Gary Johnson Looks Perfectly at Ease With a VR Headset on His Face
For a guy soon to face his day of reckoning, Gary Johnson sure seemed mellow.
The Libertarian presidential candidate was touring a co-working space in the same San Francisco building that houses Twitter. Clad in his signature suit and sneakers, he donned a virtual reality headset for a quick demo. It wasn’t his first time doing VR, but he was still game—for a politician, it’s the Silicon Valley version of kissing a baby. Afterward, he took a seat in a glass-walled conference room near desks once occupied by a drone startup to shoot a Facebook Live interview hosted by Data4America, a civic tech nonprofit building online “life maps” of the presidential candidates. Johnson laid out his own life story, from his birth in North Dakota to his two terms as New Mexico’s Republican governor to the paragliding accident in Hawaii that made him a true believer in the benefits of medical marijuana. And like any good candidate, Johnson used his biography to frame his politics.
He’s a successful entrepreneur who’s against big government (opposes higher taxes, supports school vouchers). He’s an outdoorsy individualist who thinks the law and law enforcement sometimes go too far (opposes the War on Drugs, supports Black Lives Matter). Above all, he’s a free-enterpriser who believes unfettered capitalism drives progress toward a better future.
“Has life ever been better in this country? Life has never been better in this country!” Johnson said.
Within the creaky confines of American political discourse, Johnson’s mix of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism still tags him as a non-conformist. But by the lights of Silicon Valley’s techno-idealism, Johnson is as mainstream as the Internet itself. With the first presidential debate less than three weeks away, Johnson’s still far off the 15 percent polling threshold he needs to gain a spot on stage. (Today’s latest CNN poll had him at 7 percent.) But in this city and this room, at least, he seemed like the mainstream candidate culturally aligned with the industry engineering the country’s future, compared with Trump, whose backward-looking pessimism puts him on Silicon Valley’s far fringes.
The same day Johnson was in San Francisco, Trump was preparing to launch into the tirade meant to pass as the measured articulation of his immigration policy. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Where Trump is the avatar of a dark, basement-dwelling diviseness, Johnson is a breezy, tanned triathlete who seems to permanently inhabit a sun-drenched ski lodge deck of the mind.
“I came to this epiphany that maybe there was more to life than riding a chairlift,” Johnson said of the realization he had as a ski bum in his early 20s that drove him toward his greater ambitions.
Sure, Johnson’s chillaxed dad vibe is part of a cultivated persona. He’s also a politically savvy workaholic who landed a contract in the mid-80s to build Intel’s chip factory in New Mexico just as the personal computer market was taking off. He rode his business success to two terms as New Mexico’s governor. Combine his Ayn Randian belief in business with the wind-in-your-hair lifestyle signifiers and Johnson presents a very familiar West Coast type. In San Francisco, he looked and sounded like someone you might run into in your next UberPool, or see climbing out of his Tesla Model X on Sand Hill Road, Silicon Valley’s answer to Wall Street.
“San Francisco values” was once a popular right wing epithet meant to ding the city as a liberal caricature. But today San Francisco is the blazing conduit for the techno-capitalism infiltrating and altering every corner of the US economy. In a way that it has multiple times in the past, San Francisco has taken a once-countercultural idea—the democratizing potential of personal technology—polished it, and ported it to the mainstream. Today, Silicon Valley culture is mainstream culture.
Yet it’s still Trump—the 1980s casino developer who lives in a gilded tower, loves to punch down, and thinks ethnicity should disqualify people from doing certain jobs—who has a secure spot on the debate stage. Johnson believes social media can give him a push, and his campaign has started running traditional ads to put his face in front of a wider public. But ultimately he’s stuck in the third party candidate’s Catch 22: he needs wider recognition to get into the debates, but he needs to get into the debates to get wider recognition.
If only he can make that happen, Johnson believes the country as a whole will see just how aligned he is with the political mainstream: “I think that what we are saying is representative of 60 percent of America,” Johnson says. But for now he remains in the shadow cast by an old-timey huckster, a candidate who has used his long-honed skills as a creator of spectacle to monopolize the attention economy. Johnson may have more in common with Silicon Valley than Trump does. But it’s Trump’s skill at working the flawed systems of the present—including Silicon Valley’s own tools, especially Twitter itself—that has enabled him to command the spotlight.