by Zachary Schwartz
Photos by Simon Zachary Chetrit
I was waiting in the lobby of The Manhattan at Times Square Hotel when I got a phone call from John McAfee. “Zach, I’ve decided that we’re no longer going to the Libertarian Party debate,” McAfee said in his low, Southern cadence. “It’s far too boring. Instead, we’ll be going to a strip club.” I didn’t know yet how seriously McAfee took his presidential campaign, so I grinned, stuttered a bit, and said “Okay.” There was a pause. “That was a joke,” McAfee said. “I’m sending my bodyguard down to get you.”
This was my second day with the eccentric software developer. The day before, in another hotel, booked under a different name by a third-party — McAfee is famously paranoid — we talked for an hour. He wore sunglasses the entire time and sat with his back to the wall, except for when he’d wheel his rolly chair over and jab a finger in my face to make a point. “The number one problem in the world today,” he said, “is America’s decline in its cybersecurity.” According to McAfee, we’re in a cyber war with the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians, and our technology is twenty years behind.
“I think this is the greatest danger that America has ever faced,” he said gravely. “In a cyber war, the first thing we’re going to lose is our power. A month and a half ago, two fifteen-year-old boys hacked into the Ukrainian power grid. Do you think the Russians and Chinese cannot do the same thing with us? And without power, what happens? We have no power, we have no food.” McAfee’s voice rose in the middle of sentences, brimming with energy. “Half of us would survive a nuclear threat,” he said forcefully. “But no one would survive a cyber attack. No one. And if we do, we’re going to be in tatters on the street eating rats.”
This is McAfee’s strategy: to convince others of an imminent threat that he alone has the solution to. His prophecies of cyber-doom in the early nineties catapulted sales of McAfee Antivirus, the first-ever antivirus software, leading to a $100 million fortune in 1994 when he sold his stake in the company. He used the money to feed his restlessness: opening flight schools, establishing yoga retreats, and founding numerous technocratic ventures. But he found it difficult to cope with the isolation of wealth. In the late aughts, he expatriated, building a compound in Belize, where he planned to research new antibiotics.
Over time, his seemingly innocuous mission unraveled into madness. McAfee lost all sense of personal hygiene, shacked up with a sixteen-year-old he was introduced to by a brothel owner, and attempted to dismantle an organized crime syndicate in a neighboring town. At one point, he claimed, he refused to make a two-million-dollar donation to the Belizean government, and in retaliation, they named him a person of interest in the mysterious murder of his neighbor. McAfee fled from Belize in 2012 and went on the run with Vice, who accidentally revealed his location in a metadata blunder. He evaded both Belizean and Guatemalan authorities before he was apprehended and placed in a Guatemalan jail, until his bodyguard showed up with piles of cash, handing them out “like candy,” he said, and got him out safely.
Now, at seventy, McAfee is running for president on a cybersecurity platform. He formed the “Cyber Party” in September, before realizing the Sisyphean hurdles ahead. “It became clear why Ross Perot, with all of his billions, could only get on thirty-seven states’ ballots,” McAfee said. “While I was running under the Cyber Party, I kept getting calls from the Libertarians. What they said is, ‘We can give you ballot access in all fifty states. And while you keep saying we don’t have a platform regarding cybersecurity, isn’t that what you can bring to us?’ So I think it’s a marriage made in heaven.”
In the 2012 election, the Libertarian nominee, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, finished in a distant but significant third place, garnering over a million votes. (Mitt Romney, who finished second, received sixty million.) “I like Gary Johnson,” McAfee told me. “Johnson has done more for the Libertarian Party than anyone. But it should be clear that he’s not presidential material. He’s like a turtle out of his shell, he seems uncomfortable with himself. Imagine him on stage with Donald Trump. It would be horrific. A bloodbath.”
The race for this year’s nomination boils down to three candidates: McAfee, Johnson, and Austin Petersen, who have consistently polled as the top three in their party. Johnson, short on charisma and representing the party’s establishment, is the race’s Hillary Clinton. Petersen, a thirty-five-year-old from Missouri who founded The Libertarian Republic, a popular Libertarian online magazine, is the race’s Marco Rubio, with good looks and rhetorical polish. Johnson and Petersen are the old guard and the rising star, which leaves McAfee as the outsider — the Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders of the race, which, depending on one’s political leanings, makes him either a wackjob or the sole truth-teller on stage.
In the March 1 Minnesota primary, Johnson, Petersen, and McAfee received 75.7, 11.5, and 7.5 percent, respectively. But in the most recent A Libertarian Future online poll, Johnson stood at 38, Petersen at 37, and McAfee at 25 percent. Confusingly, the Libertarian primaries and polling don’t mean or tell us much — at the end of the day, McAfee has to persuade enough independent delegates to cast their votes for him at the convention on the last weekend in May in Orlando, Florida. And as the candidate with the biggest name recognition, he’s very confident: “I will win this convention, you will see,” he told me this morning over the phone.
On April 8, Fox Business News hosted the first-ever nationally televised Libertarian Party debate in New York City. McAfee’s white-haired bodyguard, also named John, escorted me to the hotel room where he was surrounded by an eclectic group: Christopher Thrasher, his broad-shouldered, genial campaign advisor, Rob the video guy, who sported a ponytail and wore a leather jacket with a homemade McAfee patch, and Xanthia, Rob’s red-haired girlfriend. They looked like a small motorcycle gang, reunited for one last hurrah.
“The question is, should we get drunk before the debate?” McAfee said. The mythology of John McAfee almost always involves some combination of guns, drugs, and scantily clad women, so I got ready to toast. But no drinks were poured. McAfee now only drinks occasionally, after thirty-nine years without alcohol, and he claims to have not done hallucinogenic drugs in twenty-five years — “oh God no, the flashbacks are bad enough,” he said.
The group left the hotel and headed toward Fox Business News headquarters, only a few blocks away. After McAfee took pictures with a fawning receptionist, we were ushered into the prep room, where Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen were already present. McAfee was the only candidate to have brought an entourage. “So, can we shoot heroin in here?” McAfee deadpanned as he sat down. Petersen mentioned a party after the debate. McAfee invited Johnson from across the room. “I’m on a little on the sick end,” Johnson said dryly, “and I haven’t had a drink for twenty-nine years.” “Well, I have some opium,” McAfee said. Johnson ignored him.
John Stossel, the moderator, came in to greet the candidates before the debate began. I asked McAfee if he was nervous, and he seemed surprised by the question. “This is nothing compared to fleeing the Guatemalan military. Or the Belizean, for that matter,” he said, and flashed a smile before heading into the bright lights of the studio, to the applause of the alt-right.
“Welcome to our Libertarian Party Forum,” Stossel said to the rolling camera. “Given that the presidential frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have huge unfavorability ratings, it’s time to hear from alternatives. So, with us tonight are the three leading Libertarian candidates!” McAfee gave his opening statement between Johnson’s and Petersen’s. “Libertarianism is grounded in the concept of liberty,” he began. His voice rose with an imploring lilt, and had a measured rhythm. McAfee continued: “But what is liberty? Liberty means that our minds and our bodies belong to ourselves. Liberty is lost when governments decide what is right or wrong regarding what we may do with ourselves.” The audience murmured in agreement.
During the debate, McAfee made the same jokes on national television that he did in private conversation. “I met him at a gay bar,” he said of Petersen. When Stossel said, “People say Libertarians love drugs,” McAfee responded: “Well, what is a drug?” Almost everyone in America drinks alcohol and smokes cigarettes. Aren’t those drugs?” When Stossel brought up ISIS, McAfee questioned the necessity of war. “Well, there’s people that want to kill us,” Stossel said. “I don’t buy that,” McAfee said. During a break, after a producer instructed the audience to clap on certain cues, McAfee quipped, “I think we, as Libertarians, should ignore her instructions.” Everyone laughed.
We returned to the prep room to watch Fox’s commentators analyze the debate on TV. “I thought Gary Johnson made the best practical case to a curious mainstream audience,” one of the pundits said. She compared McAfee to a stoned college roommate. “What are drugs? What is war?” She giggled. McAfee, reclining on a couch, had no reaction.
We left a few moments later, right behind the audience. McAfee lit a cigarette as soon as we got outside. “We got fucked!” He exclaimed. He started pacing around. “Did you see how those two commentators were friends with Gary Johnson? Did you see how she came in and gave him a big hug at the beginning?”
This was my first glimpse of Crisis McAfee, the form closest to his public caricature — pacing, chain-smoking, firing off expletives as he might have done when the Guatemalan military was closing in on his location. But before long, he was joking and smiling again, putting his arm around any fan who asked to take a picture. After the crowd fell away, McAfee approached our group and asked my photographer to take us to a “speakeasy bar” where the “conversation is visceral, not cerebral.”
We left with several Fox Business News people in tow, including John Stossel, and ended up at Blue Bar in the Algonquin Hotel. McAfee described his popularity to a skeptical Stossel. “I go to Russia, Ukraine, France, and I get mobbed at airports,” he said. “In Russia they handed me a magazine that I had never seen before with me on the cover.”
I stepped outside with McAfee’s senior advisor, Christopher Thrasher. The entire nominating process rests on the approaching convention, when the party delegates will vote. Thrasher spoke in a hush, even though we were outside.“The secret is that Petersen and Johnson are already topped out in their support,” he said. “If we can keep Johnson from winning on the first ballot, meaning he gets less than fifty-percent of the vote, then I am confident we can win the nomination on subsequent ballots.” No matter the nominee, the Libertarian Party candidate is unlikely to win the general election. But if he receives five percent of the popular vote, the government is obligated to start providing general-election funding to the party.
Five years ago, McAfee was on the run from Central American militias. Now, at seventy and married, he’s committed to preaching the two things that have shaped his life: cybersecurity and liberty. McAfee campaigns on a dire message: “We are on the brink of devastation,” he warned me many times during our two days together. “It doesn’t even have to be me, but our country is lost if we do not have a cybersecurity expert as president.”
McAfee has proved adept at attracting the media’s attention with stunts like offering to hack the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone and publicly criticizing the FBI on their cybersecurity. But by seeking public office, he’s made another thing clear — John McAfee doesn’t need to hide anymore. After the drugs, after the wealth, after the jungle, the yoga scholar seems to have found his balance in the only other place crazy enough for him: the campaign trail.