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The Liberty Swindle

The choice between Donald Trump and Gary Johnson is a choice between austerity with an angry face and austerity with a vacant one.

Gary Johnson speaking at the 2015 CPAC. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Just two days after presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced off in their first debate, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson published an op-ed in the New York Times. The headline: “Take a Deep Breath, Voters. There Is a Third Way.”

Johnson, a former New Mexico governor and construction mogul, built a public persona this year by splitting the difference between Trump’s blowhard conservatism and Clinton’s technocratic liberalism. In recent months, he has consistently polled at about 8 percent nationwide. Four state legislators have defected from the Republicans to join the Libertarian Party and endorse his candidacy. Amid this year’s electoral circus, Johnson fancies himself the only grown-up in the room.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that after an evening of back-and-forth between the two major candidates — during which Trump boasted about evading federal income taxes and Clinton hid her own dismal economic policies behind the sound-bite “Trump’ed-up trickle-down” — Johnson couldn’t wait to sop up the mess.

“The America I know wasn’t on the television screen on Monday night,” he lamented in his op-ed. According to Johnson, neither Trump nor Clinton can deliver what America needs: a president who can “make government live within its means.” Only the Libertarian Party, he claims, “can break the partisan gridlock which for too long has kept real solutions out of reach.”

Why? Because “our ticket is the only one to support free trade.” This is the sharp line Johnson wants to draw between himself and the belligerent Republican he’s challenging. By invoking free trade, Johnson is angling for conservatives who feel alienated by Trump’s populist message.

But he’s trying to outflank the Republicans on the left at the same time, hammering home his socially liberal credentials by, for example, calling for marijuana legalization. It seems Johnson thinks he can rehabilitate the Libertarian Party by playing a game of political Twister, contorting himself in a clumsy effort to tack simultaneously left and right.

One thing remains clear: he wants voters to believe that he offers a real alternative to Donald Trump. But the two candidates have more in common than either would like to admit. They’re both singing the same song, just in slightly different registers. Trump directs his message to the disinvested Rust Belt, winning support by emphasizing America’s failure to deliver prosperity to ordinary workers. Johnson avoids discussing economic ills, instead wooing those happy conservatives who, like him, refuse to recognize the massive decline in living standards and working conditions for most Americans, instead burying their heads in the sand shifting from beneath the American Dream. Still, despite their rhetorical differences, both advocate austerity.

Here’s what Johnson promises for the first days of a Libertarian presidency: “Cuts of up to 20 percent or more … for all programs,” plus “changes to Social Security and Medicare.” It sounds familiar — Trump has also vowed to make deep cuts to social spending, including cutting the Department of Education.

While Trump’s opposition to NAFTA and other free trade agreements does set him apart from his opponent — not to mention from the business conservatives Johnson hopes to lift onto the Libertarian ark — both candidates’ advance a vision of strong business, weak government, and unprotected workers.

Johnson’s political career in New Mexico shored up his conservative bona fides along precisely those lines. As governor, he helped wealthy investors like himself line their pockets, while further immiserating the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

Johnson funded tax cuts for the rich by handing state-run prisons over to private companies. When Johnson took office, New Mexico’s prison system was so notoriously mismanaged and overcrowded that the courts imposed federal supervision through a consent decree. A different politician might have worked to solve this problem by reducing the prison population, but Johnson vetoed a bill that would have authorized early releases due to overcrowding. Then he opted to further harm inmates’ well-being by shuttling them into private facilities, which cut costs by about a third and rid himself of pesky federal oversight.

Now that he’s running for president, Johnson claims that mandatory minimum sentencing and draconian law enforcement policies infringe American freedom — thus, they’re anathema to the libertarian credo. But as governor he was no enemy of mass incarceration. Johnson actually realized many of the law-and-order measures Trump called for during the debate: he championed a three-strikes sentencing rule and let his fetish for small government lapse long enough to advocate extending capital punishment to minors.

Johnson and Trump also agree on labor. Despite Johnson’s persona as a stalwart free-market defender in the face of Trump’s protectionist assault, the two entrepreneurs built their fortunes on the same repertoire of abusive and dishonest labor practices. To make matters worse, both have expressed extreme skepticism about — or, in Johnson’s case, outright opposition to — the minimum wage.

The choice between Trump and Johnson is a choice between austerity with an angry face and austerity with a vacant one. The Libertarian Party may be a third party, but it’s nothing like the third party we need.