How the Libertarian Party Became the Reactionary Arm of Trump and Trumpism
The takeover of the party by the Mises Caucus means election subversion has another friend in 2024
Even among ideological libertarians, the Libertarian Party has long been viewed with a mix of disdain and embarrassment. To the degree anybody else is aware of the LP, it’s from the 2016 presidential campaign of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, whose poll numbers briefly broke into the low double digits before collapsing to a desultory 3.3%. Other than that, the party has languished for five decades, usually getting 1% or less of the vote for president every four years and electing only a tiny smattering of local officials around the country.
But the LP’s lack of electoral relevance does not mean that its recent takeover by a reactionary and populist faction is a politically inconsequential event. The party’s core active membership is in the low five figures, somewhere between the Proud Boys and the Democratic Socialists of America. It has a decent organizational infrastructure with a chapter in every state and in many local precincts too. And it has a history of mobilizing resources in a targeted fashion to pass ballot initiatives and organize protests.
If it decides, for example, to aid election subversion efforts in 2024, it could turn out people in support of Jan. 6-style rallies or worse around the country. This is not a far-fetched possibility given that the new national leadership either minimizes or sympathizes with Jan. 6 rioters, and several state party chapters have made statements in support of the riot.
I was an active member of the party for nearly 10 years, until I resigned last year along with many others unwilling to stick around for a takeover by the illiberal far right. During that time, I was a party officer at the state and local level, served on national committees, including the ones responsible for writing the party’s platform and bylaws, was twice a candidate for office myself, and also worked as a senior staffer on the Johnson campaign in 2016.
From Innocuous Pranksterism to Toxic Bigotry
Aside from Johnson’s candidacy, the party had mostly drawn attention for antics ranging from the mildly amusing to utterly cringe-inducing, such as running an Elvis Presley impersonator as a perennial candidate, nominating someone who accidentally turned his skin blue by drinking colloidal silver, entertaining the presidential aspirations of the mentally unstable alleged murderer John McAfee, and treating C-SPAN viewers to a man stripping nearly naked on the national convention stage. But now, as Ken White, a criminal defense lawyer and respected commentator known by his online moniker Popehat, aptly observed on Twitter, “bigoted shitposters” have now wrested control from these “mostly harmless cranks.”
Under the direction of the so-called Mises Caucus, the LP has become home to those who don’t have qualms about declaring Holocaust-denying racists “fellow travelers” and who don’t think that bigots are necessarily disqualified from the party. They even went out of their way to delete from the party’s platform its nearly 50-year-old language stating: “We condemn bigotry as irrational and repugnant.” The caucus is also reversing the party’s longstanding commitment to open immigration policies in favor of border enforcement. The new chair, Angela McArdle, proclaims that the party will now be dedicated to fighting “wokeism.” People with pronouns in their Twitter bios aren’t welcome anymore, but, evidently, white nationalists and Holocaust deniers are.
But that’s not all. Various members of the new leadership have averred that: Black folks owe America for affirmative action; Pride Month is a plot by degenerates and child molesters aiming for socialism; and a country with zero taxes but more trans murders would be more morally acceptable than the reverse. Though some Mises Caucus figures insist they want to offer solutions to the culture wars, in practice, that means obsessively weighing in on the side of the far right.
After the Mises Caucus took over the New Hampshire state party, it endorsed the Big Lie, Jan. 6 rioters and Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the election. But in an in-depth report, the Southern Poverty Law Center traced the links between the various LP officeholders and Trump’s aiders and abettors. For example, it reported that Michael Heise, the Mises Caucus chairman who is the leading strategist behind the group's takeover of the national Libertarian Party, has actively courted Patrick Byrne, former Overstock.com CEO, receiving advice and donations from Byrne. Byrne spoke at Trump’s Jan. 6 rally and financed Arizona Maricopa County’s audit. Byrne also wrote a book claiming that election fraud cost Trump the election.
Heise nominated as the LP’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Daryl Brooks, the man whom Rudy Giuliani called as his first witness alleging election fraud at the infamous press conference outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia. (Brooks was later found to not meet the residency requirement for the office.)
The Paleolibertarian Takeover
How did this happen? Why would a party that found its greatest success in offering a sensible classical liberal alternative to Trump’s GOP end up being taken over by Trumpists and worse?
There are two reasons:
The first is the party’s unique structure, an oversimplified emulation of how the Republicans and Democrats operated over 200 years ago, which made it highly susceptible to hostile takeovers, as I explained here. For example, the party’s national delegates are selected at state conventions that are attended by a small number of highly motivated members willing to spend money out of pocket to show up for a weekend at a local Marriott. They generally don’t represent the views of the vast majority of members or libertarian donors, let alone libertarian voters. But just because they show up, their votes on key LP matters carry the day. This means that it was not at all hard for a group like the Mises Caucus to gin up resources to flood state conventions with its members and select national delegates who could then vote in LP officeholders sympathetic to its views.
Yet, it would be a mistake to suggest that the party could have done nothing to defend itself.
The Mises Caucus was incensed by the Johnson/Weld candidacy because it regarded the duo, particularly Bill Weld, as too mainstream. So it embarked on a campaign to capture state chapters. Yet, at the time, few party leaders were willing to openly, honestly and forcefully condemn what was happening (with some notable exceptions). Criticism that was offered tended to be subtle, restrained, and often combined with a myopic both-sides-ism that tried to frame itself as above the fray of “infighting.” Many state and national party officers went so far as to insist everyone should just get along. They walked on eggshells, afraid that the notoriously abusive Mises Caucus Twitter mob would come after them (even as the same caucus railed endlessly against leftist cancel culture mobs).
The motives and pattern of behavior—fear, cowardice, cynical political calculation and appeasement to chase votes in internal party elections—that caused the LP to succumb to a reactionary faction replicated in miniature the Trumpist takeover of the GOP. LP incumbents who tried to present themselves as fair and neutral and those who were openly against the Mises Caucus were all swept aside—just like anti-Trump Republicans such as Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois in the GOP. The former has been censured and primaried by the GOP, and the latter has been censured and pushed into early retirement. The current favorite for the next LP presidential candidate is stand-up comic Dave Smith, who, despite his Jewish background, is notorious for praising and defending anti-Semites and white nationalists like Nick Fuentes.
But besides the party’s structure, the second reason behind the pusillanimity of the LP in taking on the Mises Caucus is the broader “paleolibertarian” ideology that has haunted the libertarian movement for decades. This worldview has long advocated a strategic alliance with the populist right to fight their mutual enemy: The Establishment. The person who made the most ardent case for such an alliance was anarcho-capitalist polemicist Murray Rothbard, originally a more liberal thinker who took a dark turn in his later years and started inveighing against immigration, anti-discrimination laws and the welfare state. In a sense, Rothbard was the original Flight 93 strategist who believed that there was no more urgent task than to tear down The Establishment by any means necessary, even allying with far-right racists and bigots. He was a precursor of the modern right’s obsession with the leftist enemy.
Ron Paul: The Paleo Conduit
Former Republican congressman Ron Paul has been paleolibertarianism’s most visible promoter. His 2008 and 2012 bids for the Republican presidential nomination initially ignited considerable grassroots enthusiasm, even among non-libertarians, thanks to his staunch opposition to war, among other things. But eventually Paul’s candidacy went down in flames in no small part due to the emergence of racist newsletters penned under his name some 20 years prior by a Rothbard acolyte. The author, Lew Rockwell, founded the Mises Institute, from which the Mises Caucus gets its name. (It can’t be emphasized enough that Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian economist after whom the institute is named, was a liberal champion of toleration and cosmopolitanism who would have roundly condemned his namesake’s twisted agenda.)
The newsletters peddled vile steretoypes about African Americans, gay people and other minorities with the aim of courting white, grassroots support. Though the paleo strain has never been dominant in the libertarian movement, it always had its boosters. However, the core party members at the time failed to forcefully challenge and ostracize the paleo faction in the name of avoiding “infighting.” This was a missed opportunity. It meant the classical liberal old guard did not have a fully worked out moral argument when the paleos, incensed by the Johnson/Weld candidacy, decided that the party was headed in the wrong direction—that the bigger threat to libertarian principles was wokeism and the cultural left, not the populist and illiberal right. And thus the paleos took control of the steering wheel to course correct.
The GOP’s failure to stand up to Trump led to the exit of sensible, upright Republicans such as Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan, leaving the Trumpists firmly in control. The same thing happened with the LP’s mushy middle-ground approach toward the paleos. The previous national chair, Joe Bishop-Henchman, resigned in protest last year after the Libertarian National Committee refused to disaffiliate the New Hampshire party for tweeting racist statements.
He invoked the story of a bar owner to explain what the LP should have done when there was still time: One day a man wearing far-right paraphernalia walked into the bar and calmly sat down for a drink. But the bar owner threw him out because, he said, if he had looked the other way and served the man, who was doing nothing disruptive, he would have soon brought in his toxic friends and they would then draw in some more and, before you knew it, the bar would have become a neo-Nazi haunt that nobody else would want to patronize. This is exactly what has happened to the LP.
The Moral Collapse of the Libertarian Old Guard
More than a fifth of the national party’s dues-paying members have left in the past year. That proportion is probably even greater among those who were active members, participating in campaigns and party business. In short, a party that proclaimed freedom of association as one of its core principles, in the end was destroyed because it was unwilling to exercise that fundamental right.
To believe that there was a kumbaya compromise possible with those whose vision is fundamentally incompatible with liberal values speaks to a profound moral confusion. You can have an organization that welcomes bigots or one that welcomes the targets of their hate, but you can’t have both under the same tent.
The same pathology that afflicts the GOP now also afflicts the LP, namely, orienting itself not by reference to its principles but by single-mindedly focusing on its enemy: progressives and anybody else to the left of the far right. This alignment bodes ill for the future of American politics, now that the nation’s largest third party is an adjunct of Trumpism rather than an opponent of it.