Matt Kibbe And The Liberteens

The former president of FreedomWorks looks to the youth.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

“The great political philosopher, Frank Zappa, once noted that if you want to be a real country, you have to have a beer and you have to have an airline,” says Matt Kibbe. He’s on a roof deck, speaking into a camera, surrounded by beer. The former president and CEO of conservative astroturf group, FreedomWorks, Kibbe co-authored the Tea Party manifesto, Give Us Liberty, and was one of the movement’s main architects. “Well as it turns out, under socialism, you can’t even get a beer anymore.” He’s referring to the the troubles of Cerveceria Polar, Venezuela’s main beer manufacturer. At the age of 54, Kibbe has ditched his creepy sideburns and grown a beard. If before he looked like a guy who’d just been fired from GameStop, now he is reassuring and vaguely paternal. “See this beer?” he says, looking straight into the camera. “This beer is freedom and you’ll pry it from my cold, dead hands.” The bottle opener sitting on the table next to him appears to be a replica of a cherub.

Kibbe says he became a Libertarian at the age of thirteen, after hearing the Rush album 2112. (In an email to me he mistakenly referred to it as 2012.) A concept album set in a dystopian future in which the world is controlled by the “Priests of the Temples of Syrinx,” 2112 is dedicated to “the genius of Ayn Rand,” specifically her book Anthem. The band is pretty popular among libertarians, in 2015, Rush drummer, Neal Pert, told Rolling Stone that he’d sent Rand Paul a number of cease-and-desist letters to get him to stop quoting Rush in his speeches.

Thirteen-year-old Kibbe found Anthem at a garage sale, “devoured” the rest of Ayn Rand’s oeuvre. By 2004, he was president of Citizens for a Sound Economy (which became FreedomWorks), a position he held until 2015 despite an internal dustup in which he was escorted out of the building by an unnamed man with a gun. Today, he and his wife, Terry, refer to themselves as “America’s most badass libertarian power couple.” If you’ve read Atlas Shrugged you may remember Ragnar Danneskjöld, a pirate who intercepts humanitarian aid ships and straight up delivers the money to the rich (“Of all human symbols,” he says, “Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible”). Matt and Terry Kibbe named one of their cats after him.

The Kibbe’s latest venture is Free the People, a 501(c)3 charity intended to bring libertarian values to the youth. Kibbe’s nonprofit does not do very well in Google search results, but they’re very determined not to be your weird uncle’s libertarianism. They make memes, they have a blogger named Logan, who writes hard-hitting like “How Did Hamburgers Get So Darn Good?” (Capitalism). Logan Albright was previously a research analyst at FreedomWorks, but he is also an Oberlin graduate, complete with moustache. Kibbe has tattoos, wears Vans, and distressed jeans. Free the People’s creative director and token Attractive Teen is a former actor named Sam Martin—“an enthusiastic advocate for the Millennial generation,” according to his bio—who used to perform spoken word poetry about the free market in a Youtube series called Liberty Beats.”We have the right to pursue happiness our own way/ But not the right to happiness, per se,” Martin recites over swelling violins in the 2014 video, “Obamacare.”

Like the mainstream media, Kibbe has pivoted to video. “Beer is Freedom,” he told me over email, is a video series that “uses beer as a metaphor for entrepreneurial disruption, and the value of risk-taking in free markets.” “Beer is Freedom Part Two” begins with a close-up of Kibbe mouthing “FREE-DOM” in slow motion and quoting Hunter S. Thompson. Presumably, all of this is supposed to attract millennials, but it’s pretty clunky. Young men, Kibbe has noticed, love beer and Hunter S. Thompson and easily digestible sweeping generalizations. Why does America have all these beloved signifiers of performative masculinity? Capitalism, Kibbe explains. It’s bait for the kind of person who wants to be able to insult things they don’t understand with pithy, reductive talking points. Last August, Kibbe’s AlternativePAC paid marking consultants Treehorn LLC, $30,000 for “internet web memes” in support of Gary Johnson; Free the People appears to be a continuation of that strategy, a whole think tank devoted to bad memes. Treehorn is listed as part of their core team and Kibbe claims that Free the People’s “demographics are the opposite of the Tea Party—73% of engagement comes from people under age 44.”

Whether or not that engagement is actually reflective of the viewers’ ideology is debatable. As of this writing, Free the People only has 682 subscribers on YouTube, and Kibbe’s attempts to attract young people thus far have been entertaining primarily because they’re so absurd. AlternativePAC’s “Dead Abe Lincoln” video, for example, featured a reanimated Lincoln trying to convince the 2016 electorate that Gary Johnson was Batman. Set against the ascendant neo-Nazi movement, Kibbe obviously doesn’t seem like the nation’s greatest or most immediate threat. He’s in favor legalizing weed and against mass incarceration. He says things like “if you really want to understand the Austrian concept of spontaneous order, hang out in a Grateful Dead parking lot for an afternoon.” He can’t stand Trump, and in his awkward attempt to situate himself within the resistance, if not the #Resistance, he’s zeroed in on the only thing that unifies voters—disgust.

“Like a lot of Americans, I’m feeling pretty politically homeless right now,” Kibbe wrote to me. “I’m always looking for candidates that will defend liberty, but it may turn out that they are no longer welcome as Republicans or Democrats…the old rules that entrenched the two-party duopoly are collapsing.” But the idea that he represents some sort of righteous alternative to the existing political system is fundamentally absurd and his efforts would be laughable if he didn’t have such a track record of success with the Tea Party.

“The Tea Party,” Kibbe wrote to me, “was a profound and beautiful social movement, but politics eventually corrupted it…[But] the best members of Congress, like Rand Paul and Mike Lee, Thomas Massie and Justin Amash, are all a product of this social movement, and these are all liberty legislators willing to push back against Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.” According to FiveThirtyEight’s vote tally, Rand Paul has voted in line with Trump 87% percent of the time, Mike Lee 92%, Thomas Massie 74%, and Justin Amash 66%. When they’ve broken with Trump, it’s generally been on things like repealing and replacing Obamacare—but only because the replacement did not seem cruel enough. Kibbe refers to these men as “liberty legislators,” although both Amash and Massie most recently voted to ban abortions after twenty weeks.

According to a June study released by the Democracy Fund that plotted respondents from conservative to liberal on two indexes—economics and identity issues—only 3.8 percent of the 2016 electorate are economically conservative and socially liberal. Essentially, no one is a libertarian. Not because it’s an endearing, underdog ideology, because it’s an ideology that serves no one but the exquisitely wealthy. The Tea Party wasn’t a “profound and beautiful social movement,” it was a handful of billionaires who scammed voters into doing their bidding. It was also very racist and while it’s wonderful that Matt Kibbe doesn’t personally consider himself a racist, he’s certainly gained considerable power by fanning its flames and advocating racist policy, as have his “liberty legislators.”

Kibbe prefers not to focus on this, and characterizes his tiny demographic as “‘moderates,’ who are generally turned off by the authoritarian impulses coming from both right and left.” As of late, he’s focused on fear-mongering in response to the rise of the DSA. His critique of socialism is pretty one note—Venezuela—and he uses it as a cudgel to dismiss literally any institution associated with a strong central government  as a sign of tyranny. In the first of his “very dark” 39 video series, “Socialism Kills,” Kibbe stands in front of a fire hydrant and a wall of corrugated sheet metal, plotting “The Deadly Isms” (progressivism, nationalism, fascism, socialism, “Islamo-Fascism”, etc.) along a parabola. All of them lead to Totalitarianism. All except for libertarianism, man.

Like Bella Hadid, Matt Kibbe sounds like a undercover cop trying to convince you he can fuck. “What the f–k is up with Michael Moore?” he says in the second “Beer is Freedom,” video (“fuck” is bleeped out). After the Brexit vote last year, Moore tweeted that the European Union should “take us” to replace Britain. “We want what Europe has,” Moore wrote. “Free healthcare, free college, real beer!” This was an opportunity for Kibbe, who supports immigration and free trade but does not want to be labeled a globalist cuck. “What the f–k is his problem? I get it, he’s a socialist.” He launches into rant about violence in Cuba and Venezuela, without explaining how any of that connects to European beer. “Look at this stuff. You cannot get any of this stuff in Venezuela. If you go to Europe? You will not find a beer made out of lobster…The bottom line: America makes good beer.” It’s a weak attempt at an everyman shtick—beer doesn’t have to taste good it just has to get you drunk—and the lesson he’s trying to teach falls apart when applied to his broader principles. Healthcare doesn’t need to be artisanal, it just has to be affordable. The most popular beer in America is Bud Light.

Kibbe has called Free the People a “transpartisan” organization, characterizing his problem with progressives as economic rather than moral. Liberals, as far as he is concerned, just don’t understand economics. (The right has been using that line for decades and it’s only become more illogical as inequality has increased.) If you, like Matt Kibbe, are opposed to welfare and Obamacare and raising the minimum wage, what you’re advocating is essentially eugenics. The numbers don’t make sense in terms of survival—you’re telling poor people that their lives do not matter, and it doesn’t take an avowed socialist to see that.

Free the People currently has a petition up to abolish the Department of Education, but despite Kibbe’s band t-shirts, he’s not much of a “radical” in the way that young people are generally attracted to the concept. Libertarianism doesn’t have much populist appeal outside of the wealthy and the odd disgruntled mall goth, so it’s unlikely Kibbe will make any major inroads with teens. Libertarians don’t really need populist appeal though—they have money and the right has already managed to redistrict most of the country. Kibbe has relied enormously on Koch Brothers money in the past, but because Free the People didn’t begin operating in earnest until this year it won’t be clear where the mass of his funding is coming from until 2017 tax forms are filed.

Assuming we survive this presidency, Kibbe will emerge relatively unscathed as far as optics go, but he shouldn’t be allowed to. He’s polite, he sounds reasonable, and he retweets Jonathan Chait occasionally. He can appeal to centrist Democrats who fear their party’s slide to the left and Republicans who don’t want to feel like the bad guys. People like Matt Kibbe are dangerous, not necessarily because their memes are effective, but because they will literally never go away. They will be there at the very end, handing you a joint at Burning Man and telling you that the upcoming right-to-work legislation is “groovy,” writing garbled op-eds about the dangers of “alarmism” and “virtue-signaling” as cities sink into the sea. There are no shortage of monsters in today’s political landscape and Kibbe is by no means the worst, but it’s the veneer of virtue that makes him so infuriating. Manners are not more important than morals and at the very least these people should be publicly shamed.


Rebecca McCarthy is on Twitter.