Veteran, Anti-War Activist and GOP Congressional Candidate Liam Madden Defies Labels | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Veteran, Anti-War Activist and GOP Congressional Candidate Liam Madden Defies Labels

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Published August 31, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Liam Madden - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Liam Madden

Liam Madden, the 38-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran and somewhat reluctant Republican nominee for Vermont's lone seat in the U.S. House, thinks that the American political system has been captured by elites with prefabricated ideologies. What the first-time candidate lacks in governing experience, he insists, he makes up for in his vision, which is a society liberated from the calcified dogmas of the left and the right — "whatever left and right even means anymore," he said recently outside his home in Bellows Falls, his floral Crocs squeaking as he traipsed through the fields near his property. 

Madden, an anti-war activist turned entrepreneur turned congressional candidate, said he decided to run for office because he believes humanity is on a crash course with multiple existential threats — natural resource depletion, the erosion of democratic norms, and the accumulation of power and wealth by corporations and Big Tech, among other incipient catastrophes — that the current political establishment lacks the moral and intellectual fiber to handle. Even though he's hitched his wagon to the GOP in this race, the self-described independent has made clear that the Republican label only matters to him to the extent that it allows him to compete in the general election. (He didn't like his chances in the Democratic field, he said, because he "saw the amount of money being raised from out of state by liberal money-havers.")

In November, Madden will face Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, a Democrat, and right-wing YouTuber Ericka Redic, who announced that she would run as a Libertarian after losing to Madden in the Republican primary. The Vermont Republican Party won't support Madden in his bid for Congress, according to chair Paul Dame, because Madden will not commit to caucusing with House Republicans. (Nor will the party throw its weight behind Redic, Dame said, citing the committee's policy of not backing primary losers.) Madden doesn't seem particularly concerned about the state GOP's disavowal. If anything, he feels like it could be good for his image. 

Madden thinks he can unite people of all ideological persuasions with his brand of mindful economic populism, and he believes that Balint underestimates his appeal to disaffected voters on the left at her own peril. His platform encompasses an income-based system of universal health care, a reverence for the Second Amendment, reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, and the creation of a New Deal-style public service corps as both an economic initiative and a quasi-spiritual one.

"I think a public service corps is one way we can contribute to a story that is greater than our own little lives," he said. On his campaign website, rebirthdemocracy.com, Madden introduces himself as a humble corpuscle: "I am a cell of Earth's body. Here is my offering."

Compared to Balint, who raised more than $1 million during her primary campaign and benefited from $1.6 million more in political action committee spending on her behalf, Madden won the Republican primary with a comparatively meager haul of just over $36,000. But his victory has attracted interest beyond Vermont — a few days after the election, he appeared on the Hill's online political talk show "Rising" with the Intercept's Ryan Grim and conservative columnist Emily Jashinsky — and his message of societal transformation seems to have resonated with some voters who otherwise wouldn't feel cozy in the GOP.  

"I've never, in 54 years of voting, voted for anyone on a Republican slate," Marlboro resident and painter Doug Trump said. (He is unaware, he said, of any relation to the former president.) But Trump voted for Madden — and donated $1,600 to his campaign, far more than he's ever given to a candidate, because he was moved by what he perceived as Madden's openness to new modes of thinking. 

"His philosophy is to listen to all parties genuinely — not to pay lip service to the ideas, but to really take them in," Trump said. "Without that, you don't have a basis for full engagement. You're back to the idea of us versus them, of winning versus losing. And, to me, that was just such a breath of fresh and important air."

Madden, the youngest of four children, was born on Long Island, N.Y., where his parents owned a restaurant. His father struggled with addiction and alcoholism, Madden said, and when he was 4, his family moved to Stowe for a new start. (Madden said his father recovered and that, growing up, he knew him as "someone extremely conscientious and kind and generous.") After several years of running a gourmet food trucking business in Stowe, Madden's parents divorced. He moved with his mother to Bellows Falls, where Madden now lives with his wife, Lauren Murphy, and their two young sons, Winn and June, in a renovated farmhouse that features prominently in the Instagram feed of Lala Earth, Lauren's line of herbal skin care products.  

By his own admission, Madden was a lousy student. "I could get away with being good on tests and not doing homework," he said. "And I was more interested in stupid teenage boy things." He enlisted in the Marines straight out of high school — partly to impose some structure on his life, he explained, and partly because he had been obsessed with military history as a youth.

Madden was in basic training when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. He said he was immediately skeptical of the official narrative of hidden weapons of mass destruction. "My first instinct was, This is bad," he said. "If we had invaded two weeks before I'd joined, I'd probably have reconsidered." 

He was deployed on a six-month tour to Haditha, where he was assigned to a reserve unit charged with guarding a hydroelectric dam. Madden never saw combat, he said, but by the end of his tour, he had only grown fiercer in his conviction that the invasion was unjustified. "All of my suspicions about this being a politically motivated, immoral war were confirmed, as well as my experience of seeing how a society under the heel of military occupation is just a travesty," he said.

While he was stationed in Quantico, Va., in 2006, Madden met U.S. Navy sailor Jonathan Wesley Hutto at a talk in Norfolk by peace activist and University of Notre Dame professor David Cortright, whom Hutto had invited to speak about the role of service members in anti-war movements. Hutto and Madden eventually teamed up to launch the Appeal for Redress, a petition urging members of Congress to end the War in Iraq, which ultimately garnered the signatures of more than 2,000 active-duty personnel. National media, including "60 Minutes," the New York Times and the Washington Post, picked up the story, and in 2007, Appeal for Redress received a human rights award from the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.

That same year, the Marines launched an investigation into Madden, because he had worn his uniform to an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C., and allegedly made "disloyal statements" during a demonstration in New York City, the Washington Post reported at the time. The Marines ultimately dropped the inquiry, and Madden was discharged without disciplinary action.

"Liam is a visionary and a risk-taker, but he's also cautious and pragmatic," said Hutto, who has been sending fundraising appeals on Madden's behalf to his network of anti-war veterans. "From the first time I met him, I was struck by his directness. Some people are able to speak truth to power from a lived experience, and Liam is very effective in doing that."

After his service, Madden earned a bachelor's degree in environmental policy and international affairs from Northeastern University in Boston, then embarked on a series of entrepreneurial ventures. He cofounded a natural beverage company, Jubalí, the failure of which forced Madden to file for bankruptcy in 2018. The year before, Madden and several of his Jubalí business partners received an award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their Green Gas project, an application that allowed gas purchasers to buy personal carbon offsets at the pump. (Green Gas has since ceased operations, according to Madden, due to a shortage of funds.) 

Madden now works as the director of solar energy for Springfield-based HB Energy Solutions. He rejects the notion that the economy can continue to expand on a planet of finite resources, and he said he supports large-scale investment in renewable energy infrastructure to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels.

"The idea that we can't continue to grow exponentially is not a popular idea, and Liam is the first candidate I've heard speak out about it," said Joshua Farley, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the social and ecological consequences of economic growth. 

Madden's iconoclasm is perhaps most evident in his views on the pandemic. He unequivocally opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates and is not vaccinated himself. "It's a dangerous precedent to give that much power to people wielding a very new technology across the entire population," he said. 

He subscribes to the strategy outlined in the Great Barrington Declaration, an open letter published in October 2020, before the advent of COVID-19 vaccines, by three researchers from the University of Oxford, Stanford University and Harvard University. The letter, sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank whose funders include the Charles Koch Foundation, called for an end to masking orders and lockdowns and advocated instead for isolating only the highest-risk individuals, leaving the rest of society to achieve immunity through infection.

This proposal was widely condemned by public health and infectious disease experts, including the head of the World Health Organization, which declared it "simply unethical." Local officials in Great Barrington, Mass., a town of 7,000 in the Berkshires, repudiated the letter and issued a statement to assure visitors of its commitment to COVID-19 safety protocols.

Madden explains his vaccine refusal as an expression of his right to bodily autonomy, a principle he mostly extends to abortion access. He said he believes in protecting, at the federal level, the right to an abortion up to 24 weeks, after which he would hand jurisdiction to the states, with the caveat that the health of the mother should supersede any local statute.

He acknowledges that third-trimester abortions are rare, accounting for just 1 percent of all procedures, according to research by the Guttmacher Institute. But his feeling, he said, is that "states should have the opportunity to protect a viable human life."

Liam Madden visiting with his mother, Oona, on her porch in Brattleboro - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Liam Madden visiting with his mother, Oona, on her porch in Brattleboro

He said he doesn't support Article 22, also known as Proposal 5, the constitutional amendment on the Vermont ballot this November, which would enshrine the right to abortion access in the state's constitution. The amendment's language of "personal reproductive autonomy," in his mind, leaves too much room for interpretation.

"Would parents lose any legal rights over minors on gender reassignment surgeries and things like that?" he mused. "It's just a little too carte blanche for me to say that we're trying to protect people's right to abortion, which I agree with, but are we also trying, in the same breath, to cover all of these other issues that are related to reproduction?" 

Madden, a champion of the right to bear arms, supports background checks and "red flag" laws that allow for the temporary seizure of guns from people threatening violence — provided, as Madden notes on his campaign website, that "due process is extremely prompt." But he opposes banning assault weapons, and he maintains that civilians need access to military-style firearms in order to mount an effective resistance to a violent, authoritarian government.

"There's a distinction between self-defense, which a hunting weapon or a shotgun or a handgun can achieve, and community defense, where I believe assault weapons have a role to play," he said. 

Rather than regulating assault weapons at the federal level, Madden is a proponent of what he calls "community defense organizations." He envisions that these citizen-led entities would function as a hyperlocalized accountability system to ensure, as he put it, "that weapons that can do a lot of harm to people are not just falling into the hands of isolated, overmedicated, sick, shattered human beings."

"I picture these groups being populated by people who care about this issue, maybe people who have possibly served in the military, people who can demonstrate that their right to bear arms is connected to their willingness to defend their communities," Madden said. Until assault weapons owners have proven themselves to their compatriots in the defense organization, he continued, they would be required to leave their guns in a neutral location — where, exactly, is a logistical detail he'd leave up to municipalities.

"The Dylan Klebolds and the Adam Lanzas of the world would stick out like a sore thumb in that kind of environment," Madden said, naming the mass murderers behind the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings. "And someone could say to them, 'Hey, brother, we need to get your life right before you're ready to bring that weapon home."'

Madden acknowledges that there are, perhaps, some stickier points that need workshopping, such as how to compel firearms owners to participate in their community defense programs and what to do about the estimated 20 million assault rifles already in circulation throughout the country.

Part of his gun violence prevention strategy would entail a more robust mental health care system to address what he sees as a national crisis of loneliness and social fragmentation — a crisis, he said, that is also deeply personal for him. Earlier this year, his older brother, Ben Gregory, died of an overdose after a long struggle with heroin addiction.

"The story that has unified us for generations was the American dream — that your children will do better than you did, that there's a meaningful way to participate in society through work or religious activities or patriotism," Madden said. "And none of those stories are really holding us together anymore."

What Madden is really getting at with his ideas, he explained, is the need for a stronger social fabric and an alternative to the binary thinking that, to his mind, has diminished our collective capacity to solve big problems. In his own discontent with the state of the country's political institutions, he said, he saw an opportunity to appeal to other people's grievances.

"I wouldn't have run for office if I didn't intuit that everybody, left and right, agrees that we have a really dysfunctional system that rewards access to money, rewards polarizing rhetoric, rewards a self-preservation model of politics," he said.

Madden has no qualms about running as a Republican, he said, in spite of the fact that most of his beliefs run counter to what has become the dominant party ideology. He thinks that people should vote for the candidate who best reflects their values, regardless of party affiliation — or, in light of the fanfare over the possibility that Vermonters might elect their first congresswoman, gender identity.

"Why glorify something someone has no choice about? To me, that's a fundamentalist logic that precludes community, precludes conversation," he said. "Why even listen to me at all, if I'm a white male?"

The original print version of this article was headlined "Campaign Against the Machine"