Opinion | Trump's upcoming Libertarian Party convention speech reveals desperation (2024)

Former President Donald Trump’s constant legal troubles and court appearances are eating up a lot of his time lately. To make the most of his remaining time, he has to focus on high-impact campaigning and fundraising events. But amid his time-starved schedule, he’s carving out one night later this month to address an oddly niche crowd: the Libertarian Party’s national convention.

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Presidential candidates are typically focused on preparing for their own parties’ conventions; it is not the norm for nominees of the two major parties to attend, much less address, the convention for a third party, which typically consists of activist types who dislike the other parties and who in most states will rack up only tiny percentages of the vote. President Joe Biden was also invited by the Libertarian Party to speak at its convention, but he has not taken up the offer — and it’s pretty safe to assume he will not.

The simplest explanation for Trump’s interest in addressing libertarians is his growing anxiety about competition from anti-establishment movements.

But Trump did accept, making him, according to the party, the first former president ever to attend the convention. “Libertarians are some of the most independent and thoughtful thinkers in our Country, and I am honored to join them in Washington, DC, later this month,” Trump said in a statement on Wednesday. “We must all work together to help advance freedom and liberty for every American, and a second Trump Administration will achieve that goal.” He added, “If Libertarians join me and the Republican Party, where we have many Libertarian views, the election won’t even be close.” (Notice how strange it sounds when Trump’s rhetoric turns collaborative and coolly strategic?)

The simplest explanation for Trump’s interest in addressing libertarians is his growing anxiety about competition from anti-establishment movements, particularly independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign. Trump might be calculating that he can use the Libertarian Party convention to win over libertarians and other two-party–skeptical voters ahead of what’s likely to be yet another election decided by small margins in battleground states where independent candidates are polling unusually well. He also needs to find ways to shore up his weakness among more traditionally conservative Republicans and independents — and Trump might see third parties as a supplement to compensate for that softening support.

Libertarians would not seem a natural fit for today’s Republican Party. They are generally free market fundamentalists who want minimal government intervention in economic and social life, who favor non-interventionist foreign policy and tend to like highly permissive immigration policies. That’s starkly at odds with MAGA Republicanism in a number of ways. Trump is an economic protectionist who loves tariffs and who has expressed limited interest in cutting government programs like Medicare and Social Security. He wants to deport immigrants en masse, not let them into the country. He is fervently devoted to an authoritarian theory of governance, in which he plans to further centralize power in the hands of the president.

But there is an odd wrinkle here that might be influencing the Trump camp’s interest in showing up at the convention, where party members will be voting for their presidential nominee. In the past few years, the Libertarian Party has been overtaken by a faction called the Libertarian Party Mises Caucus (named after the famous libertarian economist), and under its leadership the party has become less traditionally libertarian and more MAGA-friendly — as well as more interested in engaging with the mainstream political scene. As Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy has noted, some of this caucus’ changes to the party have made it strange bedfellows with the modern GOP:

They took concrete steps to disassociate the party from its support of socially liberal policies—rewriting the platform to eliminate the LP’s longtime neutrality on abortion, deleting a pledge condemning bigotry as “irrational and repugnant,” and expressing support for the idea of secession. There was a sometimes virulent strain of angry anti-wokeness, and an affinity, at least in some circles, for a more nationalistic identity that rejects the free migration of people.

Assuming the Trump campaign is aware of this, it might see libertarians as a more receptive crowd than they have been in the past — whom he can possibly woo to his side. There is also the possibility that Trump just wants to cast as wide a net as possible among anti-establishment voters and sees the Libertarian Party convention as an efficient venue to begin honing and disseminating that message.

Trump’s camp and his allies are increasingly nervous about the threat posed by Kennedy, who takes a bigger chunk out of Trump’s vote share than Biden’s in some recent polls with hypothetical matchups. Given that much of Kennedy’s political platform has taken on a pronounced libertarian tone on issues like Covid policy and climate change, Kennedy and Trump are potentially vying for an overlapping pool of voters with anti-big-government sensibilities. And while the Libertarian Party is niche, it is still big enough to matter for Trump in a tight race. In 2020, Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson’s vote share was larger than Biden’s margin of victory over Trump in a number of swing states. In 2016, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson took more than 3% of the popular vote — at that point both Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had levels of unpopularity that mirror the unpopularity of Biden and Trump today.

On a big-picture level, Trump’s appearance at the Libertarian Party convention is a pretty odd spectacle. But it's not odd that Trump is maneuvering to monopolize the anti-establishment vote as aggressively as possible.

Zeeshan Aleem

Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily. Previously, he worked at Vox, HuffPost and Politico, and he has also been published in, among other places, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The Intercept. You can sign up for his free politics newsletter here.

Opinion | Trump's upcoming Libertarian Party convention speech reveals desperation (2024)
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