Letter from Tampa — From the April 2013 issue
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Letter from Tampa — From the April 2013 issue
Almost half a year later, the postmortems continue. After an election in which Republicans failed to capture the White House and lost several seemingly winnable Senate seats, in which their tenuous majority in the House was retained more by way of redistricting than by the will of the voting public, everyone within and without the G.O.P. agrees it has a big problem.
Some insist that the critical failure of 2012 was one of messaging, that the party will return to power not by changing its beliefs but by finding the right tone — and the right candidate — to articulate its current ones. “The Republican Party does not need to change our principles,” Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal — already positioning himself to be that candidate — told a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Charlotte, North Carolina, in January. “But we might need to change just about everything else we do.” Lest it seem he was taking the problem too lightly, Jindal continued: “We must stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican party that talks like adults.”
Others say the hour for superficial tinkering is past. If politics is a lagging indicator, Republicans may simply have fallen behind market trends. By this thinking, demographic and social changes spell doom for the party as it is currently configured. As South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham told the Washington Post last year, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
Political coalitions are fragile things. It’s been four decades since Nixon united fiscal and social conservatives into the potent white alliance that won four of five presidential elections between 1972 and 1988, including two forty-nine-state landslides. Since then, the party has lost four of six presidential elections, as well as the popular vote in one of the two it won.
Graham’s comment reflects a growing worry not just that the party needs to compromise, even on “core values,” but that the coalition itself can no longer overcome its inherent contradictions. In the face of this existential crisis, party leaders seem oddly indifferent to — or ignorant of — the fact that a base of excited, young, and organized conservatives already exists. They are the Ron Paul youth.
It may seem strange to suggest that a seventy-seven-year-old man, retired this year from his perch in Congress, where he had served for most of the past thirty-seven years, might represent the future of anything. But the critical thing to understand about Ron Paul is that his campaign will never end. Since leaving Washington in January, he has committed even more time and attention to returning the Republican Party to its humble, small-government roots.
For the wider public, Ron Paul remains the eccentric old man at the far end of the primary-debate stage, rambling about the Federal Reserve, the balance of power, and the dangers of an expanding American empire. Before that, Paul spent decades in Congress casting lonely votes against seemingly innocuous bills — nay to honoring Mother Teresa with a congressional medal, nay to federal flood insurance for his district on the Texas coastline, nay to a resolution marking the fortieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. His detractors nicknamed Paul, an obstetrician by training, “Dr. No.” You could find him late at night on C-SPAN, pining like Rip Van Winkle on the empty House floor for the quill-and-parchment policies of an American age long since gone. Silver coins. Legalized hemp. No federal taxation. All this along with an insular, do-unto-others foreign policy that hasn’t been relevant since the U.S. Navy landed at Quallah Battoo.
Nevertheless, the Ron Paul Revolution, as his campaign has been called, was fueled by a young, antiwar base when he first ran for president as a Republican, in 2007. That was the year the first guerrilla revolution signs went up along highways, the year an online “money bomb” raised a record $6 million in small donations in one day and supporters launched a 200-foot blimp that encouraged confused onlookers to google ron paul. It was the right’s first serious youth movement since Goldwater. In early 2009, Hillary Clinton, newly confirmed as secretary of state, went off script at a congressional hearing to remark on the phenomenon. “I mean, my goodness,” she said to Paul, “everywhere I went, they were literally running down highways holding your signs.”
Paul’s ardent young apostles can be righteous, but their code is our eternal American lore. To them, Ron Paul is John Quincy Adams warning that America ought not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” He is Henry David Thoreau insisting that “that government is best which governs least” and Woody Guthrie announcing his suspicion that folks “been robbing each other . . . with fountain pens.”
“It’s like really waking up.” That’s how Ashley Ryan describes the day she found Ron Paul. She first heard him speak five years ago, when she was sixteen, and has since spent countless hours as an activist not for Ron Paul the man, she says, but for his beliefs. The speech that drew her in was one of Paul’s staples, a folksy homily on the evils of the modern war-making corporate nation-state, but it sparked moral outrage. The petite, mild-mannered Maine teenager was electrified, and she took up Ron Paul’s mission. “Once you wake up,” she told me, “you can’t go back to sleep.”
I met Ryan last August in Tampa, where she was sworn in at the Republican National Convention as Maine’s committeewoman, possibly the youngest person from any state ever to hold the title. Ryan had spent the previous weekend at the PAUL (People Awakening and Uniting for Liberty) Festival, the grassroots libertarian shadow convention that served as the Paulite operating base in Tampa. (Having refused to endorse Romney, Paul was denied a speaking slot at the real thing.) Ryan told me about being “bitten by the liberty bug” and said that she was taking off her fall semester at college to concentrate on her political activities. When she talked about nonpolitical topics, such as the painted beads she wears in her tongue (“I take them out when I go to Republican things”), she seemed like an average upbeat young woman. But when she talked about Liberty, her voice dropped and gathered like a fist.
The day before she took on her establishment role, Ryan gave the biggest speech of her life, to a crowd of 10,000 fellow subversives. As the outer bands of Tropical Storm Isaac lashed the palm trees on the University of South Florida campus, the Paul campaign filled the Sun Dome for a six-hour extravagance they called the We Are the Future Rally. To many on the outside, it looked like a preening swan song for Paul, who would be leaving Congress at the end of the year. But inside, the retirement party escalated into a declaration of intraparty war. The dark arena flashed with strobes and boomed with chants of “President Paul!” When her turn came, Ashley Ryan had the screaming crowd on its feet before she had uttered a single word. As rally emcee and senior Paul campaign adviser Doug Wead put it when he introduced her, “[RNC rules-committee chair] John Sununu is here today, but he’ll be gone tomorrow. And this young lady, she will still be here.”
At “Paul Fest,” the truly devout had revolution tattooed on their forearms and talked about their conversion experiences as if they were George Harrison at Rishikesh. Some had piled into cross-country “Ronvoys” that rolled to Tampa from Tucson and beyond. A young man from Nevada told me that Ron Paul had taught him to see everything differently. I nodded and jotted this down in my notebook. “No,” he said, his eyes locking on mine. “Everything.” A ponytailed and bearded man calling himself Donny Tsunami told me that finding “the teachings of Dr. Paul” is like “opening a door that reveals countless more doors.” The festival was billed as three days of “liberty unleashed,” and over the course of the weekend I heard several people ask each other, “How long have you been awake?”
The Ron Paul awakening is sort of like finding your religion and sort of like becoming aware of the Matrix. One minute, you’re an average kid walking down the street in Anytown, USA. The next, you’re sucked through a wormhole in the sidewalk and emerge in an alternate reality of social engineering through currency manipulation. “We took the red pill,” Amanda White told me. “Most sheep don’t even know there’s a pill to take.” She was standing in a circle of activists exchanging stories from the trail. She wore suede slippers, mismatched socks (one safety orange, one raspberry-slushie blue), and a white T-shirt that she’d spray-stenciled to read, in Day-Glo, ron paul 2012 and 1776 vs. 1984.
Like a lot of activists I met, White was in Tampa on her own. She buzzed around Paul Fest recording video with her iPhone, and every time I intercepted her, she dropped a new dose of secret history on me. “Did you know,” she said, “that the Gun Control Act of 1968 was written with language that was lifted straight from the gun-control laws in Nazi Germany?” When I reacted with surprise, she arched her eyebrows and cracked a wry smile that bespoke troves of dark knowledge. “Dude. You didn’t know this? Look it up! I got it from Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.”
Paulites traffic in Internet folklore. I was invited into several spontaneous huddles that tightened around a smartphone’s glow. One of the best videos I was shown was of MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough reading a Nostradamian statement that Paul made in 2003 about the housing-market crash of 2008. When the clip ended, we all looked at one another with round-eyed astonishment. A young man standing next to me made a sudden confession: Back home, he said gravely, his parents and brothers “still haven’t woken up yet.”
Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign was better organized and funded than his 2008 attempt. (Among Republicans, only Mitt Romney raised more money last year.) Paul didn’t win a single state primary, but, unlike his rivals, he kept his polling numbers steady, and his campaign worked methodically to take over the party from within. While Newt Gingrich was out spending money he didn’t have for votes he wouldn’t get, Ron Paul continued laying the foundation for a generational movement. Today, Republicans affiliated with his so-called Liberty Movement control the state parties in Iowa, Maine, Michigan, and Nevada and are ascendant in more than a dozen other states.
These gains came amid a sustained media blackout. In mid-January, just as Paul began to rise in the polls and vie with Gingrich and Rick Santorum as Romney’s main challenger, coverage of his campaign in the press disappeared. That month, the public editor of the New York Times wrote that early in the campaign the paper had “decided to remain low key in its coverage of Ron Paul.” In response to the brazen and widespread treatment, Jon Stewart asked on The Daily Show, “How did libertarian Ron Paul become the thirteenth floor in a hotel?” But it wasn’t a new phenomenon; the pattern dated from 2008, says Doug Wead, when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews personally apologized to Paul for not calling on him when he signaled to speak in a presidential debate Matthews had moderated. According to Wead, Matthews said, “The voice in my earplug said, ‘Don’t go to Ron Paul. Don’t go to Ron Paul.’ ”
 They are also active military. During the 2012 primaries, members of the armed forces donated almost twice as much money to Ron Paul as they did to President Obama, and more than seven times what they gave Mitt Romney.
Paul’s followers are millennials raised on The Daily Show and wary of partisan bullshit. They are far more concerned about bankrolling the baby-boomer pension plan than about whether their lesbian neighbors are allowed to get married. They represent this country’s only concentration of young conservative enthusiasm and, paradoxically, the only remaining organized political resistance to what we used to call the System.  The Paulites are the bridge that connects the two great camps of populist discontent — Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Moderate libertarian independents are the largest untapped market in American politics, one that grows larger every year. The G.O.P. establishment has no clue how to reach them and, inexplicably, shows no intention of even trying.
At Paul Fest’s opening night, where punk-metal bands raged to almost no one in the Florida State Fairgrounds’ cavernous arena, I went looking for a familiar face. I found Amanda White in the parking lot talking to Dru Schottenheimer, the founder of LetRonPaulSpeak.com, a website set up to collect signatures for an online petition demanding that the congressman be allowed to address the Republican convention. We were all tired and fading, and I offered to drive everyone to a nearby gas station for Cool Ranch Doritos and a six-pack of Yuengling that would stay cold for about ten minutes in the swampy Tampa night. On the ride over, Schottenheimer told us that he is a Christian conservative, that gay marriage is wrong, and that abortion is murder. White nodded emphatically and said, “That’s cool, dude. Liberty entitles everyone to live according to his beliefs.” As he stepped out of the car, Schottenheimer shook his head and grimaced. He took off his hat and rubbed his face and looked through the greasy convenience-store windows at the racks of Hostess cakes, the menthol cigarettes and instant-lotto tickets and porno mags. These things “are wrong,” he said, “and they are moral issues. But I don’t believe the government can tell people what to do.”
Ron Paul insists that he is the only true small-government conservative on the national stage. But listening to Schottenheimer and White, I had the disorienting thought that the man Jon Stewart once diagnosed as “Tea Party patient zero” might also be the only compelling liberal among recent presidential candidates, or at least the only one who seems genuinely interested in pushing certain causes that progressives hold dear.
President Obama claims that his administration reformed the financial industry, yet his Wall Street fund-raising suggests that the banks know well they have nothing to fear from him. Five years after “Too big to fail,” the biggest banks are all larger than before. Yesterday’s moral hazards have become tomorrow’s federal guarantees. Long before Occupy and the Tea Party understood Wall Street as both slave and master of the Federal Reserve, Ron Paul obsessed over their scandalous arrangement. He echoed the suspicions of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, who predicted that the central bank would become the driver of income inequality. Whereas the right distracts voters with urgent noises about Marxist income redistribution, Paul insists the real problem is money flowing in the opposite direction. His Liberty Movement may never “end the Fed,” but its members show more concern than anyone on the left (outside Vermont senator Bernie Sanders) about the Fed’s practice of “socialism for the rich.”
Since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, Obama has ordered more than 300 drone strikes in Pakistan alone that have killed roughly 3,000 people, including more than 500 civilians, both adults and children. As a candidate, Obama campaigned against what he called the “dumb war” in Iraq, but once in office he stuck to the Bush-era timelines for withdrawal and rubber-stamped plans for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which, at 104 acres, is about the size of Vatican City and is the largest embassy in the world. With the notable exception of torture, President Obama has upheld the raft of expanded military, police, and surveillance powers that the Bush Administration arrogated to itself in the years following 9/11. Guantánamo won’t close down until all the prisoners there are dead. Obama has gone beyond even Bush in his willingness to target U.S. citizens for extrajudicial execution.
Paul’s foreign policy has been a radical departure not just from mainstream Republicanism but from the views of the entire political establishment. “For heaven’s sake,” he asks, “what kind of debate is it in which all sides agree that America needs troops in 130 countries?” He opposes drones foreign and domestic. He questions every aspect of the security state. “If the president claims extraordinary wartime powers, and we fight undeclared wars with no beginning and no end,” he wrote while Bush was still in office, “when if ever will those extraordinary powers lapse?” In a September 2001 speech on the House floor, just two weeks after 9/11, he said that “we should not casually ignore the root causes of our current fight” and declared American foreign policy as partly to blame. Terrorism, he would later say to stony silence at many a G.O.P. primary debate, grows in proportion to American empire. “They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free,” he told Rudy Giuliani in South Carolina. “They attack us because we’re over there.” Paul’s unwavering isolationism has riled Republicans and stirred leftist passions since he was a fringe figure in the 1980s. Before last year’s Iowa caucuses, the peace activist and whistle-blowing FBI agent Coleen Rowley endorsed Paul in an op-ed in the Des Moines Register and urged liberals to embrace the man she deemed the only antiwar candidate in either party. 
 In the past two election cycles, he was also the only major-party candidate to talk about ending the war on drugs and reducing our vast prison population.
Of course, liberals don’t get to vote for Ron Paul and then smash just the parts of the state they don’t like. He won’t stop at the Pentagon. Warfare and welfare are “but one idea,” Paul writes, the embryonic cells of tyranny, and each requires the same total authority. The power that forces a man into military service is no different from the one that takes his money. All the mechanisms and institutions of regulation and social welfare are slated for drastic downsizing or outright removal. Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Internal Revenue Service. There will be no gun control. The forced redistribution of money from the young, healthy, and working to the elderly, sick, and poor will come to an end. To Paul’s core supporters, who see a system riddled with hypocrisy and corruption, the bitterness of this pill proves its purity.
They are members of a particular kind of cult; at Paul Fest, the trappings of messianic idol worship could be found everywhere. An all-blond gang of vaguely evangelical young men roamed the grounds in tyranny response team T-shirts. Dozens of vendors hawked totems and charms. Little Ron Paul bobblehead dolls clutched tiny Constitutions. You could buy a case of Ron Paul Milk Chocolate Standard bars (“Liberty Just Got Sweeter”) and tickets to the 2013 Ron Paul Cruise. The overall mood was one of patriotic passion and righteous anger heightened by survivalist paranoia. The John Birch Society gave away free pens next to a booth showing the trailer for Gray State, an as yet undeveloped movie in which a fourth round of quantitative easing by the Fed leads to FEMA-enforced martial law, concentration camps, and beheadings by guillotine. “Gray State,” the posters advised, “is not necessarily fiction.”
Hard-core libertarians live in a world that does not distinguish between metaphor and reality, between the possible and the actual. After all, when Friedrich Hayek wrote about the “road to serfdom,” it wasn’t a figure of speech — he believed that even the most seemingly benign bit of central planning led inexorably to the gulag. Such a mind-set makes fertile ground for fantastical conspiracy theories. Some anarchist notions — like the worry that America’s police forces are being gradually militarized — are grounded in facts that go underreported. Some are baseless paranoia. Then there’s the case of Brandon Raub, the outspoken former Marine who was taken into involuntary FBI custody after he posted inflammatory content on his Facebook page, including violent song lyrics and theories about the U.S. government having orchestrated the attacks of 9/11. Though Raub was never charged with a crime, he spent a week in custody before a judge ordered his release.
For someone like Amanda White, Raub’s case is both frightening and reaffirming: If you spend your days crowing in the public commons about chemtrails and FEMA death camps and how the government is going to come get you — well, it turns out that thanks to the antiterrorism laws you protest against so tirelessly, the government might actually come to get you.
White told me about Raub as we walked under an oppressive sun to the Paul Fest camping area, an empty lot of scrubby Bermuda grass and muddy tire ruts behind the arena. Our route was marked by chicken-wire fences that encircled the fairgrounds’ other weekend tenant: the Republican National Convention’s $50 million federal security detail, which had established its base camp here. Halfway to the camping area, a khaki-shirted and mustached deputy vectored hard across an open parking lot to intercept us and ask me why I had a camera and a notepad.
Surely it was just a coincidence, I said to White after the officer let us move on, that a battalion of overeager cops was stationed next to Ron Paul’s grassroots-anarchist convention. “Not a chance,” she said. I remembered a T-shirt I’d seen earlier that morning. who told you i was paranoid? it asked. was it the government?
When activists in Tampa talked to me in ways that would in other settings sound crazy, I kept an open mind. Why, one man asked me sotto voce, did the Department of Homeland Security purchase more than a billion rounds of ammunition in one six-month period last year? “Maybe the Forest Service needs them,” I said. “You know, for shooting bears.” He arched an eyebrow.
Back at my hotel, I searched online for an answer to his question. But aside from a story on Infowars.com, the website of the popular libertarian conspiracist Alex Jones, I couldn’t find any coverage. When I contacted the Department of Homeland Security, I received an email explaining that the bullets are part of a “strategic sourcing effort to combine multiple previous contracts in order to leverage the purchasing power of the entire Department” — in other words, they were buying in bulk to save money. The five-year supply, I was told, will be distributed to the 135,000 or so gun-carrying personnel who fall under the department’s jurisdiction.
This might strike the average American as government waste. But to a suspicious libertarian, and to Ron Paul himself, every armed federal agent is a tool of violent tyranny; each bullet represents a dead American. This paranoid streak gives libertarianism’s outer reaches an edge lacking even in typical right-wing media. Whereas Rush Limbaugh works in the service of the Republican Party, Alex Jones distrusts the entirety of the current power structure. Jones is a showman, a bully, and a devout Paulite, one whose friendship would pose a challenge to a more conventional politician. This past January, Jones made a spectacle of himself on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, calling the show’s host a “hatchet man for the New World Order”; Ron Paul, rather than distancing himself, appeared a few days later on Jones’s radio show.
I heard a lot of healthy skepticism at Paul Fest about the military-industrial complex, the Federal Reserve, the pharmaceutical industry, and the media. But I also sat through a lot of conspiracy talk, the kind that sees evil in too many places. As the nights in Tampa wore on and groups of activists talked over beers, I watched these dark theories take shape and fly.
There is a line from Paulite scripture that says, “I am an imperfect messenger, but the message is perfect.” Ashley Ryan and Amanda White both quoted this to me. One Paul Fest organizer from Long Island told me she is planning to have it tattooed across her back.
Ron Paul never could shake the stigma of a radical, nor did he really try. During a twelve-year absence from the House in the 1980s and ’90s, he published monthly newsletters that abounded in racist paranoia. He denied having written the inflammatory content, but it doesn’t much matter whether this is true. A man with his name once attached to a column about the “coming race war” was never going to be elected president. So Ron Paul’s retirement may be the best thing yet to happen for his movement’s political prospects.
The Liberty Movement is decentralized and spreading. Candidate Ron Paul always boasted of his vast small-donor base. But the nascent faction he leaves behind already has natural allies in Silicon Valley, home to wealthy iconoclasts who want to protect Internet freedom and like to be out in front of any emerging trend. Peter Thiel, a billionaire cofounder of PayPal and an early investor in Yelp and LinkedIn, donated $2.6 million to the Endorse Liberty super PAC last year and could change the dynamic of any race he chooses. As a revered innovator, investor, and gay conservative, he also lends the Liberty Movement the kind of cultural capital the G.O.P. is critically lacking.
“This is the second time in my life that the party has gone through a fundamental change,” Doug Wead told me. A veteran of seven presidential campaigns and an evangelical Christian who specializes in coalition building, Wead thinks the Liberty Movement will ultimately deliver a bigger party shake-up than did the Christian Coalition he helped build in the 1980s. Paul’s tribe has long yearned for total revolution, but what it gets may be a coalition. As Ron Paul put it in Tampa, “We will become the tent.”
All that’s missing is a candidate. State-party takeovers are encouraging, Wead said, but it takes a national figure to spark a true prairie fire. “You can’t win a general unless you can touch the hearts of the nation,” he said. Libertarian author Brian Doherty agreed with the strategy, but doubts that any such person currently exists. “I don’t want to put this too dramatically, but there is no next Ron Paul,” he said. “It’s nice that there is at least a Ron Paul–esque wing of the Republican Party, but Rand is probably as close as they’ll get.”
When Ron Paul’s inexperienced son was unexpectedly swept into office in 2010, it marked the first time in history that a representative in the House would serve concurrently with his child in the Senate. Rand Paul has leveraged his father’s legacy into a seat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. With his Tea Party and Bible Belt bona fides, Wead said, Rand Paul may be the only figure who can unite young libertarians with the still powerful evangelical base. “There is an almost universal sentiment that Rand is going to run [in 2016] and that he has a real chance.”
Listen closely to Rand Paul and you can already hear him stitching the coalition together. It begins with speaking the languages of different constituencies. “When you start talking to any subculture,” Wead said, “they can tell when you’re not one of them. They know you’re not from their neighborhood.” George H. W. Bush never could master the evangelical dialect. But his son, an actual born-again Christian, made an art of linguistic pandering. “He did it,” Wead said of the younger Bush’s success. “He may have ruined the country, but he did it.”
For Rand, the father’s cautious Old Right foreign policy is now a Christian foreign policy. “When you read the Sermon on the Mount,” he said in Tampa, “it doesn’t say anywhere in there, ‘Blessed are the war makers.’ ” Wead thinks the coalition can even defuse polarizing social issues. “If the Constitution allows me to practice my faith, then I have to accept that it also gives rights to homosexuals,” he explained. “There are evangelicals coming around to this,” Wead said, “and I know because I’m one of them.”
While the strategists try to work a miracle out of Rand and the Liberty Movement attempts to retool the party, high-profile and mainstream candidates are likely to move in on this game. Most Americans have never heard a moderate libertarian voice, but a politician looking to attract the next generation of conservatives will eventually have to pick up fragments of Paulite language.
A handful have already tried. In his Charlotte speech, Jindal said:
We must quit “big.” We are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, or big anything. We must not be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys.
In a December interview with London’s Daily Telegraph, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman said the Republican Party is “a holding company that’s devoid of a soul.” He called “crony capitalism” the Democrats’ greatest weakness in the coming years. “The state will grow, and as the state grows, so do all the ancillary and subsidiary functions of lobbyists and K Street advisers. And that’s stuff that Americans hate.” The winning formula for Republicans, Huntsman said, will have to include “a strong dose of libertarianism.”
David Lane was an odd choice to deliver the invocation at the We Are the Future Rally. The Christian political activist has been an outspoken booster of such anti-Paulites as Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry. At first the crowd was respectful, but when Lane asked them to join him in praying that Jesus “return America to our Judeo-Christian roots,” a man in the lower mezzanine booed, loud and long. It was a lone voice, but no one hushed him, and the outburst was the first of many that cut against the grain of our accepted political narratives. The Paulites may oppose government power, but they loathe what currently passes for conservatism even more.
Their loudest jeers were directed not at President Obama and Nancy Pelosi but at Rick Santorum, who over time emerged as the rally’s favored whipping boy. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Rudy Giuliani were all roundly booed. Jack Hunter, the revolution’s resident radio host and blogger, gave a speech that took direct aim at the Liberty Movement’s most intimate foes: the mouthpieces of the anti-intellectual right. “Simply hating the other side is not an ideology,” he said. “It’s childishness, and it’s useless.”
Doug Wead held the rally stage like a pastor on Sunday, and in his stentorian bellows, he led the flock through psalms of populist indignation. He opened with a story about an establishment Republican blogger who had called the rally an exercise “in bad taste.” “Bad taste,” Wead countered, “is auditing a waitress to make sure she pays taxes on her tip money, but not auditing the Federal Reserve.” The crowd went bananas.
The tone was less bitter than at a Tea Party rally, the talking points more specific than at an Occupy encampment, and the whole thing far less polished than any Democratic or Republican party production. The speeches and musical acts varied wildly. John Popper, the front man of Blues Traveler, played his harmonica and spoofed a call to Rick Santorum’s cell phone. Singer Aimee Allen screamed “Wake up!” to open her “Ron Paul Anthem.” Jordan Page, “the revolution’s own troubadour,” strutted the stage in a cowboy hat and jeans and at first glance could have been a terribly normal act of acoustic Americana. But his “The Light of Revolution” is straight protest, an anarchic cry of skeptical discontent. “They say that truth is treason in the empire of lies,” Page sings, paraphrasing Ron Paul paraphrasing Orwell.
Have you ever seen a talking head on television sway
the people through deception, telling lies to earn his pay?
Can’t you feel the ground shake these institution walls?
Well I’ll watch them fall, when I stand with Dr. Paul.
More than four hours after the rally started, the hero took the podium. They stood and cheered him to embarrassment, their kindly prophet of purity and peace, and he rotated stiffly in the downpour of adoration. Two square bodyguards in blazers and army flattops flanked him like lions at a temple gate, and as the amber pixels of a giant Constitution floated behind him, Ron Paul began a sermon on the history of modern society in the West. He told his congregants that they were “living at a time that an era is ending” and offered quotes from one of his favorite books, Dr. Zhivago. “What about 1913?” he asked; a chorus of knowing boos went up, and a young man’s voice rang out: “Screw 1913!” Year Zero on the Paulian calendar: the birth of the Federal Reserve, America’s original sin, Ron Paul’s white whale, and proof that what seems permanent was once just an idea. With little further prompting, 10,000 people erupted in their favorite chorus: “End the Fed! End the Fed! End the Fed!” The spindly philosopher smiled, leaned into the microphone, and replied, “Good idea.”
His Tampa speech had just one moment of intemperance. Paul told the crowd that an unnamed critic had recently claimed that “ ‘if those Paul people had been in charge, Osama bin Laden would still be alive.’ ” To this, Paul reacted with uncharacteristic fury:
So would the three thousand people from 9/11 be alive! And so would the eighty-five hundred Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would be alive as well! Also those forty-four thousand military personnel who have come back severely injured and . . . hundreds of thousands suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome as well as brain injuries. If you take that and add in four trillion dollars, our side wins that argument by a long shot.
The same claims that made him the mockery of so many primary debates are still his core gospel. “He’s the only politician willing to judge America’s foreign policy adventures by the same moral standard we apply to other countries’ foreign policy adventures,” Brian Doherty writes in Ron Paul’s revolution. That consistency, combined with the premium placed on peace, is the spiritual bedrock on which the Paulite’s righteousness rests. When Amanda White said goodbye to me in Tampa, she smiled and waved and said, “In liberty.” Jack Hunter told the Paulites that liberty “is the cause of our lives.” A lot of people dislike the Fed for a variety of reasons, but suppressed interest rates don’t galvanize a generational movement. Nonviolence is the thing that tells the Paulites they are right and everyone else is wrong.
Days later, after Isaac had sideswiped the Gulf Coast and Paul and his family had flown back to Texas, I noticed a crude little cardboard sign sticking out of the ground on a Tampa byway, miles from anywhere. save us ron paul, it said. Establishment Republicans write it all off as a cult of personality, and with the endless chanting and uncomfortable messianism, that’s an easy charge to make. But Ron Paul did not go from congressional outlier to latter-day Jesus by being charismatic. People don’t go to a Ron Paul speech to witness great oratory. They go to hear something they can’t find anywhere else.
American politics thrives on religious subtexts. There are always mountains to climb, spirits to cast out, eternities to promise. Barack Obama’s reelection may not herald end-time for the G.O.P., but for the conservative movement as a whole, Obama’s second term is the cataclysm that marks the end of an era. The next winning Republican coalition won’t look like the last. It won’t be racially or culturally homogeneous. Nor will it sound the same. It will adopt new positions and policies. It will make at least some effort to attract young people.
The Paulites may reject the moralizing laws of the evangelical base, but their movement is its own kind of religion, one no less guided by faith, rapture, and revelation. During his 2012 campaign, Ron Paul spoke at more than thirty college campuses nationwide, and since his retirement, he has been touring schools again. There is a recurring theme in these speeches: he talks about the “remnant” of small-government, Old Right Taft conservatives hiding dispersed and dormant in the body politic. “There is always a remnant,” he says, “that clings to the truth of things. . . . You don’t know who they are or where they are, and you don’t know how many.” These gnostics wander a shattered world, hold and protect the teachings of their prophets, and await their deliverance. After three losing presidential campaigns and decades of not getting his way in Congress, Ron Paul the man is finally gone. Four months into his political afterlife, the Ron Paul movement is here to stay.
More from Michael Ames:
Postcard — July 30, 2014, 6:38 pm
Perspective — August 23, 2013, 2:32 pm
Controversy — July 26, 2013, 4:22 pm