On Thursday March 30th, Austin Petersen, the runner-up to the Libertarian nomination for president, spoke to an audience of about 50 at a talk hosted by the Swarthmore Conservative Society. Petersen, to a limited positive reception from the audience, touched on many subjects during his talk, including his vision for the Libertarian Party, his unsuccessful campaign for president, foreign policy, religious rights, and climate change.
Petersen started his talk by describing what he termed a “caste system” in the U.S. and a distaste for people who came from humble beginnings like himself. He further thanked the audience for helping fulfill his American dream. Before his presidential campaign, Petersen worked at Fox News, which prepared him to launch his own publication entitled The Libertarian Republic, in the hopes of making libertarianism more mainstream. Petersen also spoke about his founding of the non-profit advocacy group the Stonegait Institute following his unsuccessful run to secure the Libertarian nomination in 2016.
“We’re basically ghost-busters for freedom,” he said in regard to the institute.
He also runs a libertarian super PAC called Loki Pac, which he described as being designed to create “electoral mischief” for the establishment.
“I think libertarians need to start more super PACs with more electoral mischief because Citizens United, as you know, was a gift to people like ourselves. People like the plebs. If we find one millionaire, or my dad, or a cousin who wants to fund your political activism and free speech, you should do so,” he added.
His Presidential Campaign and Ideology
The former libertarian candidate said that he was glad he lost the nomination to former Republican New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, not because he didn’t want to be the nominee, but because he secured a group of followers that he termed “freedom-ninjas.”
He believes that 2016 was a setback for libertarians, something Petersen claimed that the establishment of the Libertarian Party thought the election was an incredible win, as the libertarian party garnered 3% more of the votes than the previous election cycle. Overall, the Libertarian Party secured almost 4% of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Petersen wanted to dispel the notion that being libertarian meant being fiscally conservative and socially liberal, as nominee Gary Johnson described it. Instead, Petersen defined being libertarian as being fiscally conservative and socially whatever, as long as one doesn’t force their beliefs onto another person.
“Everyone is a libertarian about something. Somewhere inside everyone is this opportunity to for us to advance our cause by being better listeners and finding the libertarian in everyone by shutting up. Because, we’re kind of autistic,” he said.
Petersen was referencing a 2011 article in Reason Magazine that cited a study showing a correlation between libertarians and those with autism.
“We tend to be a bit manic, you know. There’s a little something wrong with us. Politics is a social activity. If you want to win the game, you gotta play the game. If you wanna play the game, you gonna need to build relationships,” he continued.
The Trump Administration and Healthcare
While mentioning the pulling of Trump’s new healthcare plan by Republicans after a sufficient amount of votes, Peterson asserted that it’s often the minority with the radical views who manage to make wide-scale change, referencing the “radical republicans” who helped pass the 13th amendment.
“Now again, we have history repeating itself. I’m not saying Obamacare is slavery, but I think that it is tyrannical. Redistribution of wealth, for no matter what noble purpose you have, I believe that it is absolutely tyrannical. And I think it is, just from an economic standpoint, completely inefficient,” said Petersen.
Petersen said he was heartened by the disapproving comments on President Trump’s Facebook page following Trump’s comments to the Freedom Caucus. The President tweeted that the Freedom Caucus would hurt the Republican agenda if they did not support his healthcare bill, further imploring his supporters to fight them and the Democrats in the 2018 election. Petersen was more in favor of GOP Senator Rand Paul’s health care bill, which was more in line with Petersen’s libertarian views. The bill involved removing some of the central aspects of the Affordable Care Act like the insurance mandate, instead opting for a tax credit and health insurance savings account, among other features.
Fear Mongering on the Right and Left
Petersen devoted a large part of his talk to as government figures fear-mongering to gain support. He first started by pointing out how Republicans both support the 2nd amendment and also fear foreign terror threats.
“Are we badass second ammendment toting individualists or are we a bunch of scared-of-muslim-sleeping under our beds-terrified-plebs? You can’t have it both ways. You’re getting it both ways, but I’m gonna call you out on it,” he said.
Petersen continued by proclaiming his support for the second amendment.
“The reason why the United States doesn’t have all the problems that Europe has, is that we have guns! It’s true!” He referenced a case of three teenagers being killed in a home invasion after a kid had killed them with an assault rifle in Oklahoma. “That’s what you do, America. You don’t worry about Muslim threats, because you know that America is safe, not because of our foreign policy. I think our foreign policy is actually making us less safe to be quite honest. America is safe because we have guns,” he explained.
The libertarian continued to criticize the government for creating agencies like the TSA and DHS after 9/11, saying that it contributed trillions of dollars to the government deficit without making the country any more safe. He also described how he thought the left fear-mongers, especially in regard to climate change.
“But talking about fear mongering, it’s not just Republicans, Democrats do it too. Climate change! It’s gonna get you! Two degrees warmer! The funny thing is, without getting into the science too much, you know, ice ages, millions of years of climate change happening in the United States. But, all of a sudden, carbon dioxide, that is essential for life on this planet. All plants take carbon dioxide. It’s now the biggest thing we have to fear. Cow farts, essentially,” he said.
Religious Liberty Diversity
On the topic of religious liberty, Petersen said that he supports the majority of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but disagrees with the parts that limit private businesses. Petersen compared the sit-ins of the 1960s to religious freedom laws being passed in several states that allow businesses to turn people away due to religious beliefs. He asserted that liberals cannot reconcile Title 2 of the Civil Rights Act with the religious freedom laws being passed today. He asserted that most people think that the role of government is to reform and make people better, whereas libertarians want to get rid of bad parts of the system. Petersen believes that while a business should provide service to everyone, it’s not the government’s job to force businesses to do so.
During the Q & A, Petersen also remarked on his views about diversity and whether he thought the low amount of minorities in the Libertarian Party was an issue going forward.
“Here’s the problem: I’ve made big mistakes in my life by using identity politics to perform a task … diversity itself is inherently good when you’re talking about things like genetics it’s absolutely scientifically proven that diversity is a good thing. …” he said. “But when it comes to diversity in the workplace, for example, hiring someone because they are a woman or because they are a Muslim or because they are black is a disastrous horrible bad idea.”
Petersen touched on other issues in the Q&A like the TPP, climate change, and gun violence.
President of the Swarthmore Conservative Society Gilbert Guerra ’19 explained why the group invited Petersen to come speak and what he thought about the talk as a whole.
Guerra said that because Swarthmore Conservative Society represents all sorts of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates, he said he was looking for a speaker who could appeal to those three groups as much as possible.
“It was really him or Rand Paul, and Rand Paul was allegedly busy, so we settled on Austin Peterson. We just contacted him through his manager,” added Guerra.
Guerra further explained his opinion of the talk and why he thought Petersen said his controversial statements.
“I thought the talk was interesting. I feel as if he gave a very different impression during the student dinner than he did during the talk,” he said. Guerra also mentioned that the students during the dinner wanted Peterson to talk about the future of the republican and libertarian parties, though Petersen only touched on that subject for a brief amount of time.
“I think he was trying to really interpret his audience, and I think he might have misread it. There was a group of students who were from local colleges that are not Swarthmore who sat in the front right in front of him. So I think he was under the impression that everyone in the audience was either a conservative or a libertarian dude-bro,” continued Guerra.
Regarding Petersen’s autism comment, Guerra said that Petersen was referencing the study about libertarians under the assumption that most people were already familiar with it. Guerra stressed that he was not going to defend Petersen’s comment and thought that Petersen phrased what he said horrifically.
As for student opinions on the talk, reactions were mixed. Guerra went on to characterize other Swarthmore Conservative Society members’ thoughts on the talk.
“It was really polarized. The more moderate to conservative members, perhaps, had lots of problems with it. The people [who] were more concerned with tone, I would say, were kind of disappointed in it or looking for something more out of it,” he said. “He said lots of things that really pushed everyone’s buttons a little bit, no matter what your political perspectives are. He said things that really pushed boundaries, which was what he wanted to a certain degree. And I would say that most of the libertarian members were fine with it, or either thought that it was very entertaining or at least informative.”
Laura Wilcox ’20, a member of the audience unaffiliated with Swarthmore Conservative Society shared her views on the talk.
“I went because I think that we can do more to make sure that conservative/libertarian views are heard on this campus, but his talk crossed the line from engaging with beliefs that are different from my own to just being offensive and wrong. It’s troubling that someone who was almost a presidential candidate, albeit for a third party, denied the empirically verified fact that global warming exists,” she said. Wilcox further expressed her surprise in hearing Petersen’s libertarian ideology.
“Additionally, I was surprised by how firmly he seemed to believe that government has no social purpose. He referred to redistribution of wealth as ‘tyrannical’ which I find incompatible with the purpose of government to create a more just and equitable society. I wanted to ask him where his motivation to run for office came from if he clearly didn’t believe in government, but I didn’t get a chance,” she said.
According to Guerra, the talk’s scheduling overlap with the other concurrent talk entitled “Why Protests Fail” was a bad coincidence, and he stressed that the Swarthmore Conservative Society did not intend for the overlap to occur.