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Will the Trumpification of the Libertarian Party Actually Hurt Donald Trump?
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Will the Trumpification of the Libertarian Party Actually Hurt Donald Trump?

Following a populist uprising in 2022, the party is still deeply divided.

Former President Donald Trump arrives for his campaign rally in Wildwood, New Jersey, on May 11, 2024. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

When the Libertarian Party recently invited Donald Trump to speak at its annual convention later this month, the move sparked plenty of outrage inside the party—and a lot of intrigue outside it.

“The idea that I completely wrote the GOP off only to have Trump follow me into the Libertarian Party really upsets me and upsets a lot of people,” Jonathan Casey, whose involvement in Libertarian Party politics dates back to 2016, told The Dispatch.

Until the Trump invitation, the Libertarian Party had mostly been an afterthought for outside observers in the 2024 presidential campaign, but it shouldn’t have been. Whoever wins the party’s nomination for president later this month at the Libertarian National Convention will be on the ballot in at least 37 states, including the battlegrounds of Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nevada. The last two presidential election were decided by a few states where the victor prevailed by less than 1 percentage point, so it’s plausible the Libertarian candidate could sway the outcome—even if he falls short of winning the 3.3 percent of the national popular vote won by 2016 Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson or the 1.2 percent of the popular vote garnered by 2020 nominee Jo Jorgenson.

So why, exactly, did a minor party whose raison d’être is to reject the two major parties invite the presumptive GOP nominee to potentially overshadow the convention where Libertarian Party delegates will pick their own presidential nominee? That is a hotly contested question within a Libertarian Party that is deeply divided between two factions—the Mises Caucus and the Classical Liberal Caucus. 

The Mises Caucus is the Libertarian Party’s largest faction whose members swept to power at the party’s 2022 convention in a backlash against what they saw as an increasingly politically correct party that didn’t do enough to stand up to COVID lockdowns and was happy to run Republican Party retreads for president. The Classical Liberal Caucus is filled with, well, self-styled classical liberals who see Mises Caucus types as Trump-adjacent bigots and kooks—or at least way too tolerant of bigots and kooks

Heading into the 2024 convention, the Mises Caucus has endorsed presidential candidate Michael Rectenwald, a former New York University professor who says he converted from Marxism to anarcho-capitalism after he was the victim of a “woke mob” at NYU. On Friday, the Classical Liberals endorsed Chase Oliver, a former Democrat who was the Libertarian Party’s 2022 Senate candidate in Georgia.

The Classical Liberals contend that by turning the convention into a Trump rally, the Mises Caucus leaders of the Libertarian Party are not only trying to help Trump win the general election, they’re also trying to depress turnout of delegates who might oppose the Mises Caucus candidates running for party leadership and the presidential nomination. 

The Trump invitation is “absolutely designed to discourage anybody who would challenge [the Mises Caucus] from showing up,” said Casey, who serves as chair of the Classical Liberal Caucus. Moreover, Joshua Eakle, a classical liberal who served as Tennessee state party chairman until 2021, worries that if Rectenwald wins the Libertarian Party nomination, “he could theoretically suspend his campaign, either immediately after being endorsed or, say, before the election and endorse Trump.”

Members of the Mises Caucus strongly deny those accusations. “I’m not going to drop out to support any other candidate. I’m gonna run as hard as I can,” Rectenwald told The Dispatch. Mises Caucus Chair Aaron Harris said the decision to invite Trump, as well as President Joe Biden and independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., was meant to increase interest in the Libertarian Party: “The long and short of it is the media won’t really cover us—the mainstream media won’t cover us—they won’t let us in the debate. So let’s see what buzz we can create on our own.” While Biden declined the invitation, RFK Jr. accepted and challenged Trump to a debate at the convention (something Trump has not agreed to do).

“The difference between Trump and Biden is like the difference between stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer. You definitely don’t want either one, but one might kill you a little slower,” Harris said, before identifying Trump as maybe the less-bad cancer. “We’re not trying to game this to support Trump. If anything, I think us helping elevate interest in alternative candidates is going to hurt both of them and be a wild card in this election.”

How Trump could hurt Trump.

It’s not clear what Trump’s objective is by showing up at the Libertarian convention, but there’s actually a decent chance it could backfire on him. If Trump’s presence at the convention does help Rectenwald win the nomination, that would likely hurt Trump in the general election because Rectenwald’s anti-woke and anti-abortion stances would almost certainly draw more votes away from Trump than Biden. 

On the other hand, Oliver, the candidate backed by the Classical Liberal Caucus, would likely draw more votes from Biden than Trump because Oliver is a former Democratic antiwar activist who favors enacting a federal statutory right to abortion. 

So what does Trump have to gain from showing up at the Libertarian Convention? “I don’t think he cares one way or the other who our presidential nominee is,” Casey of the Classical Liberal Caucus told The Dispatch. “I think his motivation for coming to speak to the Libertarian Party is that he looks at this as a campaign rally where he can go up on a stage that has Libertarian Party branding, Libertarian Party crowd, and he can create an ad for himself, essentially.” That message? “I spoke to the Libertarians, and they loved me,” as Casey put it.

Indeed, Trump could be competing for the much larger faction of self-identified libertarians who never vote for the Libertarian Party candidate. A recent poll, which has not been publicly released, conducted by YouGov for the libertarian Cato Institute found that 15 percent of Americans self-identified as libertarian, according to Cato’s director of polling, Emily Ekins. The respondents were evenly split between Trump and Biden at 41 percent apiece. Trump, of course, also needs to be concerned about Kennedy, who is courting libertarians with his record of opposing COVID vaccines.

Michael Rectenwald’s play for the populist faction.

While RFK Jr. may win far more votes than the Libertarian Party nominee, Rectenwald seems like exactly the kind of candidate who could shave half a point off of Trump’s margin if he is the nominee.

“I was a Marxist and a full professor at NYU when the woke mob came for me, when I voiced criticisms of social justice and university policies that had become official dogma of the university,” Rectenwald told The Dispatch. “When I saw what totalitarians leftists are, I immediately became a civil libertarian.” A conversion to full-scale economic and political libertarianism followed shortly thereafter. 

Rectenwald characterized the last two Libertarian Party nominees, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Clemson University professor Jo Jorgenson as “milquetoast candidates who did not excite anybody.” Rectenwald likened himself to Argentinian President Javier Millei and said his own political philosophy “begins with the premise that government is an evil, that it is a thief, and that it’s a parasite—and it sucks the blood out of the body politic. And so what we need to do is get it out of our lives as much as humanly possible with the ultimate goal of a stateless society—anarcho-capitalist order.”

It’s Rectenwald’s anti-woke record and association with alt-right figures that could hurt Trump come November. Rectenwald says he was pushed toward taking a leave of absence after he revealed that he had been tweeting under the screen name “Deplorable NYU Prof” in 2016 (though NYU administrators dispute Rectenwald’s version of events). In 2016, New York University canceled a scheduled appearance from alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and Rectenwald invited Yiannopoulos to speak to one of his classes in 2018. The event was again canceled due to threats of violence. Asked what was the academic value of inviting Yiannopoulos to speak in a college classroom, Rectenwald replied: “Milo, for whatever his faults, is a very brilliant guy.” Asked about Yiannopoulos’ record of antisemitic rhetoric, Rectenwald said: “At the time that I had invited him, there wasn’t any indication of that at all. But whatever he’s done since is on him—like palling around with Ye, or, you know, Nick Fuentes and all that, I think that’s pretty abominable. But I’m not here to check him.” There was in fact plenty of evidence of Yiannopoulos’s racist and anti-semitic rhetoric prior to 2018. 

Asked to name the worst aspects of the Trump presidency, Recetnwald replied: “Operation Warp Speed, the lockdowns, eight-plus trillion dollars in inflationary spending” as well as Trump’s “buffoonish and antagonistic rhetoric.” What was wrong with Operation Warp Speed? “The vaccine was not properly vetted,” Rectenwald said.

On fiscal issues, Rectenwald said that there should be an “off ramp” for completely winding down entitlements like Social Security and Medicare of “at least for four to five years,” so it is “somewhat precipitous, but not too much so that you end up with a social catastrophe.”

While, like Trump, Rectenwald says the federal government shouldn’t have a role in setting abortion policy, he draws a contrast by voicing support for state-level laws that ban almost all abortions, except in cases of rape or when the life or physical health of the mother is threatened. “Philosophically, I think abortion is an egregious violation of the non-aggression principle,” Rectenwald said, referring to one of the basic tenets of libertarianism. “It is aggression against a person. I believe that it is a person regardless of the size or stage of development.” 

Rectenwald also thinks states should ban transgender surgeries and puberty-blockers or hormone treatments for minors because “people under 18 do not have the ability to consent,” but “once you’re of age, if you want to change your body in whatever way you think you can, you have a perfect right to do so.”

Chase Oliver’s antiwar roots.

As the candidate endorsed by the Classical Liberal Caucus, Oliver cuts a much different profile. While Rectenwald’s interaction with a “woke mob” brought him to Libertarian politics, Oliver came into the party as a Democratic antiwar activist who thought Barack Obama’s first term was too militaristic because he failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and end drone warfare. “I became politically homeless until I found the Libertarian Party, campaigning at the Atlanta Pride festival in 2010,” Oliver told The Dispatch.

While both Rectenwald and Oliver favor cutting off U.S. military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, Oliver was particularly passionate in condemning Israel’s war against Hamas. “October 7 was a horrible day for the people of Israel, like there’s no questioning that what Hamas did was horrible. But the response back has been equally terrible,” Oliver told The Dispatch. “It has killed so many more innocent people—like tens of thousands of innocent people.” When pressed on using the phrase “equally terrible” to describe Hamas’s attack deliberately targeting civilians and Israel’s military response targeting Hamas, Oliver apologized and said the actions were “not equal” but both were “morally indefensible.” 

“What I mean to say is that the [Israeli] response … is not morally defensible, just as obviously what Hamas did is not morally defensible,” he said.

Oliver and Rectenwald more notably differ on domestic issues. On abortion, for example, Oliver supports enacting a federal statute creating a national right to abortion until an unborn child can survive outside the womb and prohibiting abortion after that point except to protect the life of the mother. “That’s the standard that I would like to see federally because I think it’s a matter of bodily autonomy and medical privacy which fit into our constitutional rights,” Oliver said, pointing to the Fifth and 14th amendments. He’d like to phase out Social Security and Medicare over a matter of decades, not four or five years. He’s OK with state bans on transgender surgeries for minors, but not restricting puberty blockers. 

Asked if Trump or Biden presents a greater danger to the country, Oliver replied: “They’re both turds, right, and they both stink. I’m not going to sit here and try to determine which one is better than the other.” He added that Biden and Trump are “both representative of authoritarian policies to which the Libertarians seek to be wholly distinct from.” 

A missed opportunity for libertarians?

It’s far from clear that either Rectenwald or Oliver will win the nomination at the convention later this month. Roughly 1,000 national delegates will continue voting until one candidate emerges with a majority of the vote, and Joshua Eakle suggested the most viable strategy to secure the nomination “is to basically just be everyone’s second choice.”

During a time of deep dissatisfaction with the Republican and Democrat at the top of the ticket, why hasn’t the Libertarian Party taken off as a vehicle for a more mainstream center-right presidential candidate who has held elective office before? In 2020, candidate recruitment efforts faltered amid concerns nominating a libertarian Republican like Michigan Rep. Justin Amash would help reelect Trump, resulting in a lackluster candidate like Jorgensen. Infighting since 2022 has certainly dimmed the party’s prospects as well. 

But Emily Ekins of the Cato Institute pointed to something more fundamental—what political scientists call Duverger’s law—that’s holding back the Libertarian Party. “When you have an electoral system like ours, which is single-member districts, first past the post—so whoever wins the most votes wins the whole thing, winner-take-all—that tends to create a system with two parties,” said Ekins. “No third party will take off unless the electoral system is different.”

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John McCormack

John McCormack is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was Washington correspondent at National Review and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. When John is not reporting on politics and policy, he is probably enjoying life with his wife in northern Virginia or having fun visiting family in Wisconsin.