In Defense of Gary Johnson

The Clinton smear machine, having finally noticed that Gary Johnson is cutting into what they regard as Hillary’s rightful share of the so-called "millennial" vote, has set its sights on the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate. It wasn’t supposed to be this way: the conventional wisdom was that the Libertarian ticket of Johnson and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld would split the traditionally Republican base, providing an outlet for the "Never Trump" crowd to vent their spleen.

This delighted the pro-Clinton "mainstream" media, which gave both Johnson and Weld more publicity – most of it highly favorable – than any third party ticket in memory. And these ostensible Libertarians reciprocated in kind: in an unforgettably baffling CNN "Town Hall" with Chris Cuomo, who asked the duo how they would describe Hillary Clinton in a word or a phrase, Johnson answered: "Hillary Clinton, a wonderful public servant." Asked the same question, Weld averred:

"Old friend. Nice kid. Knew her in her 20s. We shared an office in the Nixon impeachment, real bond, lifelong. Seriously. Not kidding."

Nope – not kidding! Even more baffling – and telling – was their evaluation of Barack Obama: Johnson opined he’s "A good guy," while Weld praised him as "statesmen-like."

This kind of talk presaged the kind of campaign Johnson-Weld would be running: ditching libertarianism and adopting a platform that resembles the public effusions of the Ripon Society, circa 1964, which declared at its inception that it would "fight for the middle ground." The campaign has sought to redefine libertarianism as "centrism," a grotesque ploy that reduced a radical ideology with a long and distinguished history to an anodyne phrase that George Romney or Nelson Rockefeller might have coined: "Fiscally conservative and socially inclusive."

This strategy has had consequences that hardly anyone foresaw. While Johnson-Weld went out of their way not to criticize Mrs. Clinton except in the mildest possible terms – saving their venom for Donald Trump, whom Weld likened to Hitler – what everyone overlooked is that Trump was defining the race. One was either for Trump, or against him – and the Libertarians wound up splitting the anti-Trump vote.

This was exacerbated by their left-sounding campaign rhetoric, which embraced a carbon tax (Johnson later retreated), a "Fair Tax," an explicit rejection of measures to ensure the religious liberty of Christians and others opposed to gay marriage, and a guaranteed spot for Mitt Romney in his administration. Add to this Johnson’s notoriety as a marijuana advocate, and the campaign’s targeting of "millennial" voters, and polls of a four-way contest (including Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate) began to show that Johnson-Weld spelled trouble for Hillary. This was the signal for the Clintonian regiments of the Fourth Estate to go into action.

It began with an interview on "Morning Joe," when Johnson was asked: "What would you do about Aleppo?" His answer was to look baffled for a long moment, and then ask: "What is Aleppo?"

Mike Barnicle snarked: "You’re kidding." Johnson said no, he wasn’t kidding. In tones of barely restrained contempt, Barnicle explained that Aleppo is "the epicenter of the refugee crisis" – a somewhat disingenuous assertion, because that city is more accurately the "epicenter" of the Islamist revolt against the government, and refugees are coming from all over Syria. In any case, once Johnson understood what Barnicle was referring to he gave an excellent answer:

"Well, with regard to Syria, I do think that it’s a mess. I think that the only way that we deal with Syria is to join hands with Russia to diplomatically bring that at an end. But when we’ve aligned ourselves with — when we’ve supported the opposition of the Free Syrian Army — the Free Syrian Army is also coupled with the Islamists.

"And then the fact that we’re also supporting the Kurds and this is — it’s just — it’s just a mess. And that this is the result of regime change that we end up supporting. And, inevitably, these regime changes have led a less-safe world."

This is a perfectly rational answer – and, as readers of this column will note, it’s practically identical to Trump’s view – but Joe Scarborough wasn’t about to let it go: "Do you really think," he railed, "that foreign policy is so insignificant that somebody running for President of the United States shouldn’t even know what Aleppo is, where Aleppo is, why Aleppo is so important?"

This is utter nonsense: while the interventionists have latched on to Aleppo as a "humanitarian crisis" created by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad that requires US intervention, the campaign to paint the city’s defenders as angels of mercy is laughable. Aleppo is in the hands of Islamists who behead children. The battle for the city is indeed important, albeit not for the reason Scarborough and his fellow interventionists would give: it is the last gasp of the US-supported Islamist rebels and their even more radical allies in al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, who are being pushed out of Syria by the combined government-Russian offensive. This the War Party wants to prevent at all costs: regime-change in Syria is their goal, not fighting terrorism. Thus the cry to "Save Aleppo!" is heard throughout the media, amid a longstanding call from Hillary Clinton for a "no fly zone."

This would lead to a direct military confrontation with the Russians, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford testified before Congress. Responding to a question from Sen. Roger Whicker (R-Mississippi) about establishing a no-fly zone, the Marine Corps General averred:

"Right now, Senator, for us to control all of the airspace in Syria it would require us to go to war, against Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make."

The desirability of a confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia is a regular theme put out there by the Clinton camp, and so this dire prospect bothers the Clintonians and their media cheering section not at all. As far as the rest of us are concerned, however, the idea of approaching the brink of World War III over Syria is absolutely loony. Given a choice between "saving" Aleppo and not turning much of the globe into radioactive ash, Gary Johnson chooses the latter.

None of this matters to the "mainstream" media, however, which is so determined to elect Clinton that sparking a nuclear conflagration seems to them a small price to pay. They gleefully piled on Johnson’s "Aleppo moment," echoing Scarborough’s ridiculous contention that not knowing how "important" Aleppo is "disqualifies" him as a credible candidate. The derision was universal, the snark was endless – even Bill Maher and Colbert got into the act — and it didn’t stop there.

In a subsequent interview with both Johnson and Weld, Chris Matthews asked them all the requisite questions about Trump’s unmitigated evil, and they went along with it, saying all the "right" things. When the conversation turned to foreign policy, Johnson gave a good answer on Syria, basically repeating his "let’s-solve-this-diplomatically" by cooperating with Russia trope, which Weld seemed to contradict by bring up Ukraine. Matthews then asked them both who is more qualified to be commander-in-chief, Hillary or Trump: Johnson hemmed and hawed, basically refusing to give a straight answer, and Weld suggested that he disagrees with Johnson on this question. Matthews, delighted to take advantage of this opportunity, said "I like it when you disagree," and this was the signal for Weld to give his characteristic smirk, opining:

"But no, Hillary Clinton is clearly qualified to be commander-
in-chief and president of the United States. Donald Trump…

"MATTHEWS: How about the other guy?

"WELD: … is clearly not qualified. And I`ve encouraged him almost 
with affection to think some of other job or profession he`d like to [enter]…"

Carl Bernstein reports that he has sources who say Weld is positioning himself to drop out of the race and endorse Mrs. Clinton, and comments like this seem to all but confirm it.

Weld is a weasel who is bad on nearly everything: on domestic policy, he’s a statist through-and-through, except when it comes to "socially inclusive" issues like abortion. On foreign policy, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool interventionist, and a fervent Atlanticist: as a surrogate for George W. Bush, he defended the Iraq war, opining that Bush had "risen to the international challenge." He has stated that the American military presence will be global under a Johnson administration, including "the projection of air and naval military supremacy around the world," as Ed Krayewski points out in Reason magazine.

Unlike Johnson, Weld clearly is rooting for Hillary Clinton, and he undoubtedly thought he could raise considerable money from Democrats and Never-Trumpers back when everyone thought the Libertarian ticket would drain voters away from Trump. Now that that’s backfired, and presumably the big donations have dried up, Bernstein’s scenario is more than a little credible.

Toward the end of the interview with Matthews came what Johnson himself said was another "Aleppo moment":

"MATTHEWS: I got actually a little lightning round here. This is where we 
have fun and maybe make some news. Who is your favorite foreign leader?

JOHNSON: Who is my favorite…

MATTHEWS: Any – just name ,,, any one of the continents, any country. Name one foreign leader that you respect and look up to, anybody.

JOHNSON: Shimon Peres. 

MATTHEWS: No, no, OK. I`m talking about living. Go ahead. You have got to do this. Anywhere. Any continent, Canada, Mexico, Europe over there, Asia, South America, Africa. Name a foreign leader that you respect.

JOHNSON: I guess I`m having an Aleppo moment …"

Johnson tried to save himself by mentioning "the former President of Mexico," whom he could not name, Vicente Fox – whose scandal-plagued regime, rife with corruption, eventually drove him from politics. Weld, who’s taken on the role of Johnson’s babysitter, eventually stepped in and said Angela Merkel – who has presided over a surge in terrorist attacks and the overrunning of Germany by a horde of "refugees." Matthews agreed with Weld that "no one can argue with that," while Gary sat there grinning sheepishly.

When Matthews said "You have got to do this" the appropriate response was: No, I don’t. The idea that any libertarian could have a "favorite foreign leader," a head of state one could "look up to," is absurd. There is no such person on earth.

That this never occurred to Johnson underscores his lack of grounding in the basics of libertarianism. That aside, however, Johnson himself saying he was having another "Aleppo moment" was enough to invite yet another storm of derision from Hillary’s partisans in the media. Matthews is no dummy: he knew perfectly well what he was doing, and even hinted at what he was up to when he said they might "make a little news."

I’ve been very critical of Johnson, but in this case I have to come out in his defense.

In spite of his many shortcomings as a candidate, he has managed to put on a good showing – for all the wrong reasons, true, but perhaps this is of less concern to my readers than it is to me. For the most part he’s been relatively principled when it comes to foreign policy: indeed, when the Chicago Tribune endorsed him, they made a point of distancing themselves from his strongly anti-interventionist stance. This is a great irony, since the Tribune, under its founder, Col. Robert McCormick, was the flagship paper of Old Right "isolationism" in the years before and after World War II – the journalistic antecedent of modern libertarianism.

Johnson has been falling in the polls a bit, and with the pro-Clinton media pounding away at him his descent may continue. However, the Johnson Effect, to coin a phrase, will likely continue to impact the election in potentially significant ways: it could even throw the whole thing into the House of Representatives, as Nate Silver has opined (although, admittedly, the chances of that are low, albeit not nonexistent).

Gary Johnson, in spite of himself – and in spite of the sinister Weld – may wind up stopping Hillary Clinton from taking the White House. And that, my dear readers, is a lesson in the truism that one’s actions are likely to have all sorts of unintended consequences. If Weld thought he could throw the election to Hillary by joining the Libertarian ticket – over the objections of a great many horrified libertarians – he may be proved laughably wrong.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].