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With that traction has come a wave of “Who Are the Paulistas?” media stories. The ultimately dismissive, if often amused, spirit of many of them is summed up by an anecdote in one of the articles. After noting some Paul fans’ penchant for wearing costumes, including colonial era garb, Time’s Joel Stein describes how, after a New Hampshire rally, a staffer for fellow GOP candidate Tom Tancredo “walked up to a guy in a shark costume and asked him if he was a Ron Paul supporter. ‘No. They’re all nuts,’ replied the shark. ‘I’m just a guy in a shark suit.’ ”
While left-leaning writers such as Glenn Greenwald at Salon and John Nichols at The Nation have been Paul defenders, the right-wing press has frequently featured bitter animus against him. For example, the conservative columnist Mona Charen scoffs that Paul “might make a dandy new leader for the Branch Davidians.” At The Weekly Standard’s website, Dean Barnett writes, “If you’re the kind of person whose neighbors call you a crank, you probably see Ron Paul as a kindred spirit. And chances are he’s with you on the subject for which you’ve achieved your notoriety in crankdom.”
In my interviews with dozens of Paul supporters from across the country, I encountered not a single nut or dedicated conspiracy theorist. In fact, they all evinced a general belief in free markets and the Constitution that should, in theory, make them welcome members in good standing of the American right.
The Revolution’s Future
Most of the current Ron Paul Army has mustered in only with this campaign. Most of them had never heard of him, or thought of themselves as libertarians, before six months ago. The predominance of newbies bothers Jorge Besada, an economics fan in a Hayek shirt who shipped in from Nebraska to hear his man talk in Ames and Des Moines. Without a solid grounding in the verities of Austrian economics, Besada worries, Paul supporters won’t be optimal sellers of the freedom message. Too many of Paul’s positions, whether his hard-money stance or the larger questions of how free markets and free people will function and achieve social goals without constant government management, require a sophisticated economics background to really get, he fears.
There are no survey data about the Paul movement, but certain rough generalizations seem valid. They are not an unwashed rabble of weirdos, as Paul’s right-wing critics like to say; most are either college students or adult professionals, though usually not rich. They generally support Paul all the way. (Those with Libertarian Party backgrounds are likely to differ on immigration and abortion.) The war issue is important to them, but so are the larger matters of civil liberties and fiscal conservatism. They imagine themselves continuing the fight for these ideas in some capacity after the election, but they often aren’t sure how. Many, though, promise that any future candidate for any office pushing the Paul line will have their support. And some promise to be those future candidates.
Some Paul fans with more political experience, both Republican and Libertarian, are working to keep the revolution alive even if their candidate fails to take the nomination. In Florida, Paul partisans are encouraging their comrades to join county GOP executive committees and reshape the party from the bottom up in Paul’s image. In Alabama, a Paul organizer sees single-issue freedom-oriented grassroots groups already arising from the activists Paul has energized, including campaigns dedicated to gun rights and to fighting a national ID card.
There is a lot of clamor among Libertarian Party higher-ups and activists to get Paul (who remains a lifetime member of the party) to seek its nomination if he fails to get the Republican nod. Many insiders agree that it would be his for the taking at the party’s May convention. One downside for the L.P., which most seem willing to overlook, is that laws in a handful of states (including Paul’s home state of Texas) would bar him from the presidential ballot because of his campaign in the GOP primary. Paul continually denies that he’ll make a third-party run, but his denials are always couched in terms of not thinking about it or planning it, as opposed to categorically denying that he would ever under any circumstances do it.
Whatever his future plans, Paul insists this revolution is about his message, not him. But small hints of a cult of personality hover around some of his fans’ devotion to the candidate. Almost all the supporters I talk to stress their trust in him and often assume he’s probably right about most things, even issues they haven’t put a great deal of thought into.
These Paulistas are what hopeful libertarians have fantasized about for decades: a disaffected but engageable mass of Americans, many of them hidden among the 45 percent or so who tend not to vote. They support an argument advanced by David Boaz of the Cato Institute and David Kirby of the America’s Future Foundation, who estimate, based on detailed polling data, that 9 to 14 percent of Americans hew to a roughly libertarian political ideology—and that this group has been shifting away from the GOP during the current Bush administration.
Such Americans represent a deep, natural well of libertarianism waiting to be tapped. And Ron Paul has hit a gusher in a year when every other Republican stands for big government and war, and when YouTube and Meetup are a private, self-selected national TV network and town hall for 24-hour Ron Paul. But when he’s gone?
I ask Paul, as he shakes hands and chats with every one of the 100 or so fans in his hospitality suit after the Iowa GOP dinner, about the future of the Ron Paul Revolution. First he admits to being as shocked as anyone by what’s happening. For years, he resisted calls to run again for president. He thought it was too early in the long-term libertarian educational project for such a campaign to get anywhere.
“Even if I said, ‘OK folks, we didn’t make it, let’s all go home’—I don’t think it would happen,” he says. “I’ve been laboring in these fields for 30 years and wasn’t reaching many people and thought maybe my role is only to lay the foundation with a few speeches, voting the right way, setting a standard. I don’t know what will happen. Something amazing could happen in Iowa and New Hampshire, and that will decide a lot. But many of my supporters indicate they will be running for office. They understand my positions, and it would be pretty neat to see a bunch of new members go to Congress with these views.”
If something like that happens, Paul’s connection with Johnny Rotten and punk rock may be deeper than it first appears. It has often been said that early punk precursors like the Velvet Underground and the Ramones may not have sold many records themselves, but that everyone who bought one formed his own band to carry on the spirit. Even if Ron Paul doesn’t get that many votes, his voters may end up running for office themselves. It would be a fitting legacy for a very do-it-yourself political movement.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of This is Burning Man (BenBella) and adicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs). He first wrote about Ron Paul for The American Spectator in 1999.