It just ain’t fair. Last week you could prowl the streets of Denver for hours and not find a PUMA—a Hillary Clinton diehard who’d pledged her heart and blog to John McCain. Flip on the TV, though, and there they were. This week you can’t take 50 steps without seeing some physical evidence of the Ron Paul campaign, which as far as most people know ended months ago. There they are, holding up signs at the Xcel Center security perimeter. There they are, marching in an anti-war rally. But the cameras are always somewhere else.
A little bit of media love finally arrived on Tuesday, however, as Paul backers swarmed into Minneapolis for the immaculately planned, heavily promoted "Rally for the Republic." Ten thousand tickets were sold for what would be the final Paul event of the campaign. The man’s supporters had finally sorted out their Republican convention credentials, and dozens of them walked smiling past the Timberwolves and Alicia Keys signs of the Target Center, jangling their holographic “delegate” badges. The thousands of other ticket-holders had flown (or just as often, driven) in from all parts of the country for a final election-year salute to Paul—and for the launch of the Campaign for Liberty, Paul’s 501c4 that’s actually been humming for a few months.
”We’re fixing everything that’s been going wrong in the country since the banks took over in 1913,” said Fred Brown, a North Carolinian sporting a “Veterans for Peace” cap. He’d signed up in a political training seminar two days before this, attended a picnic and concert yesterday, and then watched all eight hours of Paul’s mega-rally. “Seven months ago I was just a November voter, and now I want to take back the Republican Party.”
That was one man’s opinion, close enough to the theme of the rally. Organizers handed out calligraphied signs that read “Taking the GOP back to its ROOTS!” John Tate of the Campaign for Liberty explained that the group will not endorse against incumbent Republicans, but will aid the efforts Paul-ish Republicans in open primaries. (Paul’s endorsement of Alaska Rep. Don Young, according to Tate, had nothing to do with the CfL.) The stated mission from the stage was safe and mundane, a gold-and-silver-centric version of a Club for Growth party.
Again: That was what the Campaign for Liberty was saying. The other speakers and sponsors were not so chaste. They gave the roughly 10,000 people in the Target Center what they wanted. Outside the hall, the John Birch Society set up a sprawling, high-tech booth advertising its campaign to link Paul and JBS founder Robert Welch: “Two Leaders, One Cause.” The Constitution Party passed out information on its presidential ticket inside the hall, with CP founder Howard Phillips comparing “the threat of the North American Union” to “the war of Northern Aggression.” The publisher of the best-named fringe newspaper, USA Tomorrow, appeared in the hall’s massive screen to hawk his products, as bushels of copies sat around the arena. “We run the news the good ol’ boys won’t print,” he said, with a 10-foot high smirk.
Here were the reporters, finally covering the Paul movement. Here’s what they were covering: Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a vision in a yellow T-shirt and blue blazer, aired 9/11 conspiracy theories while reporters rushed to get comments from attendees. (I walked past a New York Times reporter who was quizzing two Paul backers about controlled demolitions.)
That pissed some people off. “I think the 9/11 Truth Movement as we knew it in 2006 and 2007 is dead,” said Justin Martell, a Franklin Pierce college student who’d spent much of 2007 showing up at New Hampshire candidate rallies asking about a new investigation. "We need to focus on the bigger picture, on issues like Iraq." The 9/11 truth issue roiled a number of attendees. “I might even be sympathetic to it,” said Paul voter Mike Reineke, “but I’m from New York, and that’s a touchy subject that you don’t want to talk to voters about.”
It was unavoidable. The Rally for the Republic was a crystallizing moment for the Ron Paul Nation. Without the focus of presidential debates or voter mail or TV ads, the congressman has become the latest Leader of the Fringe, a pop-political icon for all things outré. The job used to belong to Jesse Ventura. Before that it belonged to the person Ventura talked about the most, Ross Perot. On Thursday, Ventura will speak at a “super-rally” for perpetual candidate Ralph Nader, who wants to be included in presidential debates in part because he’s Ralph Nader and in part because he, too, used to be Leader of the Fringe.
Of course, there wasn't (and isn't, and won’t be until he croaks) anything libertarian about Ralph Nader’s campaign. There was romping anti-government rhetoric on tap at the Target Center, however, from Grover Norquist (who called pro-tax Republicans “rat heads in coke bottles”) and from the ex-candidate himself. Anti-war paleocon Bill Kauffman gave the best-phrased speech, patriotically libertarian, limned with jokes about pro-war Republicans: “Locating the antiwar wing of today’s Republican Party is like looking for the Juice Newton wing in the rock and roll hall of fame.” Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson gave the least far-fetched speech, full of references to decriminalized drugs and vetos he'd delivered, but it got less applause than, for example, Bircher John McManuses' buffet of red meat. (In solidarity with his base, Johnson delivered the speech with lots of distracted laughter.)
Paul’s speech wasn’t as hotly anticipated as, say, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s effort to prove she’s not the new Tom Eagleton will be tonight. “I’ve heard most of this before,” said Ronald Cadby, a transplanted Tennessean wearing a Santa Claus cap. References to legal marijuana got as much applause as attacks on the North American Union. But Paul debuted an affecting argument in his speech. He’d been preceded by singer Aimee Allen (a punky, libertarian Gwen Stefani-alike) who played back to back renditions of her song “Revolution.” (“We don’t want world government/and the Bilderberg Group that pays for it.”) Paul had requested that she play Buffy Sainte-Marie’s folk song “The Universal Soldier,” about the canon fodder summoned by every war-happy leader in history to make pointless conflicts.
”I used to be the universal soldier,” Paul said. No more rhetoric about how many “troops” had given money to his campaign: The armor clanked off. “We need to replace the universal soldier with the universal campaigner for liberty.”
Still, despite the weirdness of Paul's movement, and despite the fact that it can be so easily pigeonholed by the fringers trying to exploit it, it is still, at its core, a libertarian campaign. But the odder it gets, the less the GOP worries about it.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.