If there’s one person relishing in Washington’s Trump-era dysfunction, it’s Libertarian Party Chairman Nicholas Sarwark, who sees the tumult as a prime recruitment opportunity.
“I have to give thanks to Donald Trump and the Republican Party,” said Sarwark, a former defense attorney who has led the Libertarian Party since 2014. “Their success in getting control of government and then showing that they can’t do anything once they have that control has been a better argument for joining the Libertarian Party than anything I could say.”
As part of his efforts, Sarwark joined more than 1,000 libertarians and conservatives recently here in Las Vegas for a free-wheeling annual gathering called FreedomFest, fertile recruiting grounds where attendees held a robust skepticism of government power and where opinions of President Donald Trump were mixed.
Activities at the four-day confab were varied: One could attend academic lectures on Adam Smith, discussion panels about whether space aliens would be libertarians, debates over open borders and a film festival. You could also listen to a dialogue between actors dressed as Ayn Rand and Benjamin Franklin, watch a speech by actor William Shatner and attend a blowout party for Steve Forbes’ birthday.
FreedomFest has been a mainstay of the Las Vegas convention circuit for a decade. But this marked the first gathering of Trump’s presidency, which has divided even like-minded communities, including attendees here.
Trump himself made a surprise appearance at this conference in 2015, making it one of his first public appearances after announcing his bid for the presidency. As an example of what was to come, the Republican candidate rambled over 50 minutes, complaining about the media, railing against trade, promoting a wall on the Mexican border and expressing a desire to get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Watching the speech at the time, Jeffrey Tucker, the content director at the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education, assumed the crowd would run Trump out of town. He was wrong.
“I thought, nobody’s going to buy this. Everything he says is against everything we believe. But by the time he ended, he had won over a substantial number of the crowd, which was a shock,” Tucker said. “Libertarians imagine themselves to be intellectually robust and have strength of character, they are as subject as anybody else to be manipulated by the cult of personality and a good sales pitch.”
Indeed, reactions to Trump at the conference this year were varied.
There are those, like Sarwark, who have deep concerns about Trump’s policies yet sense a opportunities amid the chaos.
Others, like former Libertarian Party Vice Presidential Nominee Wayne Allyn Root, can’t get enough joy out of Trump’s bombast.
“I love that he’s driving liberals insane,” said Root, who debated Trucker about Trump at the conference. “They need a straitjacket, a rubber room and a hug from mommy.”
But for many who consider themselves libertarians, the main concern is systematic, and larger than the current president. The real issue, they say, is that the presidency has gained too much authority in the first place, and that Trump is merely taking advantage of an inheritance given to him by Republicans and Democrats alike.
To be a libertarian, after all, is to be almost constantly at issue with both ruling parties in some way. Trump may be different, but to them, he’s just another American president with too much power.
“He is incompetent. He has passed no significant piece of legislation in 100 days despite his big promises. He is an embarrassment to the American people and around the globe. What we need to do as libertarians is not talk about people, we need to talk about systems and policies,” said Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of the libertarian magazine website Reason.com. “If you are a libertarian you should understand that big government is the problem.”