An Interview with Adam Kokesh
As Adam Kokesh describes on his campaign website, he is “running for Not-President of the United States” on the Libertarian ticket. Adam is a veteran of the marines, activist, and former leader of Veterans Against the Iraq War. The Politic spoke with him about his platform, his motivations, and the current state of Libertarianism in America.
Bellah: Tell me about your campaign–running to abolish the federal government–what has it been like vying for the libertarian nomination on this platform?
Kokesh: Well it’s been an amazing journey so far, getting to travel a lot and meet amazing people all over the country–hearing their ideas, their concerns, and talking to them about issues. Especially libertarians, both inside and outside the party, who are very passionate about what we do–they’ve been great to talk to.
I do have to point out from the start that while it’s true that I’m technically running for president–it’d be more accurate, in a sense, to say that I’m running to turn the presidential election into a referendum: whether or not the federal government should be allowed to exist at all. I kind of throw up in my mouth a little bit every time that I have to introduce myself as a presidential candidate, because honestly you really have to be some kind of psychopath to think that you’d be a good fit for president of the United States. To wield this unjust power over other people, that system really shouldn’t exist in the first place. And to have the intellectual arrogance to think that you can run and mandate authority over other people’s lives better than they can is shocking–even if you think something has to be done–doing that violently and coercively through a monopoly on power is atrocious. It has always been ridiculous to me that someone out there could think that they can make decisions on behalf of communities better than they can do for themselves.
Being able to get out and spread this idea, of dissolving the federal government through this mandated and organized process, has been really amazing. It shows people that we have an alternative here, having merged the idealism of libertarianism with the pragmatism of how do we actually start moving in that direction from our current political framework in a way that can get the majority of America on board. More often than not, we don’t have to argue with people on what government should or shouldn’t be, when we simply take the position that it shouldn’t be anything you don’t want it to be. We call it the “everybody-gets-to-say-what-they-want” strategy of running a campaign, if you’re a liberal living in a liberal state or a conservative living in a conservative state, we’ve endured the government forcing us into a one-size-fits all solution that doesn’t work for everyone–in most cases not really anyone.
There are corrupt forces in Washington, government profiteers, special interests, and if we as voters recognize them we can start to see ourselves as friends, rather than enemies, who have been cheated by this corrupt system. We can say “Look, we don’t have to fight over this. I can see your opinions and I can see how you feel about this or that, but I can also see your right to live that way–and I hope you enjoy living that way.” Hearing that resonate with people has just been amazing in this journey.
What made you want to start this journey?
It’s a bit of a story to really explain how this campaign came about, because it started all the way back in 2012–and what’s it been, seven years now? It was at a conference being held in Virginia, and I was there debating my friend in the party–an original info warrior, on the topic of freedom versus statism. And at some point, in our debate, he looks at me and goes “oh yeah, well what would you do if you were president?” And I remember thinking to myself–well what would I do–and I thought that if I was ever elected the president that the first thing I would do would be to quit, go home, and get a real job. I told him that I don’t want to be president, that I think it’s a fundamentally sick position, and you’d have to be sick to want it.
And he looked at me, and he goes “oh come on, what would you do if you just had to be the president?” And I thought about it and said “fine, if I were president, I’d just do away with three small things about the federal government–the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive–and then I’d quit and go home because I’d be out of a job.”
He really pressed me on it, and he was asking this question, I felt, as someone who really cared for and was advocating for a worldview based on ethics, based on nonviolence, that is the core of true libertarianism. I have some responsibility to think about how, if I was in that position, what would I do, and how would my ethics, morals, and values determine my choices when wielding such massive power. It kind of came to me, then, in that moment that the federal government is something that the president has authority over, and that at least on paper, despite the government’s expansion, that there’s a necessary respect for not only the rights of states within this union but for the people who constitute the union of the United States of America. And it’s understood that as the commander-in-chief and as the leader of this federal government that they have the authority to convey upon it the legitimacy derived from the consent of the people who elected them.
When the American people vote on who should be president, they’re really having the highest-level conversation possible about policy, and the ethics of that policy, that we’re really granted in the United States. We very rarely, essentially never get referenda at the national level on important issues–maybe outside of a few critical elections where one candidate represents this side of an issue and this other candidate represents sort of symbolically the other side of an issue–bit even then you’re investing in that choice between who you want to exercise power over you to make that decision on your behalf. So, if you wanted to do that and you wanted to have that fundamental change towards removing the power of the federal government, it would still have to be done with the consent of the American people as expressed through the presidential election. So getting to that point of asking the American people, and having them say “alright, we’re not putting up with the hypocrisy of the federal government anymore” and seeing them reclaim their right to their own sovereignty, is really critical.
Seeing people say that they want more state sovereignty and that they want more community leadership, localization, and freedom is really important. In the American Revolution, back in the 1770s, we had that same thought process–when the king said no, the people’s reaction wasn’t “aw man, go back to voting in the next cycle”–it was anger, and it was a collective decision to relinquish the power that they have vested into this social contact between them and their ruler. And the response was “well we’re going to shoot you if you stand up to the authority of the king.” But Americans, compelled by this decision of what ought to be, stood up and won that war. Today, it’s different obviously, we’ve come to the point where we can make decisions electorally, and know that at least, only on the big points, that the government can only subvert the will of the people so much. And we know that if we provide the opportunity to the American people to clearly say “we’re not going to put up with this crap anymore” then we’re going to go about getting what we demand.
You were in the Marine Corp, correct? You served in Iraq in 2004–did this experience help to formulate or influence any of your ideas of libertarianism, or this desire to divest power from that central authority of the state?
Well yes, I was in Fallujah in Iraq in 2004 actually–and absolutely I would say this time was influential. My first time identifying as a libertarian though was in high school, when a teacher in some exercise asked the class “alright, do you want to be a Republican or a Democrat?” And I was like wait, I don’t have a choice? Why do I have to be totally frickin lame–this is America! You know how it is when you’re a high schooler. But I really did think I was supposed to have a real choice here, and I felt some difficulty identifying with the positions of either party–so my teacher said “well alright there’s these people called the Libertarians and they just like to be left alone, and they’re the very very small third party that no one really pays mind to.” And I thought to myself how that was amazing–I love being left alone, sign me up! And I guess from then I as a libertarian in name only from that point on, I believed in the politicized version of libertarianism which is really just socially liberal, fiscally conservative. And now you’d understand how that really doesn’t define what true Libertarianism is at all–it’s when you take this beautiful ethical philosophy of egalitarian rights and liberties, and you try and understand it through these perverted lenses of left-right politics which is really of course different flavors of gross statism, parties jockeying for power by constantly changing their interests and positions to win the majority in this system. Left statism or right statism, it’s all forms of coercive control.
Then, I joined the Marine Corp at 17–under the late entry program. I went to boot camp at 18, trained, volunteered to go to Fallujah, Iraq in 2004–and at the time I can say, as a Libertarian in name only, that I was this arrogant, militarist, anarchist of sorts. This was in the sense that I was willing to kill, and even die, for politicians based on these beliefs that somehow the government should have a monopoly on violence and that the government should have a monopoly defense, safety, and dispute resolution services–which really are the most dangerous. There’s a strain of statism that say that government is terrible, monopolies are evil, and that we should have a free market, but also says that the government ought to at the very least have a monopoly on defense and safety–despite the fact that these are the most critical parts of the state’s control and coercive power. This violence and conflict, do you really want to give those to a monopoly? No surprise that we end up with the worldwide War on Terror, or with an imperialistic military, a surveillance state that watches you every move, a police state that’s killing innocent people in the streets, a War on Drugs that’s putting innocent people in jail and destroying communities–we have corruptions that you’d see in any form of nationalistic socialism that you see in the socialization of those services that are contingent upon violence.
That’s the current paradigm that we have today zero socialized defense, socialized safety–but also social security and all these retirement planning schemes that aren’t ever going to pay us off what we deserve, and all of these other functions of what ought to be society that have been socialized. You can talk about, then, in measure of degrees how much freedom you have–and see that this degree of freedom with every day is diminishing. And you can ask yourself how much of this do I really want, but then say do I really want the basis for this diminishing freedom which is violence and coercion and a monopoly on behalf of a state that is becoming increasingly corrupt and distanced from my interests. At that point you’re holding us back from our state of harmony, or our state of natural potential, and you’re threatening our lives as a state.
So back to your question, my time in Iraq was really important because when you see people die, in front of you, for your ideas, the ethical standard that you hold those ideas to increases dramatically–and you start to question those ideas. So when I got back from Iraq I became very involved in the anti-war movement, sort of exploring, but found that I was surrounded by lefties–people who put their lives on the line and came back and rejected those acts of violence. And I knew, genuinely, that they weren’t coming from a place of dishonesty–trying to debate and coming from a place of integrity, and trying to come up with the best policy answers that benefit everyone. I was just unsatisfied, though, with the differences in opinion there–like regardless if you’re this ideology or subscribe to this set of ideas, there should be an objective answer, one guided by universal principles that determine how we organize society, provide services, and that’s what led me ultimately to the non-aggression principle of government.
This is the philosophical bedrock–if you will–that if you dig deep enough that you’ll find in true libertarianism.
So what would America governed–or rather operating within–these philosophical principles of true Libertarianism look like? What would be the ideal? What would it look like if this referendum went through?
Well, first of all we’d have a freer country–a place where rights are respected, and our ideals are oriented towards the non-aggression principle, the freedom principle–and we realize that’s what freedom really means. The term Libertarian means someone who’s political beliefs are guided by freedom, but we really need to try and understand that freedom is when you have a government where no one is, and no one can, force their will upon you as a citizen entitled to basic liberties.
After we dissolve the federal government, we’re going to have 50 sovereign states, 562 sovereign native nations–or possibly more. This is a step in the right direction for localization–the process of taking governments apart from the top-down until communities and individuals have their sovereignty, and there’s more respect in the system for this sovereignty. We’re not going to use any violence to coerce you into any system.
In some ways, Libertarianism is presented as government this, government that, the government ought to do this or that. Like for example with guns, people popularly think that Libertarians are pro-gun, and in one sense we are, but if you really boil it down, we’re pro-gun because we’re pro private property. You have a right to own a piece of metal in any shape you want, even if that shape happens to be a gun. We can’t discern, on your own private property, what you can and can’t own–but on the flipside of that, I can say within my property that I don’t want guns in my land, and that if you’re going to bring a gun onto my property, that you’re violating my property rights.
So what that means for accountability on the national level is that we’ll have an accountability for governance that is immediate and absolute when you can say “Hey I don’t like this policy, I’m out of here!”
No longer will the majority use a corrupted democracy as its excuse to force its will onto the minority. I want people to say that they don’t want to be a part of this system anymore, and to be able to have this exit strategy to improve their relative bargaining power vis-à-vis an authority that may not have their best interests at heart, and more often than not doesn’t. They may want to form a new community, a new city, experiment with principles and guiding factors–and getting government out of the way of this–not having them be able to declare borders and say that they own anything and everything within these lines–you are now free to organize your own life and community based on your values.
So, as a member of the Jewish tribe–at least by majority ethnicity–I’ve seen a panic in my community about the resurgence of white nationalism in the United States. While this is a fringe phenomenon, and as a Jewish person I see this as viscerally concerning, as a Libertarian I still feel compelled to say that someone, if they identify as an ethno-statist, that they want to have this community based on their beliefs and principles. As long as you are on private property or unclaimed land, and you’re not holding anyone hostage to these principles, and you’re not using coercive violence, that you have a right to organize that ethno-state–and I want you to have that right, I respect that right as a libertarian even if I don’t necessarily agree with you in that ethno-statist principle.
And on the flip-side of that, if you’re some gun-grabbing socialist who wants to live in a nudist colony in the woods up in Vermont, sure! You can do that and I can’t stop you, as long as you’re not using coercive violence and holding anyone hostage to your ideals. Power to you, I can take my entertainment value from a distance, and feel good that you have that right. When you get government out of the way, and forced central government out of the way, what you have is the unhindered ability to create communities based on our values–and we can live in harmony with people outside of those communities because we aren’t compelled to live by outside values and aren’t forced into a one-size-fits all compromise that makes no one happy.
Do you think America has the potential to accomplish something like this?
I think a better question would be if America can sustain the federal government. Clearly, it’s been morally bankrupt, and disavowed form its original principles for a long time, but how long will it be before this becomes unsustainable to the point that people disavow themselves from its authority. I mean, this is America–we can do anything we want! That may be a bit idealistic, but I mean this in a very serious way too–if we want real freedom, we’re sure as hell willing to take it. That’s what we want, that’s what we deserve, and that’s what we’re going to get. With the current system, it’s unsustainable–it’s a system based on theft–and this system based on forced collectivism which is ultimately evil. This a country founded on secession–and we have the right to secede, whether it’s a king, or an oppressive system that may masquerade as being democratic. This is the foundation of Americanism.
So, can America be American? Of course it can–I think we got this.
How does this ideal stack up versus other Libertarians currently vying for the nomination? How do you see yourself within this competition for the nomination?
Well, when I first proposed running on this platform, the response of most Libertarians was the same as most middle of the road politicians. They said that’s too extreme, too serious, or would be too dramatic for the party. People like to watch infinite debates over whether or not we should have a license to drive a car, or wear a seatbelt–but there are bigger questions that this that we ought to, as true Libertarians, be advocating for. Libertarians think about this for a while and eventually come to the realization that we ought to be doing that, but it takes a push. It’s unconventional to have someone say that they’re running for president, and going to resign on day one. There’s a certain intellectual moment of shock that people go through when they hear this–but it’s refreshing to hear and to think about once it’s brought to the table.
It’s like Lord of the Rings–where the presidency is this corrupt ring of power, and you have to have the will to throw it into the fire and destroy it once and for all–for the good of everyone–and not be corrupted by its influence. You can’t even put the ring on for a minute, otherwise you’ll start to believe that you, as a president, deserve this power and have some mandate in this corrupt system of coercive violence. The response from most Libertarians is mostly the same, there’s this slight delay between thinking about what they would do if they had the power of the presidency and what they’d just feel like with that power. But, they ought to focus on how the American people are going to respond.
But as I’ve been traveling and as I’ve been able to do so many men on the street videos talking to people, we’re starting to see that most Americans, who aren’t ever going to be vested with the power of the presidency most likely, do support abolishing its unjust power. They’re the Sam Gamgees that are going to keep us true to our quest, and be uncorrupted and justly motivated to help us abolish this power. Libertarians are tempted to say that they’re going to put on the ring of power and wield it in a more just, fair way–and we have to be, as a party, willing to hold them accountable and say that we aren’t willing to let them be corrupted by the power. To be free and to have a president is a fundamental contradiction.
This campaign is giving you three options: Republican, Democrat, or None of the Above. Many Libertarians are excited, now, to see this come into the mainstream dialogue in 2020.
Amazing. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Localization is the cure for polarization. The reason liberals and conservatives have been forced to see each other as enemies is because of this system of dominance, the fight over a one-size-fits-all solution that’s never going to benefit any one of you, except for the corrupt forces in Washington. When we say that we want government localized, we say that we’re taking the power from the corrupt, and we’re giving back to you, the people. We don’t want a government united by government, but by freedom.