I've long admired the Libertarian party from afar—the more afar, the better. For any liberty lover, it's hard not to like a party whose live-and-let-live, leave-us-alone ethos permeates their every utterance, even if you're not down for all the disquisitions on Austrian economics, privatizing highways, and the status of pro-hemp amendments in the omnibus appropriations bill.
For those like me, who vote Republican more often than not, telling friends you have strong libertarian leanings marks you as a free-thinker. But in elections in which Republicans offer up mediocrities, demagogues, or mouth-breathers (the hat trick now being pulled by the tangelo-colored reality-show star), proclaiming your small "l" libertarian bent gives you something even more valuable: plausible deniability.
So I headed to the Libertarian National Convention in Orlando over Memorial Day weekend with high hopes. I grabbed a cab at the airport, and when my Haitian driver Ron learned my mission, he asked, "Why do they bother with this?" I informed him that some say Libertarians could actually disrupt this already disruptive election year, pulling from both Democrats and Republicans. "That's what they say every four years," he scoffed. "And then it's the same, and poof, they go away, and nobody hears from them for four more years." I didn't argue with Ron, since this has indeed become a journalism cliché, on a par with reporters interviewing their cab drivers.
Polling suggests that unusually large swaths of America regard this year's major-party candidates as a choice between myocardial infarction and colorectal cancer, which explains why 270 restive journalists piled into the Rosen Centre Hotel. (It was roughly 10 times the usual Libertarian convention press contingent.) We were all wondering the same thing: In this year of discontent, is it the Libertarians' time to shine? The best a Libertarian candidate has ever fared in a presidential election since the party's inception in 1971 was the 1.2 million votes former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson pulled—only 1 percent of the total—after first washing out of the Republican primary in 2012. (Spoiler alert: Johnson would win the nomination this weekend, along with his vice-presidential running mate, former Massachusetts Republican governor Bill Weld. Republican governors were decimated in the Republican primaries, but they seem to have found a jobs program with the Libertarians.)
Meanwhile, MegaCon—an 80,000-strong gathering of comic book, sci-fi, gamer, and anime nerds, most of them in costume—was at the convention center right across the street. So the hotel's hallways brimmed with adult children in capes and codpieces, prosthetics and unfortunate leotards who, amazingly, didn't seem as eccentric as many of the Libertarians, with their knotty, macramé-hanger ponytails-for-men, their Asperger's social awkwardness, and their Ayn Rand postage-stamp earrings.
In the vendor hall, they buy books like The Haiku Economist: Economic Principles Economically Expressed (sample: Markets will progress / by creative destruction / as Schumpeter says). And two weeks before the jihadist massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, people were wearing T-shirts with inscriptions like "Nobody needs an AR-15? Nobody needs a whiny bitch either, yet here you are." Even after the attack, the Libertarian party, full of Second Amendment purists, would put out a press release calling for an end to "gun-free zones," since a heavily armed citizenry is a safer one. You can accuse professional Libertarians of being suspect dressers, bad poets, and all-around goofuses. But you can't accuse them of soft-pedaling their convictions or bowing to political correctness.
Over two-fifths of the country self-identify as independent, while roughly a fifth say they have a libertarian philosophy. This should be great news for the Libertarian party, which generally bills itself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. But it becomes easier to see why they can't shake their fate as the duopoly's runty, third-party little brother when you take a gander at the official list of 16 presidential candidates who met the bare-minimum threshold this year, such as having campaign websites and filing with the FEC. (An exception was made for crowd-favorite Darryl Perry, who is like the uncut cocaine of libertarianism; he had refused to file since the FEC "lacks constitutional authority.")
Prior to arrival, I had visited all the candidates' websites, or at least the ones that hadn't been shut down by domain hosts for nonpayment. They featured some doozies—like Perry himself, who wants to become president so he can abolish the U.S. government. (Beat that, Tea Partiers.) Or the guy who listed as his "key points" that he's an HVAC and boiler contractor and was born in 1972, so he is "able to relate to older and younger citizens." My personal favorite was Robert Milnes, who refused to go to the "Losertarian National Convention." The reasons were myriad: Anemic support from the grassroots. Powerful "character assassination." A convention "probably packed with . . . Gary Johnson lackeys/dupes." A friend who was "recovering from germ warfare." He "can't afford to go, really," since he has no one to watch his house and his cat. And this is going to come as a shocker: "no wife or girlfriend."
Unlike Milnes, I was undeterred by vicious infighting, self-deluded factionalism, and arguments over who is purest. We just call that the Republican party. Neither, however, did I wish to mark my time with the fringiest of the fringesters, such as the man who couldn't get a cat-sitter. Instead, I elected to experience the Libertarian convention through the prism of one of the party's three frontrunners, John McAfee, a name that will probably be instantly recognizable to every computer user in the world over the age of 35.
McAfee is a cybersecurity pioneer, having invented McAfee AntiVirus, the once-ubiquitous program. He is the "Real Most Interesting Man in the World," as self-described in a parody video, a play off the Dos Equis pitchman whom he somewhat resembles. He is a man who could fairly be thought of as the Libertarian Donald Trump.
Like Trump, McAfee is a successful entrepreneur. And McAfee's frosted boy-band tips, which make the tanned and trim 70-year-old seem perpetually youthful, are similarly of a color not seen in nature. Like Trump, he will say anything and eschews convention. At one Libertarian debate, McAfee was allotted a two-minute opening statement. The statement he gave, in its entirety, was: "I am unprepared for everything, always, so I'm not going to waste your time."
The serial womanizer Trump has had three marriages, the last being to a much-younger Slovenian supermodel. The serial womanizer McAfee has had three marriages, the last being to a much-younger African-American prostitute, whom he "rescued" from a life of sex slavery. While Trump once bragged that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody, and not lose any voters, McAfee actually has been suspected of shooting somebody, or at least arranging it.
After creating a Col. Kurtz-like jungle paradise in Belize, complete with armed guards and a creepily young seven-woman harem, McAfee was named by the Belizean government as a "person of interest" in the shooting of a neighbor in 2012, shortly after McAfee's dogs were poisoned by an unknown party. Before he could be questioned, purportedly fearing for his life after prior dustups with government officials he alleged were corrupt and trying to frame him, McAfee went on the lam, becoming for a time late that year the most famous celebrity fugitive since O. J. Simpson. He took reporters on a wild, monthlong ride via tweets and blog posts and leaks as he hid out in the jungle and safe houses, disguised, before ending up back in the United States, un-extradited. He then started up a tech incubator, became a minor media celebrity (cable news appearances, regular columns for the likes of Business Insider), and decided to run for president, all while adamantly maintaining his innocence.
Hanging with McAfee seemed like an ideal way to pass a Libertarian weekend. Especially when the alternative was attending breakout sessions with titles like "Anarchy vs. Minarchy," "Parliamentary Practicum," and "Bitcoin for the Future."
The second you meet McAfee, he takes you into his confidence, laughing easily in a hyena-like howl, throwing his arm around you, yet still speed-walking as though he's being chased, which occasionally he is (he's told reporters he's being pursued by everyone from the Belizean government to Mexican drug cartels). On the phone weeks earlier, McAfee guaranteed me that he was a lock for the nomination. Since there are no binding Libertarian primaries, every delegate at the convention was essentially a superdelegate, expected to vote their consciences and select the nominee. Retail politics mattered here as they do nowhere else. I asked McAfee how he planned to win, since he was running behind Gary Johnson and former male-model/Fox Business producer Austin Petersen. "I haven't got a clue!" he said, transparently. "Listen, I'm 70. I know one thing about life: Whatever happens, anything important, it will be unexpected and unanticipated. If it's not, it's not worth anything." McAfee often sounds like a cross between Lao-Tzu and The Dude from The Big Lebowski.
Johnson was the favorite, but the Radical Caucus, roughly half of all Libertarians, was restless and distrustful. In a congenitally antiestablishment party, Johnson, with his gulping sincerity and '50s-gym-teacher haircut, is considered an establishment candidate in a year when the traditionally stodgy Republicans have fallen for the biggest antiestablishmentarian of them all. This cycle, it seems, Libertarians have a touch of antiestablishment envy, despite their former and future nominee boasting to reporters that he smokes pot, vetoed more bills than all governors combined, and was the CEO of a company selling recreational/medical cannabis products.
McAfee, meanwhile, clearly boasted the most outlaw street-cred of the field and reminded me that much of politics is about surface appearances, which can be deceiving. "Twice in my life," McAfee said, "I have picked up the most beautiful woman in the world. Wined and dined her, taken her home. And then her dick pops out. All right? Now that's a shock for a man. So I know that appearances mean nothing. . . . Once you have that experience, you look at life totally different. If that's possible. . . . What else have I missed?"
Throughout the weekend, McAfee's colorful entourage was in tow. There was black-clad John Pool, his bodyguard of 15 years. Pool packs more heat than a National Guard armory and claims career experience working for "private Italian people." I'd read in a Men's Health story that Pool once pulled his own tooth with a wrench in front of a reporter. Actually, he said, he's pulled seven of them through the years, plus a leftover jaw fragment. He opened his mouth and showed me his jack-o'-lantern maw. I suggested maybe McAfee should put him on a dental plan. "Why?" he asked, genuinely befuddled. "A waste of money, isn't it? I can just pull it myself. . . . Pain is a state of mind."
There was McAfee's wife, 33-year-old Janice Dyson McAfee, who has steely campaign discipline, limiting McAfee to one tequila at the hotel bar before insisting he switch to beer whenever he has a speaking engagement. (Sometimes, he even listened to her.) Janice's tasteful political-wife attire and gentle smile belie her past. For 10 years, she was a prostitute, and her vicious pimp, Suavé, regularly batted her around. "He was an extremely bad man, he hit me a lot," said Janice, grateful, like a good Libertarian, to be surrounded by so many firearms. (In addition to Pool, she and McAfee usually carry as well.)
Janice met McAfee in a Miami cafe in 2012 shortly after he'd escaped from Belize, been arrested in Guatemala, and was deported to the United States (McAfee is not wanted by U.S. authorities). Having no idea who he was, she asked if she could bum a cigarette. McAfee smokes discount Pyramids like he's getting paid by the lung cookie, so he offered one. She offered him . . . well, the kind of thing grateful working girls offer. He took a pass and gave her $1,000 to cuddle instead. "He was so tired," says Janice. "You could visually see it, he was exhausted from running." Janice, too, eventually ran away from Suavé, taking up with McAfee.
Also ever-present was director Billy Corben and his Spike TV crew, who have been shooting since last August for a documentary miniseries on McAfee's life. McAfee refers to them as his "reality TV crew." He enjoys tweaking Billy, and journalists generally, going so far as to feign phone calls from the bathroom in which he discusses large cocaine shipments, knowing he's miked-up and that Billy will hear.
McAfee accompanied by his documentary-making entourage
Billy Corben is a former child actor who has directed documentaries like Cocaine Cowboys (about Miami drug wars of the '80s) and Dawg Fight (about backyard brawlers in a Miami-Dade County ghetto). A quick-witted fireplug who regularly sports Hialeah Gardens baseball jerseys, Billy wears his South Florida pedigree as both a merit badge and a hair shirt. He bypasses trendy South Beach bars for the "crusty characters" at dive bars, saying he will inevitably end up sitting next to a "deposed Third World leader, a drug smuggler, a guy who just came out of federal lockup on a Medicare fraud rap. . . . That's Florida. It's always been a sunny place for shady people."
Pointing out that more fugitives from America's Most Wanted are caught in Florida than anywhere else, Billy added, "It's the end of the line. The longer you run from anything, you have to wind up in Florida. John was the same way, only he wasn't running south, he was running north. And he still wound up in Florida." (McAfee and Janice have now settled in Lexington, Tennessee.) In fact, before he even knew McAfee, during the fugitive coverage back in 2012, Billy and his colleagues had an office pool, betting on how long it would take McAfee to end up in Miami. "Within like a week," said Billy, "John's on Lincoln Road [where Billy's production office is], with throngs of media following him. Is it any wonder that an election cycle later, he's back in Florida, but this time, instead of John McAfee, international fugitive, it's John McAfee, presidential candidate?"
It's been that kind of year. "And like Trump," said Billy, who has now logged more hours with McAfee than many members of his family, "he's a self-destructive guy whose self-destruction has been rewarded again and again. So why change?"
Just how self-destructive McAfee is has been explored plenty. Namely, by two journalists who spent time with him in Belize: Wired's Joshua Davis (the film rights to his story were optioned by Warner Bros.) and Jeff Wise, who has written about McAfee for everyone from Fast Company to Gizmodo to Psychology Today, the last of which had Wise, initially friendly to his subject, suggesting McAfee suffers from "profound psychological dysfunction." Cobbled from their work, along with my interviews with him, McAfee's past is quite a tale:
He was born in Wales to an American serviceman and a British nurse. The family settled in Roanoke, where his violently alcoholic father, who routinely roughed up McAfee and his mom, eventually shot himself when McAfee was 15. "I felt unfathomable relief," he told me one night over drinks. "It ended that man. It freed this one."
In college, McAfee himself started heavily sousing. He pursued a Ph.D. in mathematics at Northeast Louisiana State before getting bounced for sleeping with one of his undergrad students, whom he later married, then divorced. A job coding punchcards for UNIVAC in Tennessee ended when he was arrested for buying marijuana.
He had a blur of other stints: programmer for NASA's Institute for Space Studies, consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton, selling drugs and jewelry out of a van in Mexico. After developing a bottle-of-scotch-a-day and cocaine habit, he hit bottom, went to AA, and swears he's never taken drugs again. When I witnessed a delegate pass a joint his way on one of his frequent cigarette breaks by the hotel pool, McAfee didn't seem remotely interested. He'd sworn off drinking for a time, too, something he's made a great display of over the years to profilers. Yet he seemed to match me tequila (his) for bourbon (mine) whenever we hit the bar. When did he fall off the wagon? About two years ago, he says. "Why?" I asked him. "I was 68 years old," he says. Figuring his biblically allotted threescore-and-ten were just about up, he decided "I want a drink."
In the late '80s, while working at Lockheed Martin, McAfee encountered "the Pakistani Brain," one of the first computer viruses. He built a program to destroy it—Virus-Scan. And he further innovated in how he distributed it—giving it away on electronic bulletin boards while building a subscriber base for updates and technical support. This gave rise to his namesake company, which a bored McAfee cashed out of in the mid-'90s, perhaps a tad early (he made $100 million, though Intel later bought the company for $7.6 billion). That's when things really got weird. McAfee became a peripatetic thrill-seeker/jack-of-all-trades. He'd take jet-skiing trips across hundreds of miles of open ocean. He ran a yoga ashram in the Rockies, writing four yoga books along the way. "All yoga books are garbage," he now tells me. "I don't believe that spirituality can be taught from the outside. You've just gotta look in the mirror."
He started an aerotrekking business in the New Mexican desert, becoming a daredevil pilot himself, flying what are essentially open-cockpit motorized tricycles with wings, at perilous altitudes as low as 10 feet off the ground. It was all fun and games until McAfee's nephew steered himself and a client into the side of a canyon, getting McAfee hit with a $5 million wrongful death suit. (McAfee tells me he's been sued 240 times.)
McAfee shortly thereafter pulled up stakes and went full expat in scenic Belize. Depending on which version of events you believe, he went to Belize to dodge civil judgments or to live the good life, selling off a host of lavish properties around the world after the crash of 2008, consolidating his diminished wealth. He was hardly a snorkeling/sailfishing retiree in Belize. He started a water taxi service and a slew of other businesses. He hired an attractive Harvard scientist he met in a bar to make herbal antibiotics from jungle plants, even setting her up in a lab. (Some accounts have him looking to make female Viagra.)
He built a jungle compound and acquired a harem of local young women, to educate them, house them, give them hope, and engage in group sex. "It's stupid, okay? You don't want to do it," he laughs. "It was misery. Every excuse I could find to go to town at night—'I've got a business meeting'—I took. I never wanted to go home. They had different houses and every one of them had cooked dinner for me. . . . That's a problem."
He also attracted the attention of the local Gang Suppression Unit. McAfee says it's because he refused to pay a $2 million bribe to local authorities as the cost of doing business, despite having poured tons of cash into the community. Authorities have said it's because they suspected, between all of his dogs and his surly heavily armed guards, many with criminal histories, that he was running a drug operation out of his antibiotics lab. In April 2012 they raided his property, handcuffing McAfee and associates, leaving them out in the sun for 14 hours, and even shooting one of McAfee's dogs.
The authorities found no illegal drugs and later cut McAfee loose. If he was already frighteningly eccentric, this didn't help. But he became even more charitable, he says, donating scores of computers to the local government, which he claims to have loaded with keystroking spyware. While he didn't catch anyone plotting his demise, he says he learned of all sorts of other plots and will gladly spend half an hour accusing all manner of Belizean ministers of being into illegal rackets, from drug-running to selling passports to Hezbollah.
McAfee also attracted the attention of neighbors, who hated his perpetually barking pack of rescue dogs. Nearly six months after the raid by the Gang Suppression Unit, four of his dogs were poisoned and he had to put them down. One of his neighbors, Greg Faull, a 52-year-old American expat from Florida, who'd had angry words with McAfee over the dogs, had filed a complaint shortly before the dogs were poisoned. Not long after, Faull was found dead in his house, shot in the back of the head.
Police interviewed locals and wanted to question McAfee, whom they named a "person of interest." McAfee denies all wrongdoing. And while some locals have said Faull told them he was going to kill McAfee's dogs, McAfee claims he had no way of knowing that and probably spoke 10 words to Faull in five years. (Besides, he says, Faull loved dogs, and dog-lovers don't kill dogs. How he knew that after speaking only 10 words to Faull is anyone's guess.)
In any case, McAfee thinks the government poisoned his dogs. After all, they'd already raided his house (verifiably true) and tried to shake him down for millions (according to McAfee). And, he figures, they probably whacked Faull, too, confusing in the night the two Americans who lived several hundred yards from each other. McAfee said he wasn't about to go in for questioning, thinking he'd get framed for murder, tortured, or possibly worse.
That's when the chase was on, McAfee evading capture by living rough in the jungle, hiding in safe houses, disguising himself with cornstarch in his hair to look like an elderly beggar, and stowing himself under fish in a fishing boat. Along the way, while maintaining his innocence and even offering to talk to authorities in America, he decided to raise his profile with a delirious and taunting online campaign. He blogged, regularly called reporters, and even invited a Vice crew along as he made his escape into Guatemala. But when they posted a picture of themselves online with McAfee, without wiping the geolocation from their iPhone snap, the jig was up. Guatemalan authorities took him into custody, generously providing a computer and letting him blog from jail. Like a common Yelp critic, McAfee rated the Guatemalan jail much more accommodating than Belize's. "The coffee is also excellent," he wrote.
Before authorities there could decide what to do with him, McAfee faked a heart attack, and his lawyers got him sent back to the United States, where he is still considered a model citizen (not counting the DUI/gun-possession-while-under-the-influence charge he racked up last summer in Tennessee). The press, of course, ate all this with a spoon. The prime minister of Belize called McAfee "bonkers." A star was born.
Starchild, a delegate/sex-worker-advocate, addresses delegates.
Back in the early '90s, McAfee hyped the Michelangelo virus hither and yon as one which could destroy all the computers of the world—stoking McAfee AntiVirus sales though Michelangelo wreaked about as much havoc as Y2K (which is to say, not much). He's been singing his cybersecurity song ever since—even and especially from the stump—to great effect. As everyone from the DNC to Sony Pictures to starlets storing naked pictures on their iPhones have been hacked, McAfee is poised to clean up.
On the power of his reputation, such as it is, he was recently installed as CEO of MGT Capital, a penny-stock firm that specialized in fantasy sports and saw its stock price skyrocket by 700 percent upon announcing they were renaming the company "John McAfee Global Technologies." MGT has additionally snatched up security technologies hatched in McAfee's tech incubator, such as D-Vasive, which locks down microphones and cameras so that your smartphone can't spy on you.
Since Belize, McAfee has been hyperparanoid. He's claimed several attempts on his life, most of them unconvincing. (John Pool told me they found a bean-dip can in the yard while patrolling, presumably a sign of Mexican drug cartel assassins.) McAfee conceded to me that they probably don't want to kill him, "just to cut off a few fingers," to secure the damaging information he collected from his donated-computers caper. Because of this, he won't go out in public at night, and Pool says McAfee even attempted to booby-trap his yard with heavy fishing line and shark hooks strung between the trees, until Pool told him it wasn't legal. One assumes that if powerful shadowy forces wanted McAfee dead or fingerless, they could easily wait until Pool headed to the restroom mirror with his vicegrips to go pull another tooth.
But McAfee's chronic cyberparanoia is contagious. I say this while writing on a laptop with electrician's tape newly applied to my webcam. Even paranoids have enemies. Or, as his Spike TV Boswell, Billy Corben, put it: "That's John's life and career—lies that came true."
Back at the convention, I experienced the full "Losertarian" complement. There was Vermin Supreme, a perennial gadfly who often makes the scene at political events, readily identifiable since he wears a rubber boot on his head. Trying to secure enough delegate-tokens to earn a ballot spot, Vermin posted himself in the lobby with a bag of Sunbeam bread and a custom-made toaster, dispensing toast with imprints of his face to passers-by. There were the two delegates from the "Bearded Caucus" (delegates with beards), who Sherpa'd me around a bylaws meeting, which seemed to go on for several days. (One of them, who is also running for party chairman, would later cause a scandal by doing a striptease from the stage on C-SPAN, right down to his G-string.) For people who purportedly hate restrictive rules, the only thing Libertarians love more than bylaws is to argue about bylaws. It's enough to drive you to drink, which both of the Beardos were doing on the convention floor, downing beers cadged from McAfee's hospitality suite.
McAfee with convention regular Vermin Supreme
And then there was Charles Peralo, an inventor and crypto-currencies trader who looks like actor Jason Schwartzman. He introduced himself to me, saying he had a $50 bet with someone that he could walk down the steps on his hands. Would I mind holding his ankles? Never one to stifle the entrepreneurial, I assented. As I helped Peralo hand-walk down the stairs, I peeked around the landing to see who he'd wagered with. Nobody was there. "Don't you think the person you made the bet with should witness this?" I ask.
"Oh, good point," he said, as I let him collapse on his face.
"Are you running for anything?" I followed up.
"Yes," he said, "for chairman of the Libertarian party!"
At a McAfee party to wine and dine delegates, all the stops were pulled out. Organized by his vice-presidential pick, Judd Weiss, a Los Angeles real estate broker who takes artistic pictures at liberty events ("trying to make these nerds look cooler, one nerd at a time"), it featured a trendy electronica DJ, a light show, a stilt-jumper, jugglers, models on stilts with oversized gossamer butterfly-wings, even a guy in a Jesus costume. (Probably an interloper from MegaCon, since Jesus was a little too statist for this crowd, commanding his flock to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.) As I looked around the room of mostly male sadsacks, I ventured to Billy that the one thing I'm glad I'm not is a single Libertarian. "You mean a Libertarian," he said.
Even poor Gary Johnson, who is not given to great displays of humiliation seemed to have the Losertarian vibe rubbing off on him. As I followed him to the registration desk, asking how he'll combat Trump if he crosses the 15 percent polling threshold that allows him to compete in the presidential debates, he said he'd just be the "adult in the room." But the registration staffers had lost the packet of the once and future nominee of their party, presumably giving it to another delegate named Gary Johnson. Johnson knows the guy and said he's very nice. "No problem," he politely reassured them. I said a quiet prayer for Johnson that he peak at 14 percent, since one shudders to think what two ruthless knife-fighters like Trump and Hillary would do to him.
Always game to be entertained, McAfee seemed to enjoy the passing carnival, as well as the glad-handing and the well-wishes from the delegates who, even if they weren't voting for him, seemed to regard him as a genuine American badass. In a move he probably didn't appreciate unfolding in front of Billy's film crew, an elderly woman even reassured him that she "hates what they did to his dogs," and if someone did that to hers, "I'd kill them."
Before the official C-SPAN debate on Saturday there was an untelevised warm-up debate on Thursday. McAfee himself chose to warm up in the bar with campaign staffers, who tweeted an invite for delegates to join them. He told me beforehand that "I am doing something unprecedented in quote, politics. It might start tonight. . . . I'm going to tell people why this is f—ed up. I'm going to get run out of this room on a rail." By the time we reached the debate hall, though, he seemed to be nervous about whatever he had cooking, repeatedly hack-coughing, from uneasiness or Pyramid smoke residue or out of self-disgust that he didn't think to bring a tequila.
As he kept coughing, I handed him a watery Maker's Mark—the first and probably last time I'll ever feed whiskey to a presidential candidate, pre-debate. He gratefully downed it and, a short time later, took the stage. No major ground was won or lost in the back-and-forth. Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen sat on their leads, though Johnson had to endure a wind-tunnel of boos when calling his running mate, former-Republican Weld, who has run afoul of party dogma on everything from eminent domain to guns, "the original Libertarian."
As for McAfee, he pulled off a piece of performance art. Something so foreign to conventional politicians, or even unconventional ones like Trump, that you didn't quite know what to make of it: He told the truth about the office for which he was running: "I would like to make an announcement," he intoned. "I am a fraud. One hundred percent. I've been playing this game for five months, attending these presidential debates where we are asked by all of you what we will do our first day in office. Well, you know and I know I will not see a first day in office. Please, people, wake up!" McAfee allowed that other candidates might stand a better chance, but "I don't think that will happen either. . . . I feel like I've been on a five-month acid trip, because I don't believe any of us will become president and if we do, SO WHAT? One man, one woman, against a sea of corruption? What the hell do you expect us to do? Nothing. We will be swept away."
He thundered on: "Good God, people. Why do we keep asking the same questions? . . . What are presidential debates? They are speeches written by somebody else and pre-anticipated answers coached by dozens of people. What in the f— are we learning? Nothing! We don't watch them to learn about candidates. We watch to be entertained by the f—ing spectacle!"
He spoke of the need to forsake the booby prize of the presidency, which Libertarians can't win anyway, and to concentrate on winning lower offices in statehouses and town councils, the first line in the war for liberty. (Libertarians hold 145 elected offices nationwide, mostly inconsequential ones like on school and sanitation boards.) "We are not supporting the grassroots, the people in the lower offices," McAfee said, now on a roll. "Do you think we can do anything without first helping you? You have a chance. You can actually be in the House, you can be the mayor. Christawmighty, that's real. This," he said, referring to the "presidential" debate, "is a f—ing fraud!"
He ended with a rousing closer: "The truth? I want a beer. And I think most of you would like something similar." The crowd afterwards seemed to regard him as a cross between Jesse James and Daniel Webster.
Dorks in the lobby—but are they Libertarian delegates or costumed MegaCon losers?
I watched him work this vein the rest of the weekend. To a suite full of prospective Libertarian candidates. At his jug-wine-and-crackers-serving hospitality suite. On the outdoor pool-deck, where he beseeched a Johnson-supporting California delegate to open her eyes and quit pretending that the presidency is attainable. "I come to these conventions, I want to dream," protested the semi-stunned delegate. Fine, he told her, pleasant dreams. But if Libertarians get even 10 percent in this election, he said, will it "buy more freedom for me? Can you buy my privacy? Can you buy smaller government and get the IRS off my back? I wanna win! Let's freakin' win! And . . . start changing the grassroots of this party."
To that end, McAfee had an angle. He and his tech-savvy crew had started votedifferent.us, a vehicle to help liberty candidates with everything from analytics to campaign websites to ballot access. It is hard for me to envision McAfee being a Libertarian party-builder any longer than he was a yoga-cult-leader or an aerotrekker. After all, he didn't even know what the Libertarian party was roughly a year ago. (He launched his campaign as the charter member of the "Cyber party" until the Libertarians invited him over.) When I mentioned this, McAfee said he's libertarian in his gut and has been living free his entire life.
During the C-SPAN debate on Saturday, McAfee couldn't quite execute. Maybe it was the less free-wheeling format. Maybe it was the 30-second opening statements and 60-second closers that didn't give him "enough canvas" to paint his picture. Maybe his mind was elsewhere as, earlier that day, a process-server had showed up in the convention hall, handing him an amended complaint in a wrongful death civil suit being brought by the family of Greg Faull. (He told me he suspected a dirty trick arranged by Gary Johnson, as Janice cried and hugged him.)
Maybe, too, it was just a tough crowd. While Johnson advocated eliminating the income tax, corporate tax, and the IRS, they booed him for suggesting Congress would never do that without maybe replacing those with a consumption tax. They booed Austin Petersen for saying you should not be able to sell heroin to a 5-year-old. They booed Johnson for saying he'd have signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and again for supporting driver's licenses, since without them, blind people might drive and hurt someone.
The next day, the roll was called, with each state announcing its totals, prefaced with very Libertarian introductions: "Vermont, where the Second Amendment is your gun permit . . ." Without writing anything down, McAfee, with his math background and near-photographic memory, kept the tally in his head. Johnson needed just over 50 percent to clinch. McAfee predicted he wouldn't get it this round. And sure enough, he missed by a hair on the first ballot, with 49.5 percent. Petersen got 21 percent, and McAfee was third at 14 percent. "Now the fun begins," he gleefully exclaimed. "Now you get to see what politics is all about. Even though I have no experience in it, all of life is politics."
McAfee loves to play prestidigitator, the magician who won't reveal his tricks, making the world seem both more interesting and sinister than it often is. He famously once played Russian roulette in front of a Wired reporter, firing a gun at his head 20 times or so, presumably palming the bullets, before firing a live round into the sand. He wanted me to believe that through some shadowy, unspecified means of information-gathering, he knew Johnson had arranged the service in the wrongful-death suit so as to publicly embarrass him (though I seemed to be the only one there who knew it happened). The more prosaic explanation is that the lawsuit was being handled by a firm in Orlando, and it was widely known, with the Libertarian convention in town, that McAfee would be there for four days.
But if McAfee had a grand scheme to swing the delegates his way, I didn't see it. He scrambled around the hall, working delegates, putting his head together with Perry and Petersen. Their verdict seemed to be that everyone needed to hold their votes and gain a few more against Johnson. (Duh.) Trying to move things along, I suggested he go to where the Johnson delegates were, to try peeling some off. So we headed for Johnson's exhibit table in the convention hall. But by then the doughnuts Johnson's campaign had set out next to the untouched Bill Weld literature were gone, and so were the delegates.
So we did what any fugitive politician-reporter duo would when an election is in God's hands. We headed to the hotel bar. McAfee wanted a tequila but stuck with a Blue Moon, since he was in strategy mode. We figured it would be a couple of hours before the next round, so all the state chairs could write new introduction speeches ("From the great state of Illinois, where we send our governors to prison . . ."). But as we downed conch fritters and coconut shrimp, the second ballot results came in early. Gary Johnson won, with 55.8 percent. The establishment prevailed. There will be no Donald Trump of the Libertarian party. Just a pot-smoking former Republican governor.
"The ride is over, man," I said, deflated. But McAfee was serene, back in Lao-Tzu/The Dude mode: "No, it's not. You mean this present moment right here? That's the only ride there is, dude." He could now go back home, to his dogs and his business and dodging the Mexican drug cartel assassins eating bean dip in his backyard. A tech-incubator partner showed up at the bar. "We can get back to work, Tom!" said McAfee. "I apologize for my diversion. It was an amusement park ride I simply could not pass up." Even more important, now he could forget the beer and order a tequila.
We adjourned to a more private side table, where we got to talking about Belize and Greg Faull's murder. McAfee loves to test the mettle of reporters, question their manhood, accuse them of being manipulative and dishonest, and keep himself amused. I can play that game, too. I'd asked him straightaway numerous times if he had anything to do with the death of Faull, which he repeatedly and categorically denied. So I came at it from a different angle this time. I told him how much I love dogs (true), and how I'd kill somebody who killed a dog faster than I'd kill a dog. "I kind of love dogs, too," McAfee said. I then pushed my luck: "If you killed somebody because of that," I said, "that's a good reason to kill somebody." His eyes widened. "What? That's not a good reason to kill somebody," he said. "Are you insane? . . . What's wrong with you?" He then turned slightly menacing. "You don't want to set me up, because it will motivate me to set you up, and it will be very unpleasant, and not for me, I promise you."
I let it drop, and we talked about other things: fishing, sailing, life. But McAfee, who had made me feel like his deepest confidant for days, had grown uninterested, half-hearted, checking his phone. I asked what gives. He wasn't happy about my "puppy dog" ploy, he said. I protested that it was just two guys, journalist and subject, slugging it out over drinks, that he shouldn't be angry. "I'm not mad, just offended, big difference," he said. "But now, it does put us on a level where I feel privileged to f— with you at the same level. Do you understand me?" I suggested that's fine, I could handle it, since I have electrical tape over my webcam.
"That's not going to help you," he said. "What about your text messages?" I pulled an ancient flip-phone out of my pocket and asked how many text messages he thinks I send on that. "I'm not worried about that," he said. "You have something else with you. A real phone." Indeed, I did. I almost never carry a smartphone, but I'd brought a cheap Walmart number on this trip, in case I needed to know something online while stuck at the convention. It was turned off and stashed in my reporting bag, which was stored in the hall. How did he know this?
"I am John F—ing McAfee," he said. "Have you been tracing me?" I asked. "Would I tell you?" he said. "You just did tell me," I shot back. "I did not," he said cryptically. "You have a real phone with you, that's all I know."
My puppy dog ploy, he reiterated, "That was not a gentlemanly thing . . . that was the end of our relationship. That question. All right, thank you. This is goodbye." And he got up and left.
Two hours later, I got a call from McAfee. He was outside with Janice and Pool and Billy's crew, steel drum music playing in the background, and wanted to know where I was. I thought we broke up. No, he said. "I was just f—ing with you." He said he told his posse, after a few hours had passed, " 'Let's unfire this bastard.' . . . You have burning questions in your heart, my friend. And you want answers to them."
So I returned to McAfee HQ with his entourage—a townhouse in a gated complex about 30 minutes from the hotel, making it easier for Pool to clock potential killers/finger-decapitators. More gaming commenced. More warnings were offered, until McAfee's wife told us it was time to wind things up. Deep into our interview, I didn't pay her much mind, listening to McAfee talk. I'd better heed her, McAfee said, because Janice grew up rough, and has a real temper, and you have no idea "how close you came to having your teeth knocked out by a wine bottle." I apologized.
But McAfee went on. "I am not a violent man," he said, "but I promise you, the people around me, like Amy [a member of his Belize harem who was also a former prostitute], who tried to shoot me in the head, slash my throat, and poison me with rat poison four times—she is. . . . And if you think [Janice] is not violent, then you need to get a clue." I asked why he was attracted to violent people.
"Because they are in need of help," he said. He described the graphic physical abuse his wife went through before he met her. "I am trying to right some f—ing wrongs. And I see horrors. . . . And the horrors bring violence with them. . . . And so you say, 'you're hunting out violence?' . . . Look at the world as it is. The people in the press—you make me sick. You do. You want a story, but that story can only be told through the narrow confines of your perceptions of this world. . . . Who are you? How shallow can you possibly be?"
McAfee put his hands to his face and started sobbing. Now, he was not gaming me. By the time I got back to my hotel, an email from McAfee was awaiting: "I apologize for coming unglued this evening. It was impolite and unwarranted."
Though I'm not going to lie, I was sort of moved by his answer and took some of it to heart. Even if it was a long way around the barn for a simple question about why he dates/marries women who might possibly maim or kill him. But as I considered the rest of his admonition, about looking at the world as it is, I thought back to his spooky talk about my phone. How did he know about the spare phone, anyway? Immediately afterwards, I had gone to retrieve my bag in the convention hall, where it had been sitting all day by the Tennessee delegation. But it was no longer there. It had been moved to the McAfee campaign's table. I couldn't help but notice that a compartment I never leave unzipped was unzipped. The very same compartment that was holding my smartphone.
Before the convention banquet, I bumped into the reelected Libertarian party chairman, Nicholas Sarwark, in his black-tie evening-wear. Unlike many of the people trying to take his job, he is eloquent and urbane, an ideal spokesman for the party's freedom principles. Still, I couldn't help but ask why the Libertarian party seems to publicly undermine itself—booing heroin restrictions for 5-year-olds, doing C-SPAN stripteases. He looked at me, thoughtfully, and said the party is the only political home he has ever known. "We have people who think different, who act different, and that's part of the attraction of the Libertarian party. So these things happen." But, he pointed out, when a guy strips down to his G-string on the stage, he doesn't get elected, he gets ejected from the hall. "However, the old parties have somebody who gets onstage who is a buffoon, who makes a joke of himself and of the party, and they nominate him."
He was speaking, of course, of Donald Trump. The reputedly crazy Libertarians did eject their crazies, including the Donald Trump of the Libertarian party, John McAfee. But then I got to thinking of something McAfee told me in the car one night, when he was being his reflective, charming self (which he often is), an amalgam of the sacred and profane, instead of playing the menacing, emotionally unbalanced psychopath. We were sitting in the backseat. Janice was riding shotgun, yakking on the phone. John Pool was driving, perhaps fantasizing about Belizean hitmen he would foil or the next tooth he would pull.
I asked McAfee why he lunged from adventure to adventure, never staying very long, just seeming to go native for a short spell, wherever he lands. He went native in the Belizean jungle, he admitted, and he went native in the Libertarian party, too. It's kind of like Ecclesiastes, he said: "There's a time for every purpose under heaven." People want to "grab something that is beautiful, and hold it, and own it." But they can't. People love spring flowers, but later comes the autumn, when the flowers are dead. And then you have "the brilliance of these leaves blazoned by the sun, turning them brilliant golds and reds . . . the dappled hills painted by the brush of God. And drop that, because that will fall, too."
He admitted he's done a little of everything in his life, what some might consider too much. "I reach a point, get bored. . . . I've seen everything possible. You couldn't do anything stranger than the flying I've done. Canyon running. Flying to the top of a 12,000-foot mountain, finding the deepest canyon, and diving down into it." He assured me he is "as shallow as a 6-year-old child." But that's not necessarily a bad thing. "How else could you live? Otherwise, I cannot help but take myself seriously. Life is over then. If we can't laugh at ourselves, good God! Have you ever really seen children at play? Through their eyes, their actions, their smiles and incredible joy? . . . We've lost that. What do you think Jesus meant if He really said the words, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me . . . for of such is the kingdom of heaven'? And if heaven is right here, right now, and you've lost that ability, if you want heaven back, then play as a child in this mysterious, magic f—ing world."
The Libertarians cut their craziest candidate, all right. But maybe they also just cut the sanest candidate of all.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.