"There seems to be one person in this race who's actually genuine and not crazy. And that's Bernie," Jillette said of Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders during an exclusive backstage interview here at the Rio Hotel and Casino. "He uses the word socialist, which in the United States is what? Sixty percent socialist now? We're a mixed economy. This is all stuff a libertarian probably shouldn't say, but 'socialist' isn't a dirty word. It's a different way of looking at how the government works."
Sanders, who embraces the title of a "Democratic socialist," isn't an obvious candidate to receive praise from Jillette, who, along with his on-stage partner Raymond Teller, is a self-described libertarian.
The popular magicians regularly incorporate their political philosophy into their magic act. For example, they bring a Transportation Security Administration airport scanner onstage to make a case against federal intrusion. The store at the theater where they perform even sells metal cards inscribed with the Bill of Rights and Jillette encourages people to carry them through airport metal detectors so officers literally have to take part of the Constitution away before they can board airplanes.
His kind words for Sanders, however, shouldn't be misconstrued as an endorsement, Jillette said, but a surprising admission that a Sanders administration might not be as bad as his fellow travelers would think. (He suggested he'll probably vote for the Libertarian Party candidate in 2016.)
"I disagree with him on almost everything," Jillette said. "Bernie Sanders in the White House gives us a chance to say, 'Is this the direction we want to go?' There's supposed to be a certain kind of experimentation with this."
Despite activism that sounds like it could come out of Rand Paul's playbook, Jillette said he wasn't impressed with the libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky.
"I'm a little disappointed in Rand Paul," Jillette said. "Because Rand Paul is not libertarian. He's not really a small government guy."
After Jillette's comments about Sanders and Paul were posted on CNN Politics, Matt Welch, the editor of the libertarian Reason Magazine, took issue with the entertainer's analysis in a column posted on the publication's website
"'Experimentation' is better carried out in small, competing laboratories, instead of atop a federal leviathan with 4 million employees and a monopoly on force. Sanders may be a quirky individualist in the context of two-party Washington, but make no mistake: He sees your individuality, and Penn Jillette's, as clay that needs strong federal molding in service of The Revolution," Welch wrote.
Jillette agreed with Welch on Twitter, saying his enthusiasm was based on appreciating the Vermont senator's "sincerity."
"@reason Yup -- Matt is right, I"m wrong. I fall for sincerity too much over content," Jillette tweeted.