Curls of smoke in the car park outside the ballpark, and the smell of wacky tobacky through the open window. The cab driver slowed, looked around doubtfully.

“You sure this is the rally?”

I looked around. There were a few bikies, some lost souls in dirty black T-shirts and long stringy hair, and a group of frat boys in blue blazers and and white shirts. Two men in cardboard tricorn hats walked by.

“I’m sure,” I said.

The crowd round the entrance of the ball park wasn’t all that it could have been. But there were eager campaign workers in blue and yellow T-shirts, and a merch table too, lots of T-shirts in olde-worlde writing: “We The People … Aren’t Going To Take This Shit”. Pendants in the shape of plugs with the legend around “Government should be small enough to drown in the bath tub”.

A queue of sorts, not as long as it should be, chatter of the usual type: “Well the trouble is the 23rd amendment, not the 16th,” “I think of myself as a minarchist” “Sure, but would you want to share a raft with Peter Thiel?” Smell of dope from the stringy hair section of the crowd, not from the blazers. People talking to their own group, not much crossovers. Not many gals, those who are here have a lot of tatts, look like they’d smash your windscreen at 3am, just for practice. My heart sank a little. Here we were at a Libertarian meeting. Above us all the poster “Gary Johnson” and a black-and-white pic of the candidate, long-nosed, helmetish haircut, like a pissed-off bald eagle. The slogan: “You In?”

This is at the ball park in Cincinnati, one of the rare appearances by Johnson, the candidate for the Libertarian Party, who just a few weeks ago was the big thing, the great hope of the election. Johnson, sharp and kinda cool, with an acerbic humour, did the rounds of the news shows, cracking out bon mots: “If our aim is to get people addicted to heroin, we’ve got a great drugs policy.” “This isn’t a sit-in, this is a you-in. You in?” With Donald Trump consumed in Twitter wars with ex-beauty pageant queens and abusing veterans’ families, and Republicans peeling off in every direction, Johnson was suddenly looking good.

The Libertarian Party is the perpetual Cinderella — formed in the 1970s, always claiming it will break through, never getting close. Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, had run for the party in 2012. His ideas were nuts, of course, abolishing huge swathes of federal government down to the FDA (“Once there’s a few lawsuits, the corporations will make damn sure their food is safe”), but he sounded like a guy in command, and he had managed to stand down the prison-drugs conveyor belt in New Mexico. People were reassured by his statement that he had stopped smoking dope — “the day before the campaign began,” he added.

As Trump flamed, Johnson and his veep candidate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, rose and rose, hitting 10% in the polls. The goal was 15% by the first debate, which would have allowed Johnson onto the stage. For the Libertarians, that would be the breakthrough. Once 100 million people could see and hear the candidate, they argued, the race would even up, and the two-party system would be cracked open.

And then … Gary Johnson flamed out. Spectacularly. Appearing on a morning show, he was asked what he would do about Aleppo. “What’s Aleppo?” he asked in front of the nation. There was a collective groan, audible from Maine to Malibu. Days later, it was added to, when Johnson was asked on the Chris Matthews show to name a foreign leader he admired. He blanked and said “I’m having one of those Aleppo moments.” And with that, Gary Johnson was gone. A third moment that turned up — he boasted that the other candidates were so bad, he could win the first debate even if he “thalkth likth thith”, speaking with his tongue jammed between his teeth. By then, people were turning away in pain. Was the country incapable of producing a candidate who wasn’t a dynast, an arsehole, or a moron?

With that, Johnson was over. His numbers fell immediately, down to 6% and heading south. He was written off from contention, all hopes of a viable third-party candidate disappeared, and people grimly refocused on the two-party grind. He appeared to be doing no more than a couple of events per week — Bill Weld was doing more — and his crowds shrank back to the libertarian hardcore. I dropped in on one at Las Vegas, and it was like a convention of Steve Buscemi impersonators, a sinister crowd, in an old burlesque theatre, too depressing to write up. Cincinnati was more wholesome, good ole midwestern libertarians, who distrust paper money and think consensual cannibalism should be legal.

[Rundle: someone should’ve told Clinton, it’s a long way down from the high road]

“Oh wow,” said Johnson, bounding onto stage. “Oh wow.” The fact that he’s now a dead man walking, politically speaking, hadn’t taken the spring out of his step. The crowd was impressive, but only because we’d been crammed into a sort of vestibule of the ballpark. Still, they’re enthusiastic. They’re ready for a stirring encounter, and Johnson has some good positions — relentlessly opposed to the war on immigrants, to the creeping racism that comes with it, against useless imperial wars.

They got a lecture on Airbnb.

Gary loves Airbnb. And Uber. And Airbnb. “It’s the sharing economy, and we’re looking like, look, it’s cutting out the middleman, its the promise in our funding and uh …”

Day before the campaign started you say, Gary?

There were cheers anyway. They love this guy, and the bursts of applause and cheering, unprompted, covered the gaps in his speech, and let him switch topics. He is perpetually surprised by the cheers. “Oh really, oh gosh, you like that? Oh gosh.”

Finally, he went into foreign policy. “And let’s talk about Aleppo.” Uh oh. The tension is palpable. ‘The Russians are on the west side of Aleppo … ” and he went into a sort of term paper on the issue. “We’re allied with the YPG but the Turks aren’t …” Go Gary, you could feel the enthusiasm. He made it. “I would pardon Edward Snowden!” Huge yells. “Thank you, thank you!” He’s gone.

“He’s great, he’s the man,” said a student in blue shirt and yellow chinos — “Johnson colours” — beside me.

“He can’t win, though.”

“Naw, but well, if people could hear his message …”

“They heard his message — it was ‘I dunno’,” I said in a Scooby Doo voice.

Kid looked crestfallen. “Yeah I know, I know.”

“I know, I know …” is the mood of the country about Johnson, those who knew about him anyway. Here we got suckered in again, were convinced to believe the Libertarians could be contenders. Faced with a situation where the Republican was the clown candidate, there was a space for a small government message from someone who didn’t believe that Hillary Clinton was the love child of Saul Alinsky and Ethel Rosenberg. But they couldn’t step up. Well, Bill Weld has. He’s pretty much broken off from Johnson altogether and started to run interference against Trump, touring the news shows to say that there’s nothing to the Clinton email stuff, and that the FBI has acted improperly and politically. A few days after the Cincinnati gig, relations between Johnson and Weld appeared to have cooled considerably. Weld had a bunch of libertarian positions fired at him on a news show: “I don’t agree … I don’t agree …” Johnson, for his part, had an on-air tantrum when someone mentioned Evan McMullin, the conservative who may take Utah: “I’m the third-party candidate in Utah! Who is he? He’s nowhere!”

[Rundle: the spy who loved Jesus]

Jaysus. What a disaster. What a disaster. It’s incalculable the opportunity the Libertarians have lost. Nothing cracks the two-party wall, unless the wall cracks from within and can be breached. They had their chance and they really blew it, and it’s hard to see what happens to the Libertarians after this. Do they just put up pointless candidates in perpetuity? At what point does a movement such as this — which has made no down-ticket inroads, no congresspeople, few state officials under the Libertarian banner — simply fold up and decide that the paradigm is exhausted? Or are such parties perpetually replenished by the young, those on a journey, those spinning off into space. The Libertarians missed their moment in not putting Weld at the top of the ticket. Reasonable, centre-right and strong on really changing how federal government is done. Had Weld made it to the debates, he might well have nudged towards 20, 25%, at which point the prospect of winning some states comes into play.

Well, we’ll never know. Johnson will get his useless 3-4% and forever be the dude who didn’t know what “a leppo” was. There is, finally, a certain exasperation with the Libertarians. In societies fused together by global systems in multiple layers, freedom is obtained not by pretending they can be disregarded, but in limiting their hidden power, and building reflexivity into it.

“Do you know,” I said, standing next to a kid in a starburst T-shirt, outside the ball park, after almost everyone had disappeared, “I am calling an Uber, and I am able to do that only because a globally dictated satellite/digital system is present in every person’s hand? What would Gary Johnson say about that?”

He looked at me for a second.

“Uh I don’t know, I just like what he says about dope, y’know?”

From the funky smoke Gary Johnson emerged, and to it he returneth, a dream within a dream, the perpetual fantasy of freedom, history in a cardboard tricorn hat.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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