Clinton and Trump are detested—and another candidate has something to sayby Sam Tanenhaus / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
The most telling statistics in the 2016 presidential election are those showing how intensely Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are disliked. Opposites in almost every way, they meet on the precipice of public loathing and now seem handcuffed together as they plunge towards the abyss.
“Historically bad image ratings” were reported by Gallup in July: Clinton got a “highly unfavourable” rating from 33 per cent of respondents, Trump from 42 per cent. Two months later, the Washington Post put Clinton’s unfavourable score at 56 per cent—unthinkably high for a candidate normally, but still better than Trump’s 63 per cent.
“Logic and sermons never convince,” Walt Whitman wrote long ago. But arithmetic will kindle searching young minds, enamoured of data. “Nearly three-quarters of millennials would like a third-party candidate to win office,” a teenager, Eliza Jane Schaeffer, who is preparing to cast her first-ever presidential vote, wrote in Kentucky’s Louisville Courier-Journal. More than one in five millennials, she added, had made their decision.
Their choice? Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, who is running on the Libertarian ticket. The first time Johnson ran for president, in 2012, he got under 1 per cent. Now he’s polling above 10 per cent, within reach of the 15 per cent he’ll need to qualify for the first presidential debate, which tens of millions will watch. When Johnson and his impressive running mate, William Weld, also a popular former governor, did a “town hall meeting” in July, a million people watched on C-SPAN, the public service channel.
Why the interest—and the leap in the polls? It’s not so much the personal attraction of Johnson or Weld, both studies in anti-charisma. It’s substance. Schaeffer, who in her first year at Dartmouth College, explains: “While Donald Trump scrambles to recreate the Reagan era and Hillary Clinton invokes the old New Deal, Gary Johnson sees an America that is self-sufficient, futuristic, and entirely different from anything promised by the political rhetoric of decades past.”
These are classic Libertarian themes, which begin with distrust of “Big Brother” government and a preference for voluntarism. We forget, though we shouldn’t, that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was less prophecy than satire: Hate Week, the memory hole and Newspeak defined the quiet message of conformism in the well-intended welfare state. When that most fearsome abstraction, “the people,” rule, it’s the random person who pays the price. The message has gained immediacy in the digital age, especially for millennials. Raised in a climate of social media “transparency” they have felt its hidden costs: heckling, shaming and mob justice. The “liberty movement,” offers an alternative, with its emphasis on freedoms from—from taxes, from wars, from government “data collection”—from every form of intrusion.
The message also appeals equally to left and right, and is meant to. Founded in 1971, the Libertarian Party grew out of opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft. Its most colourful adherents (like the journalist and political speechwriter Karl Hess) were “Republican pot smokers”—beaded, bearded, but fanatically pro-market, “anarcho-capitalist,” in one coinage.
“Johnson’s Libertarian candidacy comes out of a tradition of Republican pot-smokers—beaded, bearded and pro-market”
For many years the movement’s leader was the long-time (now retired) Congressman Ron Paul, who ran for president on the Libertarian ticket in 1988 and then competed for the Republican nomination in 2008. His platform called for ending the Iraq war, while also obeying the hands-off free-market dictates of the Austrian economic school. He was mercilessly ridiculed by other Republicans, especially the hawkish John McCain. Paul smiled through the abuse and ran a third time in 2012, this time emerging as kind of elderly, back-porch wise man—Bernie Sanders in reverse. Meanwhile, Ron Paul’s son Rand, a Kentucky ophthalmologist, was elected to the Senate in 2010 and for a time became Washington’s most interesting Republican. I interviewed him in 2013 and he talked of a new left-right coalition on social issues such as reducing drug sentences that disproportionately punish black offenders. Back then it appeared Rand—who insists he was not named for Ayn Rand—might mount a strong campaign in the early primaries. But like everyone else, he didn’t see Trump coming. He was one of the first casualties.
But libertarianism persists. Some features of “Paulite” doctrine—hatred of the “surveillance state,” opposition to military spending—have seeped into mainstream Republican ideology, displacing George W Bush-style “big government conservatism.” Today the whole sticky mess of Bush-era dogma—supply-side tax policy, lucrative handouts to the middle class, military adventurism and the ill-starred democracy “project” in the Middle East, all packaged in evangelical preachment—survives only in the shrinking echo chamber of the conservative press, which few now read (if they ever did).
In a limited way, Trumpism reflects this change. But Johnson presents a saner, more coherent version. He and Weld promise a return to pre-Bush Republicanism, touched with realism and a recognition that the clangorous idiom of “American exceptionalism” has grown shrill. At the same time, Johnson acknowledges that North Korea poses a security threat (and has proposed a strategic alliance with China to solve it).
Libertarian label aside, Johnson is more thoughtful than Trump—except when pressed on guns; he grew testy and strident under gentle questioning from the New Yorker’s David Remnick—and a good deal more accomplished. And it’s not just millennials who’ve noticed. Some Republican officials have too, including Mitt Romney, the party’s nominee in 2012 since reborn as its faute de mieux elder statesman. He has praised the Libertarian alternative and said he might even support it, though he wishes the slots were reversed, since he feels a kind of masonic bond with Weld, who like him governed in Massachusetts as a pragmatist.
Romney is a 1950s-style square—no hero to millennials. Johnson, however, is an heir to the pot-smoking libertinism of an earlier time. He makes no apology for his stoner days when he lit up two or three times a week. He now favours legalisation—as do 54 per cent of Americans, according to a poll released in June; only one in ten oppose the use of “medical marijuana.” Johnson and Weld are also pro-choice and support same-sex marriage—in common with most millennials and many older Americans too.
Not long ago, the leftish Public Policy Polling group offered voters a range of presidential choices: “43 per cent picked Clinton, 38 per cent picked Trump and 13 per cent picked the Giant Meteor hitting earth,” according to the Hill (a respected Beltway publication)—7 per cent were unsure.
For now Johnson seems to be trailing the meteor, but if he makes a dent in “unsure” he could find himself on stage in September. And then—to quote the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza—“the most unpredictable election in modern times could get even weirder.”
Sam Tanenhaus is an American writer. His next book will be a biography of William F Buckley Jr