Libertarian convention devolves into fighting, obscenities on eve of Trump’s visit

Donald Trump won’t be speaking to his usual self-selected crowd of adoring red-hatted MAGA fans when he addresses the Libertarian National Convention on Saturday.

As delegates gathered at the Washington Hilton on the eve of his speech, the party’s decision to host the former president, which had split the organization, erupted Friday into open revolt. Fuming delegates at the convention said they plan to protest Trump’s speech, and one group sought unsuccessfully to remove the former president along with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., from the agenda — a move that resulted in thrown punches and obscenities between supporters and opponents of the move.

"I would like to propose that we go tell Donald Trump to go fuck himself!" Kaelan Dreyer, a Libertarian from New Mexico, yelled into a microphone, winning cheers from the crowd. After shouting vulgarities at the convention’s chair and fending off punches, he was led out of the convention hall.

The raucous opening to the convention reflects the pockets of hostility that Trump faces as he appeals to the Libertarians to help him box out a growing, third-party threat from Kennedy’s independent presidential campaign.

“The vast majority of Libertarian Party members are not happy with this invitation,” said Bill Redpath, a 40-year veteran of the Libertarian Party and a former national party chair who’s helped organize their presidential ballot access for decades. “There are some people who call Trump the most Libertarian president of our lifetimes. That’s utterly ridiculous.”

Suburban Philadelphia options trader Jeff Yass, a libertarian and one of the GOP’s biggest donors, who was not in attendance at the convention, said it was “unclear” whether Trump could make inroads with libertarian voters. Yass, who bankrolled an effort to stop Trump from winning the Republican nomination and financed several of his primary opponents, has said he doesn’t plan to contribute to Trump, but will vote for him.

“He has some libertarian instincts for sure. Anti-war is big,” said Yass, who has also praised Trump for his support for education reform policies, which the two have spoken about. “But anti-immigrant, anti-free trade are not good.”

Trump advisers say they plan to use his Saturday speech to highlight the overlap in Trump’s policies with those embraced by right-leaning libertarians. Richard Grenell, a former Trump cabinet official who is widely expected to play a role in a potential second Trump administration, has been reaching out to Libertarian Party leaders and activists, as has Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a libertarian-leaning Republican. Trump allies say the goal isn’t necessarily to dominate among libertarian voters, but rather minimize defections to a third-party candidate. During the 2020 campaign, Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen drew more votes in some key states than the margin separating Trump and now-President Joe Biden.

Yet Trump is encountering resistance, not only from rank-and-file Libertarian Party members, but from leading figures within the movement — including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the son of former Texas congressman and ex-presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Last month, Rand Paul appeared on Kennedy’s podcast, and in February, Kennedy announced that he supported Paul to be the next Senate GOP leader when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell retires after this legislative session. Doug Stafford, the senator’s longtime political lieutenant, had until recently been informally advising Kennedy.

Speaking in a ballroom at the convention on Friday afternoon, as Libertarian Party delegates argued points of order downstairs, Kennedy said, “Neither President Trump nor President Biden have held the Constitution seriously when it really mattered” and attacked Trump over a series of civil liberties concerns during his time in office — such as government lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crowd will likely be much larger when Trump speaks Saturday night. But he will have work to do to win people over.

“Any libertarian worth their stripes who has looked at Donald Trump’s record, will see that he barely aligns with the conservative camp and is a far cry from the Libertarian Party,” said Steven Nekhaila, a director at large for the Libertarian National Committee.

Or as Nathan Madden, a delegate from Arizona, put it, “He could get booed off stage.”

Madden, who said he will turn his back to Trump during the speech, added, “I think the Secret Service will tell him not to come.”

While many convention-goers lamented that Trump’s presence would distract from the party’s own presidential candidates, his appearance has generated increased media attention, registrations and ticket sales. In the hours after announcing Trump’s speaking slot, the party began selling Trump-themed merchandise dubbed “The Don Collection.” The webpage, however, was taken down after internal party complaints.

Despite the criticisms, some attendees argued that platforming Trump at the convention offered substantial upside.

“President Trump, or at least his team, perceive themselves as needing our votes,” said Libertarian Party National Chair Angela McArdle, who is expected to introduce Trump. “They’re willing to come and speak to us, to listen to us. That’s really unprecedented. Why wouldn’t we take that opportunity?”

The infighting over the speaking invites to Trump and Kennedy reflect a civil war within the Libertarian Party. Since 2022, the hard-line Mises Caucus has controlled party leadership, forcing out many of the more pragmatically minded Libertarians that had supported the presidential ticket of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Mass. Gov. Bill Weld in 2016, both of whom received record high levels of support for the party nationally. That’s led to accusations from critics that members are being pushed away by the populist rhetoric of the upstart caucus.

Kennedy, who is also hunting for Libertarian votes, has long flirted with the party, talking with the party chair about paths to pursuing the party’s nomination last July, while simultaneously pursuing the Democratic Party nomination and then his independent candidacy. He attended the California state convention in February.

Kennedy is viewed favorably by some libertarians for his opposition to Covid-19 mandates and U.S. support for the war in Ukraine. His campaign staff used the opportunity to roam the convention hall and solicit signatures for ballot access petitions on Friday afternoon. But many convention-goers said they did not view Kennedy, an outspoken environmentalist, as a solid libertarian.

One convention-goer who was excited to hear Kennedy was Roy Martin, a Wisconsin voter wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt who had voted in 2020 for Jorgenson, in 2016 for Trump and previously for former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. He said the lack of a viable candidate from the party was compelling him to seek out someone who shares his views on medical freedom. After the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, he was done with Trump.

“I’m looking for that right politician rising at the right time,” he said. “And I’ll know it when I see it.”