Quick now. Who’s the first real presidential contender in history to call for the legalization of drugs? How about the first explicitly anti-war candidate with a sizeable constituency—at least since George McGovern topped the Democratic ticket in ‘72? The first to ever question both the CIA’s and the Federal Reserve’s right to exist under the US constitution?
And who in the current field of potential GOP nominees received twice as many donations from active duty military members than his competitors combined? And in a race comprised of lifelong political conservatives each tripping over the other to proclaim his fealty to the “values of Ronald Reagan,” who’s devotion to conservatism’s twin totems– free markets and “personal responsibility”– has been 100% resolute through the decades? The answer to all the above is, of course, Ron Paul.
At least since he last ran for the GOP presidential nomination in ’08, the image of Paul as reflected back through the likes of CNN is of a cranky old gold-bug in a Confederate cap. Inasmuch as two of his hobbyhorses are a return to the gold standard and states rights this stereotype is at least partially accurate. But scratch below the surface of this image and a much more complex picture emerges of a wily pol who has managed to cobble together a broad yet distinct coalition of voters—concerned with what they describe as diminishing freedom—while not diverging from a few core principles. As excited followers packed into a modest banquet hall after his second place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday night, Paul himself spoke to this paradoxical connection of those concerned with civil liberties on the one hand and their money on the other. He added: “What you have to do is emphasize the coalitions that people want their freedoms for a different reason and bring them together.”
But Paul is not the first—and surely he’s not the last—candidate to appeal for a further erosion of the federal government. Now, with his current insurgence in the polls, he is maligned daily by members of old-line mainstream media outlets like CBS and CNBC—as well as Fox News commentariat—as a “racist” “dangerous” “crackpot” who is “unelectable” to boot. In a surprising on-air breech of CNN’s usual “objective” protocol correspondent Dana Bash announced she was “scared” by the strength of Paul’s New Hampshire apparatus. Could the intensity of attacks against Paul have more to do with his consistent and out-spoken opposition to the military-industry complex?
In order to better understand the so-called “Ron Paul Revolution,” which from the standpoint of this anti-war New York liberal is an exciting—yet ultimately frustrating—populist movement, I spent some time with his rank-file volunteers during the New Hampshire primary. Like Romantic poets who fall in love or boomers who heard Bob Dylan for the first time, Paul’s supporters seem to remember the moment they were first seized by the singularity of his message. New Hampshire native Ryan Barrubbi, a 27-year old optometrist, is waving a Ron Paul sign when I pull into Manchester on the cold night before the big vote. Nearby, a rickety looking sound truck thumps out a mix of Paul’s speeches looped into bass-fueled hip-hop beats.
Barrubbi speaks reverentially of 2007 when he “first started getting educated with what was going on in this country.” Like his cohorts he speaks of both the excitement of “learning” about Paul’s message and a profound disappointment when he lost. “I’ve met Dr. Paul three times and he seems like just a very nice man,” Barrubbi adds.
Rep. Paul, a former practicing OB-GYN, speaks of his movement in terms of an “intellectual revolution,” that has a special place in the lives of “young people.” Indeed New Hampshire’s “youth for Paul” chapter of under-18s seems especially active.
Bob Pyle, a self-proclaimed “Quaker evangelist” who travelled from Pennsylvania to hear Paul speak, , is less interested in Ayn Randian visions of self-aggrandizement than in liberating his inner peacenik . He says evenly, “If I want to drink raw milk, I want to be able to drink raw milk.” Then his tone rises as he turns to the Bush-created wars in the Mid East: “And that was just stupid. I lost a nephew in Iraq, that war was stupid. Jesus was the prince of peace, he wouldn’t want to occupy Afghanistan.”
The national director for Women for Ron Paul, Katie Baker, took a week off from her IT job to head the campaign’s local volunteer effort. A 37-year-old divorced mother of three with a smoky voice, from a “live free or die family” that traces its roots back to the 1600s (a distinction seemingly of great import in New Hampshire,) she’s clearly on the free market side of the coalition. When I characterize Paul as an anti-war candidate she asks earnestly, “Is he against all wars?” She wants “less intrusion” in the lives of her family and to take the “trillions of dollars of debt off the back of my kids,” so it’s no wonder she’s working so hard. She says: “I don’t know about the policy stuff. I just keep answering phones.”
A proprietary attitude toward federal monies is one of the least charming attributes of Paul’s followers. With the exception of ending foreign wars the idea that excites them most visibly is an end to inflationary spending. Paul spells out his economic beliefs in concrete terms any layman can understand. The government has been spending more than it can afford, it will never be able to tax its way out of its hole without open revolt and it’s a cinch to go bankrupt. When that happens the dollar will crash and you can forget about free healthcare. You’ll be lucky if you can buy a loaf of bread with a wheel barrel full of greenbacks. Paul likens currency to “funny money, fiat money.”
But there’s an out. A way to even save Social Security, because as Paul is the first to admit, “the middle class is suffering.” (Contrast that with Rick Santorum’s assertion that to even use the term “middle class” is to wallow in the trenches of class warfare with Barak Obama.) Paul’s modest proposal is to cut the deficit by one trillion dollars during his first year of office. His followers become rapt when Paul speaks about money and explode into cries of “One Trillion Dollars!” and “end the Fed!” If one considers that Paul’s simple economic spiels are the antithesis of the obscurantist lingo of central bankers, one understands, at least for a moment, the appeal.
Paul is not only the sole candidate of either major party that wants to bring the troops home right away, he is the only GOP contender not already spoiling for an entirely new war. During the latest debates Newt Gingrich punctuated his remarks with ominous predictions of “ICBM missiles” in Venezuela and Iranians seizing the Gulf of Hormuz—causing a “global depression in 48 hours.” Perry bragged that if he was president he would send troops back into Iraq. Even Huntsman, a self-proclaimed moderate, has opined that he would start a pre-emptive war against Iran. Santorum says troops should stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to “secure our country,” which has the ominous ring of Orwell’s never-ending war. Given this level of jingoistic rant, is it any wonder that Paul’s younger followers—including the black ones—have turned a blind eye to Paul’s intellectual quibbles with the language of the already inviolate 1964 Civil Rights Act?
The crazy racially charged rants, which appeared over his name in his own newsletters during the 1980s, do show extreme negligence but even his harshest critics have not suggested that Paul actually wrote them.
And when his more high-end GOP contenders deal in blatant racial stereotyping they’re given a pass. When Rick Santorum was caught on camera crowing about “black people’s lives [getting] better [with] somebody else’s money” at an Iowa stump speech, it disappeared into the memory hole within 48 hours. (One soi-disant “liberal-LGBT” corporate blogger even suggested that Santorum actually said “blagh people.”) Despite its intimations of the “shiftless negro,” Mitt Romney’s labeling of President Obama as someone who “does not understand, in his heart, in his bones, the nature of [work]” went completely unquestioned.
Yet at that same debate, it was Paul who had to defend himself against the charges of racism, a charge which he at least seemed to blanch at. Taking issue with what rankles him as a serious double standard, Ed Helmstetter, a preternaturally knowledgeable Paul volunteer, rebuts the claims of racism and anti-Semitism hurled at his man by referencing the late Murray Rothbard, Justin Romando, and Gary Howard respectively: “His biggest political influence was a Jewish guy, his last campaign manager is a gay guy and his campaign spokesman is a black guy.”
“Ron Paul is Truly Dangerous.” (National Journal, 12/29/11) “Ex-Aide: Ron Paul Foreign Policy is Lunacy.” (The Atlantic, 1/27/11) “Conspiracy Theorist Paul is unfit to be president.” (Daily News, 1/3/12) Those are just a few of the recent headlines that might have led an overly suspicious campaign manager to conclude there was a concerted media effort to derail Paul’s candidacy. For enthusiast Katie Baker, however, the fact that Paul has so many media organs lined up against him is a measure of his success. “It’s just because he’s winning,” she says. Singling out the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, for helping his effort, Paul crowed happily on Tuesday night: “I want to thank the Union-Leader,” then pausing for emphasis he added: “For not endorsing me.”
If we accept Paul’s assertion that Establishment disdain only stokes his popularity among the masses, his star can only set to rise. On Wednesday, a foggy screed posted on the respected liberal outlet Salon by Arkansas-based columnist Gene Lyons maintained that Paul’s anti-war message should be discarded out-of-hand because it’s really “about [Paul’s hatred of] the Jews.” In trying to sway the country from attacking Iran, Lyons argued, Paul is speaking not as a genuine pacifist or even an old-fashioned isolationist but as a political bedfellow” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the notorious holocaust denier.
The fact that Paul’s mentor was Murray Rothbard—a Jewish New Yorker who split with the Republicans with the rise of the party’s internationalist wing—is irrelevant to Lyons. Just because Paul is “cagey about how he expresses it” doesn’t mean he’s any less anti-Semitic. Asked if he thought it was surprising that Paul garnered so much financial support from American troops overseas, youthful New Hampshire State Senator Jim Fulbright, a Paul acolyte and former Air Force major, says: “Not at all, they give so much because they have been overseas.” He adds: “When I was serving I felt like I was protecting Saudi Arabia, not America.” While Gene Lyons would no doubt remark that our troops in the Middle East are really protecting Israel, Paul at least is consistent in that he’s advocated troop withdrawal from Korea and Japan as well as the Middle East.
For an intemperate anti-Paul voice from other side of the left-right divide, listen to popular WABC talk radio host and Sean Hannity sidekick Mark Levin. Levin recently thundered that if Ron Paul decided to run as a third party candidate, the radio host would “do everything in my power” to defeat his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R) Kentucky, whom Levin had up to then supported as a “true conservative.”
“Just look at the machine that is up against this guy,” marveled Paul volunteer Helmstetter. “How could you not like the guy a little bit?”