ORLANDO, Fla. -- As Libertarian Party officials converged on the Rosen Centre Hotel this past weekend to nominate former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as their presidential standard-bearers, an equally curious spectacle was transpiring next door.
Hundreds of individuals were wandering about the nearby convention center dressed as sci-fi characters such as Kylo Ren from "Star Wars," sweating the 85-degree weather in Gandalf costumes and answering the age-old question of what it would look like if Lara Croft ordered a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's. They had come to Orlando for Megacon, one of the year's biggest comic book, fantasy and sci-fi conventions.
But for all the escapism displayed by those avid cosplayers, it was unclear who had a better grasp of reality: the Megacon attendees or the Libertarians.
The Libertarian Party -- or the "LP" as it's known among activists -- has never had a better chance of advancing its anti-government, socially liberal agenda, as dissatisfaction with the two major parties' presidential picks hits an all-time high. But you wouldn't have known that at the Libertarians' convention. No serious attempt was made to mask, much less downplay, the party's more extreme elements this weekend.
Indeed, even as the Democratic and Republican parties gear up for the general election, the Libertarians are still debating whether they want to be a national political party or simply an ideological movement.
Consider the convention's presidential debate, in which Johnson's chief rival for the nomination, activist Austin Petersen, was jeered for supporting legal restrictions on the sale of heroin to children. Or consider the delegate who urged the convention not to pledge allegiance to the flag because "libertarians pledge allegiance to principles, not flags." Or consider the vote cast by a delegate for Vermin Supreme, a performance artist known for his rubber boot hat and his prankish appearances at political gatherings.
"The LP has always been split along [purism] and pragmatism," said Robert Clarke, a volunteer with the Youth Caucus of the Libertarian Party. Clarke, who supported the Johnson/Weld ticket from the outset, thinks the party needs to stomach a little heresy.
"In life, you need to compromise with people," he said.
“Crystal meth should be as legal as tomatoes.”
Most party conventions are filled with head-scratching pageantry and aimed at firing up the base. So maybe that excuses some of the weekend's eccentricities: conservative thinker Ayn Rand's name being invoked with the same regularity that Republicans namecheck Ronald Reagan, the young attendee who jokingly labeled his companion a "stateist" for stealing his lunch, and a long-shot presidential candidate who cheekily reiterated his support for legalizing drugs by saying that "crystal meth should be as legal as tomatoes."
But in the end, the party's moderating influences couldn't temper its more ideological members. As Johnson and Weld conducted TV interviews from the convention's main hall, assuring news networks that they would provide an attractive alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, the delegates in the same room were debating whether to enfranchise children of all ages and whether U.S. military intervention was acceptable in any circumstance whatsoever. Ultimately, Johnson and Weld won their nominations with barely 50 percent support from the delegates.
Thus far, power players within the larger conservative movement seem mostly unconvinced by the Libertarians. Although the party's chairman, Nicholas Sarwark, has said the group was engaged in back-channel talks with the Koch brothers, representatives for the business magnates and other conservative megadonors have said they have no interest in backing a third party.
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and creator of the tax pledge, framed the Libertarian Party as more of a venue for ideological activism than an agent of direct political action. It's the "North Star" of the "liberty movement," he told The Huffington Post.
“We don't give in just to get votes.”
Had the Libertarians had more time to prepare for the rise of Donald Trump and the frantic search by "Never Trump" adherents for alternatives, it's possible that things might have been different. Instead, the party will likely end up political rubbernecking this summer and fall, slowing down to gawk at the destructive clash between Republicans and Democrats, but making no real attempt to remedy the situation.
"We are going to have a hard time with a Johnson/Weld ticket," said Daniel Craig, a national chairman of the party's Radical Caucus, which terms itself the "Libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party." Craig said that while his members would vote for the ticket, they would likely spend their time and energy working on down-ballot races.
"We don't give in just to get votes," he added.
"We welcome former Republicans," one party member angrily noted during convention proceedings -- a pointed reference to Weld, who in 2012 served as a state co-chair of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. "We do not welcome Republicans."
John McAfee, the antivirus software executive who was also running for the party's presidential nomination, summed up the mix of realism and extremism that defined much of the convention.
"Let's be honest with ourselves -- there's not a Libertarian [here], myself included, that's going to be elected president," McAfee told HuffPost. "Cool! That's perfect!"
Asked what the party will do to raise its stature over the next two, three or even four presidential elections, McAfee's response was, to put it mildly, skeptical of any such effort.
"Do you believe that America will survive 16 years out?"