In an election where Americans are dissatisfied with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in record numbers, it is an open question as to whether third party candidates will be able to capitalize on the voters who don’t want to vote for either candidate. I spoke with Chris Keniston, the presidential nominee for the Veterans Party, to get an inside look at one of the many third party bids for the White House. My questions are in italics, and his responses are in normal text. The interview is roughly divided into three parts: background about Chris, his policies, and the political landscape for the Veterans Party.
You’re the third generation of your family to serve in the armed forces. What drew you to the Air Force in particular?
I was always the most interested in the Air Force. I’m an airplane aficionado. Growing up, my dad would tell me about my grandpa serving in the Army Air Corps in World War Two. I joined late, at 25, and my friends who had enlisted in the Army, the Marines, and the Navy after high school all said the same thing: if I had to do it again, I’d join the Air Force because the Air Force takes better care of their people.
When did you first join the Veterans Party of America?
I found Veterans Party in December of 2014. It was after the midterm elections, and once Congress passed a last-minute budget at the expense of veterans and I realized I was no longer being represented by the two main parties. I started doing research and I looked at the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party–I knew the Green Party was not going to be up my alley–unfortunately, I didn’t see anything serious enough from these parties that I identified with personally, and someone suggested the Veterans Party, which I had never heard of. I researched them for a few months and reached out to them. Soon after, I decided to not only get involved, but to set up the branch in Louisiana.
What about the Libertarian Party pushed you away from them?
The biggest problem I have with them is their isolationism. I don’t think that is sustainable in the 21st century. We have to show leadership, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the interventions of the last few administrations should continue either.
Some Libertarians argue that they are not isolationist since they support policies such as trade. Does that argument resonate with you?
To a certain extent, but I think that we have agreements that affect trade–NATO for instance, UN obligations.
What parts of the message of the Veterans Party did you find most appealing?
I’m a very strict Constitutionalist, which means to me that the government’s enumerated powers are what they are responsible for providing to the nation. Among those are national defense and trade. The current government’s actions vastly exceed the enumerated powers, and strictly speaking they are unconstitutional.
Had you ever been in politics before joining the Veterans Party?
I was not involved, but I was politically interested. This is an extension of who I have always been. I became interested as a teenager due to comics such as Bloom County and Doonesbury, because if you didn’t understand politics you didn’t understand the jokes. One thing led to another. One I became an active duty military member, the government affected every part of my life, up to and including whether I might be made to sacrifice it.
What goes through your mind every time you make an oath to support and defend the Constitution?
When I take that oath, I take an oath to defend the Constitution, not necessarily my government, right or wrong–I don’t. That’s what propelled me to this decision.
Did you ever consider running for lower office as a member of the party?
I had considered it because I recognized the need, but not strictly at the federal level, but also at the state and local level. People don’t seem to realize that local government has infinitely more authority than the federal government, according to the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. Did I consider local government? Absolutely. Because I moved so much, it’s been difficult to establish residency for long enough to run for state offices. I just moved back to Louisiana in June.
I understand that the Veterans Party turned to you to be their nominee after their other options fell through. What was it like to be asked to run for president?
It was absolutely humbling. I had been part of the process to vet other presidential candidates that we had considered, but they were all disqualified because they didn’t want to represent the party, or they had some other agenda such as having books to sell, or they deviated too much from our stated values. Ultimately, our party leadership decided to look inward and several people told me to go for it and I did. I had a handshake agreement with Deacon Taylor that the winner of the nomination would select the other as his running mate.
What was the nominating process like for the party?
Grueling. More grueling than people would understand. We went through a grueling session with our national leadership, and the vetting process was very thorough. Once we were approved by national leadership, we had a panel with all of the state leadership. It was almost like a debate format, but the questions were far more grueling than anything that I have been posed during this election cycle.
What is it like for your first political campaign to be a presidential one?
It’s overwhelming at times, it’s humbling all the time. Every day that we have a person who decides to support our campaign, to me, that comes as somewhat of a surprise. Despite the fact that I have no apparent qualifications, there are still people who trust me.
Is a lack of political experience an asset or a liability for you?
Definitely an asset, and I think that has proven to be the case not only for myself but also for Donald Trump. Being a professional politician is not an asset to anyone right now because politicians have become tremendously unpopular, and deservedly so given the corruption that we are seeing.
In terms of left and right, liberal and conservative, where do you consider yourself ideologically?
I have always called myself a centrist. When I got set up with Open Campaign, I took their political quiz, and it showed that I am 0.1 liberal. I am the most centrist candidate they have ever had.
If you had a chance to ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump a question what would you ask them?
I have no compulsion to speak with either of them. I am not impressed with either of them. I believe that the country is right in thinking that these are some of the worst candidates we have had. I know what Trump is doing. I don’t have to ask him. He is so obviously pandering to a disaffected conservative base, but I know who he is. I’ve been watching him for almost 30 years.
Who do you think Trump really is?
Everyone on the conservative side looks at how he tried to challenge Barack Obama’s birth certificate. People forget how that started. Trump was a Clinton supporter, he has always been a Clinton supporter, but I guess other people forgot about that. I remember the 2008 election, and how Hillary was going to win the primary until a lot of states had their delegate rules changed at the last minute.
What are your biggest issues that you are running on in this election?
The entire campaign is built upon three pillars: restoring unity in the country, restoring national security, and restoring opportunity. My policies are all designed to do one of those three things.
How does being a veteran give you a unique perspective in this election?
I understand the consequences of legislation on the military better than candidates who have not served in the military. One of the things that has surprised me in the past 16 years is how pitiful the cost of living increases have been for the military.
Who or what do you think are our biggest national security threats?
Border security, which has suffered tremendously under both Bush and Obama. Border Patrol agents have told me that their ability to do their jobs has been hindered due to budget cuts, while their budgets have also been slashed.
What defines a secure southern border to you?
We are going to have to work with the governors of border states to sort this out, because it is a matter of national security. If it were necessary, we could secure it through an Executive Order through a use of federal resources. I am not one to scream “build a wall.” The Border Patrol used to be a wall when they were properly staffed and funded, and I think that that is what we need to get back to.
Even a lot of Trump supporters have said that there will be no physical wall on the border, using words such as “digital,” and “virtual.” Do you see a role for incorporating technology such as drones down the road?
It’s impossible to build a wall. I think that we should incorporate technologies when available.
When talking about border security, you also discuss the importance to secure our border with Canada. What does that look like to you?
It will require working with the border states and the Canadians to see what they are willing to assist us in doing.
Would you look to reexamine our NATO commitment?
I don’t know that there is necessarily anything wrong with our NATO alliance, but I think that we have abused it in previous administrations, and I don’t think that our allies are as willing to side with us as they should be.
Donald Trump has been criticized a lot for his perceived affinity towards Vladimir Putin. Do you side with him or with his critics, even those within the Republican Party, who don’t see Putin as someone to be courted?
I don’t think “courting” is the right tactic. I think he has to be dealt with as a legitimate trading partner but not at the expense of human rights. In everything we do internationally, we must maintain the values in the Constitution like respect for human rights. Any nation that fails to respect human rights as we define them in the Constitution is not a nation that we should do business with.
Are you in favor of reducing the budget of the Defense Department, keeping it the same, or reallocating it?
Reallocation. The thing that I am most concerned about is to clean house of all of the politically motivated senior officials. I want to get the ambitious politician-types out. I want senior leadership for all branches concerned with equipment reliability, with training, with recreated a robust force, and we’re not going to do that by buying billion dollar weapons programs. When I left the Air Force in 2009, we had just seen F-15s falling apart mid-flight. We have serious aging fleet issues, and this fleet has been in combat operations since 2001. The force reductions have left fewer and fewer people available to repair them.
Would you have signed the Iran Deal if you had been president when President Obama signed it?
Not likely. I know what has been made publicly available, but I know that diplomacy doesn’t always happen on paper. Iran is a country that needs to improve its human rights before we start doing business with them.
President Obama has been trying to say that payments to Iran did not constitute ransom. What are your thoughts on that?
I haven’t heard the administration get its story straight. They can’t even make up their own mind as to whether it was a ransom payment or not. I think it was something that conveniently worked out for the benefit of both sides that wanted this agreement to go through.
You believe that the “federal government must encourage entrepreneurship and small business growth.” Would you advocate for the continued existence of the Export-Import Bank?
I don’t see that the Export-Import Bank does anything to help small businesses or encourage entrepreneurship.
You support citizenship for those who complete military service. Do you also support citizenship for people who complete college?
It depends on the situation. I support increased involvements of employers to assist in the citizenship process by advocating on behalf of individuals. I’ve spent the last seven years in the corporate world, and I understand that we have serious shortfalls, especially in the technical fields, of qualified graduates. I have worked with college students from abroad who did jobs that no one else wanted, but because of immigration policies, we weren’t able to keep them. This hurts them, it hurts business, and we don’t have anyone else to replace them with because the work isn’t glamorous, it’s hard work.
What are your thoughts on the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement that targets Israel?
I think that it is ridiculous to target any particular country, especially one that has a democratic government, and one that does a better job than 90% of the countries in the region with regards to human rights. I consider Israel to be one of our traditional allies with the caveat that I think that the Israeli government is every bit as prone to corruption as the United States’ government is, but I think that the Israeli people and Israel as a country should be considered an ally.
College campuses have received a lot of attention for things such as safe spaces recently. What are your thoughts on the movements in college to control who speaks on campus?
It has been my experience that academic universities are places of learning to challenge traditional thought, and to expand thought. Universities should be sociologically neutral and give equal consideration to all sides. That’s what college is about. It’s about being exposed to things that you didn’t see in your small town where everyone thinks the same way.
Do you support the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership?
What are your objections?
I am bitterly opposed to every free trade agreement that has been imposed on this country going back decades. I grew up in the Rust Belt. I understand what it did to that part of the country; it almost died overnight. Starting with NAFTA, and then CAFTA, and now TPP, these trade deals have been consistently damaging to the middle class. Trade tariffs and anything else that needs to be done can’t be taken off the table.
You have said that the Veterans Party looks for candidates with “centrist Constitutional” beliefs. What does that mean you are looking for in a Supreme Court Justice?
A long history of constitutional records of decisions and opinions.
What are examples of unconstitutional powers the government has taken upon itself?
The Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Education, the EPA, the IRS. At this point, even the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accountability Office can’t keep track of how many government offices there are. The conservative estimate ranges from 2,700-3,000, and when the government’s own accounting offices can’t keep track of how many agencies there are, you know there’s a problem. There is no constitutional justification for 2,700 government agencies based on the enumerated powers.
While you point out that a president can not force term limits on Congress, you have said that you advocate for them. Would you also support term limits for the Supreme Court?
We’ve discussed it. This is something that we are looking at doing, but there needs to be a way to ensure that a single president can’t appoint more than four justices. This would be one of the most difficult amendments that we would consider proposing. It would be a cumbersome beast.
What recent Supreme Court decision have you taken the most issue with?
The protection of the tax penalty for the Affordable Care Act. Citizens United is the other one.
Which have you agreed with the most?
I think constitutionally, the Supreme Court decision on the unconstitutionality of marriage laws was the right call. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, the government can’t discriminate on services. Once the government got into the marriage business, this became inevitable.
What are your thoughts on the Snyder v. Phelps SCOTUS decision that allows for the Westboro Baptist Church to continue protesting at military funerals?
I don’t like it but free speech is free speech. As a former member of the Armed Forces I fought to defend people’s rights to speak. I defended the entire Constitution. Freedom of speech and expression are protected from the government in this country. If people don’t want the Westboro Baptist Church protesting funerals, they have to lawfully take it up with them. (Note: I wrote about a terrific way that Pokémon GO trolled the Westboro Baptist Church here)
You strongly oppose Common Core’s “sadistic insanity.” Do you see the need for a Department of Education?
I’m not going to call for abolishing it, at this point. I understand that if used properly, it could be used effectively to help low income schools districts across the country. Its problem is politics.
Do you think that any of the Departments should be abolished?
I do not campaign on abolishing any Department immediately.
What are your thoughts on the crisis facing the Department of Veterans Affairs?
The administrators who have been put in place who are committed to providing good care are hamstrung by those who are not. There is not nearly enough accountability. It should be the most accountable of all government departments, but it’s not.
When discussing how “additional measures must also be taken to protect against voter fraud and illegal voting,” what measures do you suggest?
Voter ID is not too much to ask. Voting is not a federal issue, it is a state issue. It is a problem when the federal government tells states what they can and can’t do in terms of voting requirements. It’s the prerogative of the states, as long as things are done constitutionally. If states want to require voter ID that is an undue burden, compel them provide it.
What is your “elevator pitch” that you give to voters about why they should vote for you?
My campaign is built on the principle that every American has the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness however they see fit. It is not for the federal government to tell you how to live, who to love, where to work, and it is your right as an American to live how you want, as long as it is not harming anyone. We’re not liberal, we’re not conservative, and we’re not libertarian.
What states do you see as being the most receptive to your message?
I haven’t been to a single state or area that hasn’t been receptive once they’ve had an opportunity to hear us explain it. I am yet to have an unreceptive audience, but having a limited ability to reach voters has been a problem.
What states are you on the ballot in?
Louisiana and Colorado. We were on the ballot in Mississippi for almost a year but they recently passed a bill that compelled us to pay a filing fee and refile the paperwork, but we didn’t have time to get it done.
Donald Trump has been criticized for having very few field offices. How many do you have?
The Veterans Party has affiliates in all 50 states, so although there are no other offices, there is a lot of collaboration between members. There can be contention at times because we are composed of members from all across the spectrum. The party is entirely composed of volunteers, but one of the disappointments that I have found on the campaign trail is the lack of engagement from millennials, who are dissatisfied with both major party candidates.
What have been some hurdles that your campaign has faced in terms of getting attention?
The lack of media exposure. Over a year into this campaign, we have yet to be mentioned by a single mainstream media source, not just the campaign, but the party. They know who we are, and they’ve told us to stop and to leave us alone. Until we break that, we’re really not going to see a lot of progress.
How do you think social media has acted as a democratizing factor in campaigns?
If not for social media this wouldn’t be possible. When some people were learning all about technology, we were out there doing war stuff.
After this election is over, what do you see the landscape of American politics looking like on a national level?
The landscape will swing back and forth because the American people still don’t get it. We’ve tried every combination and permutation of parties in government, but the results are the same. The approval rating of Congress hasn’t been above 20% in 20 years, but the reelection rate is 90%. Why are we sending the same people back? If government is failing, send new leadership.
That’s the end of my extended interview with Chris Keniston. I have previously interviewed Robby Wells, who is an running for president as an Independent, and am interested in potentially interviewing other candidates as well.