’s complaints are mostly substance-based, unlike the establishment’s “waaah, you broke our little rules” usual control games. When Johnson made the pragmatic decision to largely triangulate, not attack Hillary voters, and run a left-libertarian style campaign, he should have foreseen the trade-off to get those votes was going to be attacks from the anti-Hillary forces. While the LP is absolutely benefiting from this strategy in the interim, to hopefully get a 5% or more election result per state in November (and with it, permanent ballot status for the LP across half the country), its ongoing affect on the party’s image is indeed troubling. Is winning the votes worth losing the liberty cause? Exactly what is Johnson and running mate William Weld doing making so many questionable remarks that seem to favor gun control, restricting religious liberty, carbon taxes or other new taxation, globalist trade deals like the TTP, Presidential executive orders, and the like? To liberty populists, theses stances make Johnson sound like he’s Hillary’s running mate, not just a candidate triangulating her.
And why has he gone out of his way to express hostility to much of the alternative media, and populist sentiment on these and other issues, even joining the MSM in casting much of the liberty movement as being extremist or racist? The grassroots alternative media and its supporters, after all, is where most of the resistance to the statist/PC regime is today. It’s a bad thing for pro-liberty people to be recycling the same smears laid against every successful mass movement that is opposing the statist and globalist regime. Johnson’s strategy is thus good for getting the LP short term votes, but the theme of his campaign conforms more to that regime, than to liberty.
The alt-right is opposed to him because he strikes them as being more pro-globalist, left authoritarian, and cravenly PC-controlled than pro-liberty. This creates an unnecessary divide in what should be a major alliance between liberty forces, in effect re-instituting the rift between the libertarian and patriot movements, factions whom Ron Paul had recently unified. So while Johnson’s approach for the moment is currently confounding the right and left, it is a move that isolates the LP side of the grassroots from achieving inroads in building a broader coalition going forward. That is regrettable, given several populists have come to Gary’s defense over Aleppo, and might be more supportive if many of his stances weren’t dividing the liberty movement:
Pragmatism, Populism and Principle
Johnson’s tactics are therefore good for building the LP in the short term, but not likely to win a national election in the long term. He basically has found a seam between the high unfavorability numbers of both major party contenders, coupled with an issue set appealing to millenials disaffected by Bernie Sanders’ primary defeat, and has used that opening to carve a 10% niche vote in the fall election. But this practical niche vote breakthrough does not translate into a winning majority vote—that problem will have to be figured out by the “regular,” more platform or principle-compliant LP candidates and major party liberty candidates that will follow the 2016 race. For the meanwhile, that means bearing with Johnson’s approach even where it displays certain inconsistencies or incoherencies.
When one does go through Johnson’s stances on issues, for example, it does have to be said he does seem to provide ammo to his enemies on the point of sacrificing principle for pragmatism, while often shunning populist expressions of liberty. While many of his issue stances sound like normal liberty pronouncements, a lot of the positions lack context or show the direction of those issue points, thus do not convey an accurate picture of Johnson/Weld’s “libertarian” views. I’m speaking as one who supports Gary and the LP, but really, a lot of items on his agenda amount to neocon hijackings or mutations of the liberty agenda upon scrutiny, not principled positions. The “fair tax” is not pro-liberty, it’s a replacement of one version of legalized theft with another. TPP, which Johnson supports, is not “free trade,” it’s managed trade via international big government. Free immigration does not equal not having lawful naturalization procedures to process migrants, in a manner that protects both their and current citizens’ safety or property from force and fraud. Etc., etc.
The Role of Populism and Nationalism
So what is the solution that will integrate these elements to produce a longer term expansion of a pro-liberty coalition? In a word: embracing populism and nationalism (aka, sovereignty) interests of the public, while steering them in a liberty direction. The relevant political issue for the liberty movement, has been how to dialogue about liberty to the public for the purposes of winning a national campaign. The closest we have come was not with Johnson, but with Ron and Rand Paul. If either had won a major party nomination, the presumption is the existing coalitions within it could have carried them to victory in the fall election. Given the defeats of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 trying to explain liberty in a straightforward, rational way, Rand Paul attempted a careful rhetorical approach, especially on foreign policy, that stressed pragmatic maneuvers, verbal compromises or empty gestures, etc, to produce a conciliatory relationship with the ‘mainstream’ political leadership and media (or statist establishment) towards promoting liberty.
But while effective in minor instances, this approach failed to gain votes or to reach what should have been friendly voting blocs, and failed to succeed in changing the media’s coverage or leadership’s statism-driven policy framework. What did appear to work was the approach of the ‘outsiders,’ who did reach the voting blocs the Pauls should have reached, and engaged in open opposition to the MSM’s biased practices and marginalization tactics. This is an anti-elitist, or populist trend, that acts as a useful carrier system for promoting policies that run against the establishment. E.g., in the case of foreign policy, Donald Trump got farther in advancing a mainly non, or less interventionist policy by “dressing it up” with nationalism, which was his version of finessing the issue, than Rand got with the rhetorical approach. This “nationalist impulse” also appeared to work well as a presentation vehicle for non-collectivist trade (anti-TPP) and migration policy, for the purposes of engaging more voters.
Liberty opposition to statism is intellectually persuasive to us, the members of the choir, but is not, in truth, emotionally compelling enough to overcome the statist frameworks influencing most of the mass public. We need neither embrace nationalism, nor demonize it, in order to use it as a tactic to get votes for liberty candidates and policies. Its use in foreign policy, as one example, “sells” intervention in a manner a straightforward anti-war appeal does not, because ‘America First’ displaces the emotional memes pushed by the War party to prioritize foreign meddling. Populism and nationalism should be considered as neutral additional aspects of the political grid, re-imagined in a three dimensional way, and as the opposites of elitism and globalism:Our movement reached a maximum 10% plateau with the Pauls pursuing an issues-only, rationalistic approach in defacto educational campaigns. Absent solving the framework-changing dynamic above, we apparently can only educate that 10%, or liberty base vote. Going beyond that base (be it inside a major party, or through the LP) will require getting past the status quo frameworks, and getting past the establishment obstacles that set and enforce those frameworks. That is why the future of the movement depends on adding such strategic political competences to our efforts, not just concentrating on the intellectual factors.
At the least, we can’t just keep ridiculing the LP for being a “failure” because they supposedly lack those competencies, while giving the failures of the Paul candidacies a pass, because we want to ignore developing those competencies. The answer is not to demonize Trump or other “outsiders,” but to take cues from his and similar successful case examples to learn how to engage reachable voting blocs, how to win primary contests, and how to defeat media bias.
What we learned from the three Paul losses, versus the Trump victory within the GOP, is that the consistent liberty candidate we want will have to openly battle the media, the donors and the party leadership (aka, the populist impulse), while building a coalition outside of the 5% liberty base. Thinking we can win primaries from just the 5% base, while being polite with the MSM, or without making peace with the reachable party factions above, is a recipe for continued defeat. The grammar for how to get a non-kingmaker approved, alternative candidate to victory has been established by the outsiders. Take it and win, or leave it and keep losing.