This year, 2016, is an unusual election year, as the Republican nominee for president of the United States is reality TV star Donald Trump. His inflammatory rhetoric has angered many parts of the American population, but also attracted other parts. His campaign has even had effects internally in the Republican Party, where many are unsettled with the prospects of Trump as their nominee. With Hillary Clinton the two nominees make up the least liked candidates in recent history.
With this, third-party efforts are getting more attention, specifically that of Gary Johnson. He won the Libertarian Party nomination for their presidential candidate, and he was also their nominee in 2012. The state of this years election makes Johnson a bigger factor in this election than the one before. Being from New Mexico, I thought to give an overview of what his previous elected office was like. Looking into this, I found many similarities to Donald Trump.
1. Lack of experience as a virtue:
Gary Johnson entered politics in 1994 running for the Republican nomination for governor of New Mexico. He was a self-made millionaire owner of a construction company, and held no political office before. Johnson used this lack of political experience as an asset, emphasizing his role as an entrepreneur. Campaigning as a conservative with a libertarian bent, he promised to run government like a business to make it more efficient. Also campaigned as an outsider, with a slogan “People Before Politics.” He beat other experienced politicians in the party primary. He ran against three term Democratic governor and political machine Bruce King, and in a rare happening against Green Party candidate Roberto Mondragon. In this three-way race Johnson won the governor’s office in a plurality.
Johnson’s first term was divisive against the state legislature, but he was reelected four years later against Democratic nominee Martin Chavez, then mayor of Albuquerque. It was in his second term that he became known for advocating legalization of drugs, the highest elected official to do so.
Back in 1998, Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in Governing magazine about how successful state governors are those who came into office with experience. (1) He made a list of those governors at the time he considered successful, which spanned the political spectrum. They included two features: “1), set out a coherent policy agenda and accomplished most of it, or 2), projected a consistent image of competence and authority.” He also stated that they are “prudent and sensible managers who leave no doubt that somebody capable is in charge.” Basically, governors who were successful had served in government for a very long time, even those right-wing governors who wanted to dismantle government. Governing a state is difficult in its own peculiar way, involving “threading ones way through a maze of complex institutions and personalities, bending them to ones will and doing that without the benefit of any real instruments of autocratic power.” The best governors, according to Ehrenhalt, pick up things that can only be learning in state legislatures. How they work, who the key members are, and how to work them.
Ehrenhalt also gave a criteria for “worst” governors:
“He’s a successful self-made businessman, disdainful of government and uncomfortable with politics, accustomed to having his way in the private entrepreneurial world. He doesn’t know many legislators, or want to know them. His main interest in the bureaucracy is in humbling it. He has no desire for a long career in politics – he just wants to come in, straighten things out and return to private life before he’s contaminated. He’s very smart and articulate. He’s just not very smart about the things governors need to know.”
This was written back in 1998 with Governor Johnson in mind, but it can also describe Trump too.
The article further states “[T]hree and a half years into his term, he has succeeded mainly in establishing a condition of almost permanent warfare with the legislature, the bureaucracy and the court system, and vetoing nearly half the bills sent to his desk for signature.” He further states that Johnson “…hasn’t exactly succeeded at establishing authority on enacting an agenda.” A positive side of the possibility of Trump getting into office.
2. Simplistic ideas, and always being right:
Johnson is quoted as saying, “My whole life, I’ve been a success because I possess a lot of really good ideas, and I’m able to implement those ideas.” As governor, “none of my good ideas get anywhere.” He was not into compromising, an essential to politics. He was known for vetoing more bills in his first term than any other governor in history.
Johnson’s three major policy areas were education, prisons, and gambling on Native American lands. On these he offered simple solutions to these problems. For education he pushed vouchers, taking the legislature into special session for not considering vouchers. For prisons he was a major advocate of privatization. Many more riots happened in the prisons due to the mismanagement of the corporations contracted to run the prisons in the state. For legalized gambling, already a tense issue with the state and the tribes, Johnson made unilateral compacts with the tribes, but the state Supreme Court later ruled them illegal.
A recent article in Jacobin gives an overview of the legacy of Gary Johnson in New Mexico.(2)
Trump also is campaigning as an outsider, to “Make America Great Again.” Simplistic solutions like building a border wall, etc. Intentionally vague and often contradictory stances.
Like a certain candidate this year, Johnson was also known for speaking his mind. On his second term, he advocated legalization of drugs, specifically marijuana and heroin. While drug legalization is a worthy policy goal, Johnson relied on flimsy evidence and personal anecdotes. Parents at one school attempted to get a court order to stop him from speaking to their kids. State Senator Bill McKibben said Johnson’s “attention span can be measured in nanoseconds.”
3. Not taken seriously, and using politics as entertainment:
And that brings to Johnson being seen as entertainment. His “goofy demeanor” inoculated him from public backlash. His naiveté and impatience endeared him to voters. He took breaks from his governing to train in the triathlon. Some did not like his drug legalization stance, but agreed he was a great guy to be around, like a friend. In the New Republic, Charles Duhigg said this about Johnson: “Johnson was great entertainment – and that, it seems, is all New Mexico voters want from their governor, no matter what kind of havoc he wrecks on their state.” (3)
Trump, as a reality TV star, knows the value of entertainment, and he has received free media coverage because of this. He was not a really good businessman, as often he went into bankruptcy and scammed investors out of their money in his overspending. The most valuable asset Trump realized he had is his name, which he made into a brand. Especially with The Celebrity Apprentice, where he played a successful CEO. He used this audience to build his political career, along with good old-fashioned demagoguery.
In a recent Washington Post article on Trump, it talked about how many of his supporters do not actually believe he will do the more outrageous things he has campaigned for, such as building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. (4)
“We’re going to build a wall, and it’s going to be a real wall – It’s going to be a wall that’s going to make that ceiling look quite low, and it’s fairly high. And it’s going to get built fast, and it’s going to look beautiful because someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall. Who the hell knows.” – An actual quote from Donald Trump.
Many think this and proposals about banning Muslims are just metaphors, or just said to get attention. Supporters interviewed say Trump’s pledges are things like “malleable symbols” and “rhetorical devices.” One supporter said “I think he’s making a stand and wants to be a little bit more outrageous with it to draw attention to the ideology that he wants to stand for things that people aren’t standing for. And, honestly, I think he’s a marketing genius.” Johnson and Trump, knowing how to work the media.
I don’t need to go on about what a racist and misogynist that Trump is. Or how he has mobilized white supremacy and white nationalism like never before, bringing up the specter of fascism. Other articles have done just this. One day before the election, it looks like Hillary Clinton will win with a slight majority in the popular and electoral vote. We will see. For Johnson, his famous “What is Aleppo” moment put a major damper in his campaign.
The factors that led to the rise of Gary Johnson in a state level are also at play with Donald Trump at a national level. Both gave little experience as an asset, proposed simplistic solutions, and played on entertainment in politics to the point they could say outrageous things and not be taken seriously. For Johnson, being a two term governor gives him more political experience in this one, which gives him years more experience than Trump. Also Trump is more dangerous with his demagogic appeals and propensity for violence and scapegoating. We need a new political system that takes politics for people seriously, which would require a revolutionary transformation that would be resisted. Until then, the politics of resentment represented by those like Johnson before and Trump now will continue.
1. Ehrenhalt, Alan. “It Pays to Know Where the Bodies Are Buried.” Governing Magazine. June 1998. pp. 5-6.
2. Tabor, Nick. “Gary Johnson’s Hard Right Record.” Jacobin. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/gary-johnson-libertarian-president-new-mexico-governor-record/
3. Duhigg, Charles. “Tokin’ Reformer.” The New Republic. April 3, 2000. p. 14.
4. Washington Post article: Johnson, Jenna. “Many Trump Supporters Don’t Believe His Wildest Promises – And They Don’t Care.” Washington Post. June 7, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/many-trump-supporters-dont-believe-his-wildest-promises–and-they-dont-care/2016/06/06/05005210-28c4-11e6-b989-4e5479715b54_story.html