Forget the mysterious deaths, drug rumors, and stock market shenanigans. The antivirus tycoon thinks America is ready for a Libertarian president.
San Francisco magazine
May 20, 2016
This week, the other aging presidential candidate with a constantly fluctuating net worth, hair dyed a color not found in nature, preternatural command of the press, and a sexual history that would make a decadent Roman emperor look like a monk, paid a fundraising visit to San Francisco.
“Drumpf’s mind works just like mine does,” said John McAfee, the software tycoon slash South American recluse slash person of interest in a murder investigation slash candidate for the Libertarian Party nomination. “But I can actually talk seriously once I have your attention.”
Fresh from Las Vegas, where he took part in the Libertarian Party debate hosted by magician Penn Jillette, McAfee, dressed in fancy sneakers and sports coat over a white T-shirt, lit a cigarette. Standing on the deck of a SoMa loft belonging to a former SpaceX rocket engineer and the founder of a VC firm, he turned expansive in a conversation that ranged from the military-industrial complex and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers to human nature.
“Jealousy, greed, fear. We’re all full of these things. But also love and compassion,” he said. “If you saw a drowning baby, it wouldn’t matter if you were wearing a tuxedo on the way to your own wedding. You’d jump in to save him.” The dozens of libertarians (and some of the merely curious) who paid $40 to $90 a head to meet McAfee have no trouble following the message to its conclusion: Less government meddling, more human decency.
Of course, not all governments meddle equally. In November 2012, the one that runs Belize announced that McAfee, who made his fortune in the 90s with his eponymous antivirus software, was a person of interest in the shooting death of his neighbor, American expat Greg Faull. Faull had just filed a legal complaint about the roaming packs of dogs that McAfee kept on his compound. McAfee fled to the United States, while narrating his escape in real time. Should he become president, the Belizean ambassador to the U.S. shouldn’t expect an invitation to the next state dinner. “These countries were founded by pirates,” he says. “Belize is not ready for self-government.” That said, he misses living there. It’s just that “people ruin things everywhere that they are.”
Speaking of self-government, McAfee's recent life experience has shades of Charlie Sheen playing the protagonist in a Thomas Pynchon novel. Down to his last few millions during the Great Recession, McAfee took to an island off the coast of South America. After meeting an ethnobotanist in a bar, he started a company that supposedly researched the production of antibiotics from rainforest plants. He also took up with a cast of young prostitutes and, under the username stuffmonger, posted expansively and in great detail on a recreational drug forum about his forays into producing at least 23 kilos of what he called “perv powder,” a new form of bath salts designed to produce “indescribable hypersexuality.” When the posts, which stopped two days before Faull’s death, became public, McAfee said he had written them as part of an elaborate prank, and denied making the drug.
Now, when not campaigning, McAfee lives in the small town of Opelika, Alabama, with his wife. Last August, Tennessee police arrested him for driving under the influence, which he blamed on Xanax and the distraction of a dropped cell phone. According to the New York Times, he hasn’t used drugs or alcohol since 1983, but he readily offers his glass and asks for Champagne when a partygoer offers to fix him something from the bar.
Michael Denny, a local Libertarian activist who picked up 0.44 percent of the vote in the 2003 race for mayor won by Gavin Newsom, explains that for Libertarian party insiders, the perennial dilemma turns on whether to nominate a candidate who effectively hews to their core message or one who can attract more buzz. Asked how he would attract attention as a candidate, McAfee gives a genuine laugh. “You don’t read the news? Have you Googled me?”
A Google search for McAfee’s latest headlines turns up the obscure company MGT, which named him chairman and CEO on May 9 and announced it would be pivoting from online gaming to cybersecurity. McAfee claimed to have hacked messaging service WhatsApp, a claim that Gizmodo called a “lie.” Shares of MGT stock jumped over 1000 percent. (The day after the fundraiser, shares of the stock slid 35 percentas investors who had quietly amassed large amounts of the stock before McAfee came aboard unloaded their positions.)
As night falls, McAfee doubles down on his claims to have hacked WhatsApp, scoffs at the Gizmodo post, and says that Israeli television will soon run a story vindicating him. The company approached him to become CEO, he explains, because if their stock price didn’t increase “the stock exchange would delist them.” The head spins.
But enough business talk—it’s time to stump.
Inside the tech futurist loft, decorated with an Art Deco poster advertising tourism to Mars and heavy metal coasters engraved with the Bat signal, McAfee gives a brief speech, then turns the event over to his vice presidential nominee and campaign cameraman and videographer Judd Weiss (he also runs “a blog for achievers”), who explains their strategy to dress up supporters like Burning Man attendees at the Libertarian Party nominating convention in Florida over Memorial Day weekend. Weiss then cues up a campaign spotthat he calls “an homage from one tech CEO to another.”
In it, McAfee reads Steve Jobs's “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” ad over scenes of a hippie placing a flower on a bayonet at Kent State, Elon Musk giving a speech, a woman with her nipples showing through a white tank top taking a hit off a blunt, and the space shuttle blasting off. (Weiss apologizes for using footage from NASA rather than SpaceX.) As the video plays, McAfee playfully grabs my notebook and flips through it to see what I’ve written so far. I tell him if he can make out my scrawl, he’s welcome to it.
“The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do,” McAfee says on screen, as in-person McAfee checks his watch and realizes he’s missed his flight (he was heading to Lexington, Tennessee, for some appointments). The text on screen reads, “Vote Different.” When it finishes, he poses for selfies.