Libertarians warily welcome Trump to their convention

Washington — Every four summers in America comes the spectacle of nominating conventions for the two major political parties. This July, Republicans in Milwaukee are set to again place former President Donald Trump at the top of their ticket. The following month in Chicago, Democrats are to do the formalities for their incumbent, President Joe Biden. Less attention is being paid to another gathering that will nominate its presidential candidate Saturday night.

Compared to the behemoth conventions, the Libertarian’s nominating event is a rather low-key affair. Devoid of pageantry, its casually dressed delegates are nonetheless full of passion. And it is taking on new significance this year because it will place a presidential candidate on the ballots of most states.

With polls showing a very tight race between Biden and Trump — and independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr. beginning to poll above 10% in some swing states — a small number of votes for the Libertarian candidate could determine whether it is Biden or Trump who gets a second term.

None of the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidates are household names. They include New Orleans surgeon Charles Ballay; adult entertainment and tech entrepreneur Lars Mapstead; Georgia political activist Chase Oliver; and economist Mike ter Maat. It will be up to the approximately 1,000 delegates to decide who will appear on their national ballot.

“The Libertarian Party — it’s really kind of a big-tent party,” said Nathan Polsky, chairman of the Libertarian Party in Collin County, Texas.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got people that are on the right. You’ve got people that are on the left. But the one thing we all agree on is that the state has too much control and we want to roll back the level of power that the state has. Give it back to the people,” said Polsky, a cowboy hat atop his head as he surveyed the scene inside the Washington Hilton Hotel, site of this year’s Libertarian convention.

An unusual invitation

The party takes its name from the classic liberalism movement that profoundly changed the face of nations from the start of the 18th century, waging political battles in Europe and elsewhere against monarchs, slavery and religious persecution in the pursuit of individual freedom.

The present Libertarian Party in America, however, is facing turmoil inside its big tent.  That ascendant faction, known as the Mises Caucus, generally supports as its presidential candidate a former Marxist scholar named Michael Rectenwald, who professes to a recent rightward shift that embraces radically free-market capitalism.

The Libertarians’ obscure presidential candidates and arcane philosophical infighting is now overshadowed by its unprecedented invitation to the presumptive nominee of another party to address them on Saturday night.

Donald Trump accepted the unusual offer.

“Trump recognizes that this election will be close and that just a few percentage points of the vote could make a real difference in some swing states,” said Seth Masket, a University of Denver political science professor who runs the school’s Center on American Politics.

“It is difficult to see Trump’s agenda as consistent with libertarian ideals of a smaller, less-invasive federal government. However, leaders of the Libertarian Party may find some other issues on which they are aligned,” Masket told VOA.

Some wary Libertarians view Trump wading into their political territory as merely another ploy to gain attention. They caution that the former president, used to addressing enthusiastic supporters at his MAGA rallies, may be surprised to find himself the target of some boos from the politically eclectic crowd.

“It’s a chance for him to speak and get his word out, and he can speak to a bunch of other people who probably would not normally listen to what he has to say,” said construction worker James St. John, a Libertarian delegate from Virginia.  “That’s the main reason he’s doing it.”

Intra-party disagreements

The party is “hardly libertarian anymore,” according to Peter Goettler, president and chief executive of the Cato Institute, the most prominent libertarian think tank in the United States.

“Trump’s appearance this week says as much about the Libertarian Party as it does about him,” writes Goettler in a Washington Post opinion piece. “The party has had its ups and downs and some embarrassing moments throughout its history. But its problems more often arose from amateurism and fractiousness rather than malice, the inevitable effect of being a small third party in a two-party system.”

Addressing the National Rifle Association last week, Trump was pragmatic about courting Libertarians.

“Largely, they have so much of what we have,” Trump told the NRA. “You know, they are also people of common sense, generally speaking. They have a couple of things that are a little different. But we have to join with them, because they get their 3% every year no matter who’s running. And we have to get that 3% because we can’t take a chance on Joe Biden winning.”

Since the Libertarians’ first presidential ticket in 1972, their best performance was in 2016 when former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson received 3.28% of the popular vote.

It is unlikely Trump can capture more than a sliver of that 3%, predicted Vermont Libertarian delegate Anne Lepeltier.

“Do I think he’s going to get the Libertarian vote? No. May some Libertarians vote for him? Surely, yes. Will I be one of them? Also, no,” she told VOA at the party’s convention.

Lepeltier said she is undecided about whether to attend Trump’s speech.

President Biden was also invited to address the Libertarian convention, but he declined the offer. His reelection campaign did not respond to repeated requests from VOA to comment on the Republican nominee’s outreach to the third party, or why Biden turned down equal time at the convention to that of Trump and Kennedy, who addressed the gathering Friday afternoon.