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The Winners and Losers of Trump’s Libertarian Speech

The putative benefits to Trump were clear—the Libertarian Party, not so much.

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Credit: Getty Images

The former President Donald Trump gave his highly-anticipated speech to the Libertarian Party’s national convention. Now the question remains: Cui bono? Who are the winners and losers?

As I wrote earlier this month, there were obvious reasons for Trump to make the unorthodox move of speaking at another party’s convention before accepting the Republican nomination for the third straight time. The benefits for the LP itself were less clear-cut.


Now the verdict is in, and it’s evident that the LP got more publicity for its convention than would otherwise have been the case. Whether that translates into support for their presidential ticket remains to be seen, but publicity for their ideas has always been a bigger part of the party’s mission than actually winning elected office.

More importantly, Libertarians believe they won important concessions from Trump if he’s elected: a Libertarian in the Cabinet (would they settle for a libertarian-leaning Republican if one is easier to confirm?), clemency for Silk Road’s Ross Ulbricht, and perhaps similar consideration for WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.

Trump was booed pretty lustily at the convention, showing he is more welcome in the Bronx than at a Libertarian Party gathering. Anyone in Trump’s orbit who couldn’t have predicted that has not paid attention to Libertarian politics for the past half century (or the reaction from party members in the run-up to Trump’s appearance).

Republicans who have won the Libertarian nomination have had to put up with a great deal of grief for their efforts. This even includes Ron Paul, today a hero to Libertarians with and without capitalization who nevertheless had to fight through a contested convention to secure the 1988 nomination. That Libertarian presidential campaign was surely less consequential than either of Paul’s GOP presidential campaigns or his three stints as a Republican congressman.

Trump didn’t get particularly close to the Libertarian nomination, although he floated the idea in his speech and insisted he could have won it afterwards, despite the fact that he didn’t submit the paperwork. (Even Libertarians need to fill out forms, apparently.)


The episode was reminiscent of Trump’s skirmishes with Paul’s supporters during his original CPAC appearances, when he was still feeling out the conservative movement. He showed up without much past movement history, said he could win and the Paulites were losers, and made headlines.

Trump nevertheless became president once and stands at least an even chance of doing so again, if not better. While speaking to the Libertarians did not go as well as his recent blue-state rallies, it was a fun give-and-take that was hard to imagine President Joe Biden replicating if, say, he gave a similar speech to pro-Palestinian socialists who disapproved of his Israel policy. 

The ultimate question is whether it helped Trump win gettable right-leaning Libertarian (and libertarian) votes and compete with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for anti-establishment voters more generally. The actual Libertarian nominee, Chase Oliver, seems likely to repel the former camp and will probably fall behind Kennedy both percentage-wise and in raw-vote totals after three straight LP third-place finishes.

Oliver is the type of Libertarian who might drop his party back down to the 300,000–400,000 vote range. Then again, I thought that about Jo Jorgensen four years ago and her 1,865,535 votes was better than Gary Johnson’s then-impressive haul in 2012 and miles ahead of Bob Barr’s mediocre performance in 2008.

The LP has become a place where many Americans now park their protest votes. RFK Jr. may threaten that status, but it remains to be seen whether he can totally displace it.

Trump was helped in 2016 by strong third-party showings, including, to some extent, Johnson’s historic finish. (The 3 percent of the vote Trump mocked Libertarians for winning is actually the party’s record.) They divided the anti-Trump coalition to Hillary Clinton’s detriment. Biden was, in turn, boosted when third parties faded in 2020.

There’s nevertheless decent anecdotal evidence that at least some of the LP’s drop from Johnson’s 4,489,233 votes in 2016 to Jorgenson’s fewer than 2 million redounded to Trump’s benefit—his raw-vote total improved, even if he lost—and I haven’t seen much hard data that contradicts it. There’s a reason Jill Stein gets more of the blame for Trump’s first term in the White House despite receiving fewer votes than Johnson, whose total exceeded the popular vote difference between Clinton and Trump.

It is of course much more important for Trump to win the Rust Belt than it is to win over Johnson-Jorgensen voters, a feat he achieved in the past by sounding less small-l libertarian than other Republicans, whatever their actual dismal records on controlling government growth.

Biden’s campaign is sure to remind Rust Belt voters who Ulbricht is and why clemency for him sits uneasily alongside campaign promises to execute other drug kingpins. 

Within reason, however, Trump can afford to try to grow his coalition. He is nothing if not a risk-taker.