Scenes from the Ron Paul Revolution

The rise of an eclectic anti-statist movement


Note: Watch reason editor Nick Gillespie debate Bill O'Reilly on Ron Paul's candidacy at Fox News.

On the morning of October 30, a large group of people gathered outside The Tonight Show's Burbank studio. According to GloZell, a local eccentric who attends every taping of the show, only the lines attracted by Hollywood heartthrobs such as George Clooney, Justin Timberlake, and Daniel Radcliffe had ever come close to matching the crowd's size and enthusiasm. But this throng had gathered to cheer Ron Paul, a 72-year-old obstetrician and Air Force veteran turned Texas congressman. Paul was there to hawk not a movie or a record but his long-shot campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

During the broadcast, host Jay Leno respectfully attended to Paul's calls for hard money, withdrawal from Iraq, and a flat income tax of zero. Offstage, Leno got Paul to autograph his copy of the congressman's recent book, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship.

Later in the show, while performing "Anarchy in the U.K." with a reunited Sex Pistols, punk icon Johnny Rotten gave Paul a thumbs-up and a "Hello, Mr. Paul," later adding, "When are we getting out of Iraq?" In between, more ambiguously, he waggled his ass in Paul's general direction. But he shook hands with the congressman afterward, and according to Paul supporters on the scene he expressed respect to him privately. Paul, watching the broadcast with supporters at a Hollywood Hills fundraiser that evening, shook his head at the aging punk's antics, noting, well, we do promote tolerance.…

That day encapsulated Paul's surprising campaign. It featured a powerful show of grassroots support, respect from unexpected places, and an infiltration of radical ideas into American mainstream culture. There was the aging iconoclast Rotten, mixing the anarchy he stood for as a kid and the market capitalism he lived out as an adult (the Pistols had reunited to help promote the video game Guitar Hero III), symbolizing the range of liberties Paul represents to a movement that includes both Christian homeschoolers and heathen punks. And there was the question so many Americans want answered, the question central to Paul's campaign as the only Republican candidate opposed to the war: When are we getting out of Iraq?

When the Paul campaign began, most of the political cognoscenti considered it a quixotic joke. Now it's one of the hottest stories of the season. The reason for the turnaround is money. On November 5 alone, Paul took in a gigantic haul of $4.3 million. His third quarter 2007 draw nearly matched that of the far more famous John McCain, and his net cash on hand going into the primaries exceeded that of everyone but front-runner Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson (though millionaire Mitt Romney has his personal reserves to fall back on). As of press time, in the fourth quarter of 2007, Paul had collected $10.7 million, generally in amounts well below the legal $2,300 maximum for individual donations.

By November, Ron Paul was getting respect from surprising and prominent places. Conservative bigthinker George Will called Paul "my man" on ABC. Texas singer-songwriter-novelist Kinky Friedman told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that Paul is "probably telling the truth." Singer-songwriter John Mayer was caught on video informing a pal that "Ron Paul knows the Constitution, and I'm down with that." Even Eleanor Clift, conventional wisdom on the hoof, said on The McLaughlin Group that "Ron Paul with his antiwar libertarian message will be the story coming out of New Hampshire for the Republicans."

Paul is also the wonder of the Internet, with campaign mojo fueled almost entirely by his shockingly large number of fans on Meetup.com, a website that allows people with a shared interest to find one another and meet offline. Paul has more than 67,000 Meetup followers, about 20 times more than his nearest competitor, Barack Obama. That virtual presence has translated into more than just donations. Five thousand Paul supporters showed up at a November rally in Philadelphia, and his poll numbers in New Hampshire reached 8 percent in a mid-November CBS/New York Times survey—exceeding both Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.

If news is the unexpected, Ron Paul's rise was the news of the presidential campaign last fall. But Paul himself is not news. He's been pushing his libertarian values, derived from his love of the U.S. Constitution and the Austrian school of free market economics, through all of his 10 terms in Congress and in between. (He has served in Congress three times: from 1976 to 1977, from 1979 to 1983, and from 1997 to the present. He ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988.) What's news is the self-styled Ron Paul Revolution—his mass of self-coordinating supporters. The candidate's critics invented the term "Paulistas" to mock those supporters as wild-eyed radicals. Many of them then claimed the word for themselves, adopting it as a badge of honor.

Four years ago, Howard Dean's Democratic campaign offered an earlier example of a grassroots mass movement that came pretty much from nowhere, beholden to no power structure, decentralized in how it got information and in how it organized itself to act. But the Ron Paul Revolution adds a twist: This movement is passionately dedicated to a smaller, less activist government.

As this is written, before a single primary vote has been cast, it's difficult to predict this movement's future, especially when you remember how Dean's campaign imploded after the Iowa caucus. But Paul's backers are confident their man will at the very least be a new Goldwater. He might not win the presidency, they say, but he will reignite excitement about small government in his party and his country, and thus might help reverse the last half century and more of government growth and activism in both domestic and foreign policy.

In the last weekend of October, after months of following Ron Paul action on the Internet and locally in Los Angeles, I tagged along with the Ron Paul road show in Iowa. Over the course of just 24 hours stretched over two days, I saw Paul talk to more than 500 college kids in Ames, more than 700 assorted Des Moines citizens, hundreds of state GOP activists, and a dozen Des Moines area pastors. I saw a skilled politician with a diverse and disproportionately young band of backers—supporters who stretched far beyond a traditional Republican Party base, who loved their man and his message with an enthusiasm undaunted by whatever his electoral prospects turn out to be.

'Dr. Paul Cured My Apathy'
On the Friday evening before Halloween, Paul is scheduled to speak at Iowa State University in Ames. To get from Des Moines to Ames, I hop on the Constitution Coach, a former school bus owned by Dave Keagle, a Christian homeschooling father of seven. Keagle's wife, Christa, and their children are on board, along with a dozen or so other Paul supporters. The bus is painted red, white, and blue, with slogans summing up Paul's message: "Taxpayer's Best Friend." "No Amnesty." "No NAFTA." "No National ID." "No Patriot Act." "Pro-Gun Owner." "Life." "Liberty." "Freedom." Christa tells me Paul is the first candidate her family has ever been able to get behind 100 percent, with no reservations. She was also impressed with how Paul was able to relate to and remember the names of all her kids on a previous Iowa campaign swing.

I talk to John Carle Jr., a 43-year-old self-employed CPA who dabbles in real estate, and his wife, Meredith, a Korean orphan brought to America as a child. Like most of the Paulistas I meet, he's fresh to politics, with no history of activism or enthusiasm for any candidate from any party. He's not a part of any existing Republican base: He's a disaffected independent who thinks he's finally found a politician who "oozes integrity" and "is inspiring the best in people." Paul's the only candidate he trusts on post-9/11 civil liberties issues. "If they can pick anyone off the streets and send them to a secret camp," Carle says, "I don't wanna be part of that country."

Carle, who has a firm grasp of the candidate's positions, explains his love for Paul in measured terms. He gets emotional only once, choking up for a beat as he repeats his favorite of the fan-made signs you see at Paul rallies: "Dr. Paul Cured My Apathy."

The talk at Ames draws an overflow crowd of more than 500 college kids. There are a few longhairs, a few punks, but it's overwhelmingly a conventional gang of well-groomed Midwestern youth who happen to be wearing hundreds of "Ron Paul Revolution" T-shirts. The event got no free local or campus press. The crowd was gathered almost entirely through Meetup and Facebook, another online social networking site.

"I hear you've got a revolution going on," Paul begins, "and it's being led by the young people." Then he recites his first big applause line: He's not much for passing laws, but he might consider one requiring the next election to be held on the Internet.

Those are the only explicit nods to the crowd's youth and online activity. From there on, it's all classic Ron Paul: Get rid of the income tax and replace it with nothing; find the money to support those dependent on Social Security and Medicare by shutting down the worldwide empire, while giving the young a path out of the programs; don't pass a draft; have a foreign policy of friendship and trade, not wars and subsidies. He attacks the drug war, condemning the idea of arresting people who have never harmed anyone else's person or property. He stresses the disproportionate and unfair treatment minorities get from drug law enforcement. One of his biggest applause lines, to my astonishment, involves getting rid of the Federal Reserve. Kids have gathered, not just from Iowa but from Wisconsin and Nebraska, in classic hop-in-the-van college road trips, to hear a 72-year-old gynecologist talk about monetary policy.

He wraps up the speech with three things he doesn't want to do that sum up the Ron Paul message. First: "I don't want to run your life. We all have different values. I wouldn't know how to do it, I don't have the authority under the Constitution, and I don't have the moral right." Second: "I don't want to run the economy. People run the economy in a free society." And third: "I don't want to run the world.…We don't need to be imposing ourselves around the world."

Paul does not mention abortion or immigration—areas where his views are more conventionally conservative and not of great appeal to this age group. He's against abortion and thinks the fetus is a human life deserving of state protection, but he also thinks that like all such crimes against persons, abortion is a matter for states to decide without federal interference. He thinks that border defense is a legitimate function of government, and that government has been doing a bad job of it. He wants tougher border enforcement, including a border wall; he wants to eliminate birthright citizenship; and he wants to end the public subsidies that might attract illegal immigrants. Paul's style of libertarianism includes a populist streak of distrust for foreign forces overwhelming our sovereignty, whether through the United Nations, international trade pacts, immigration, or a feared "North American Union" between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

On the ride back to Des Moines, I meet, among other Paul fans, Bryan Butcher, a 50-year-old high school teacher and part-time drummer for a belly dancing troupe. He's a pony-tailed former Marine who had thought of himself as a "social liberal" and an Obama fan. "I feel we do need to take care of people," Butcher says. But Ron Paul has helped him see that "the socialist idea of government taking care of people hasn't helped, that people need to take care of people, and that's the smart way to go."

The Paulistas delight in their independence and fervor. At a press conference after the Ames talk, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter asks the candidate about all the Paul signs he sees around Pittsburgh. "You guys must have a big operation there," he says.

"If we do," Paul says with a small smile, "we don't know about it."

'You Are Friends for Life'
Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold a caucus and a primary respectively in January, are the early-voting states where the campaign is concentrating most of its unexpected largess and where the unaffiliated revolutionaries are concentrating their energy. But more New Hampshire than Iowa. Iowans are perhaps too staid for the revolution.

I'm on Des Moines' downtown drinking strip after Paul has spoken at a state GOP dinner, sitting with two Paul staffers and two Paul fans. A tipsy young Romney supporter approaches us. She actually likes Ron Paul, she grants. She could even call him her second choice. But Ron Paul fans? They're outside agitators, she insists, almost scary in their intensity. Iowans don't appreciate their shouting, chanting style of campaigning, or their insistence on sticking their huge, silly "Ron Paul Revolution" signs in places they do not belong, often violating both propriety and the law.

I ask Jan Mickelson of WHO-AM, a leading Des Moines talk radio host who describes himself as a Christian libertarian and a Paul admirer, where the classic Iowa Republican "values voter" stands on Paul. He first notes, with a mixture of admiration and disquiet, that Paul partisans are "crawl-over-broken-glass zealots. Fiercely devoted. Passionate. Wherever he appears they appear, wherever he's on TV they watch, whatever poll they can participate in, they respond. If you get on their right side, you are friends for life. If you nuance even a little bit your support for him, they come at you."

Iowa Republicans, Mickelson says, have "two impulses" toward Paul. "They find the limited government message very attractive," he says. "They find his war policies confusing and irritating. They don't understand how you can be a constitutionalist for limited government and be against the war and not be aiding and abetting both Al Qaeda and Moveon.org."

So New Hampshire is where the Paulistas are hoping for a surprise victory. It's happened before for radical outsiders with populist appeal: Pat Buchanan scored the state in 1996. (And see what it got him.)

Vijay Boyapati, an Australian immigrant, was a software engineer for Google who was running a 100-member Google-internal pro-Paul listserv. (Paul filled two rooms to overflowing at a July talk on Google's campus in Mountain View, California.) Boyapati quit his job in November to devote all his energy to his project Operation: Live Free or Die. His goal: Recruit a thousand Paul supporters to relocate to New Hampshire for a weekend or even for weeks—he plans to rent a house and give up a whole month himself—doing retail canvassing and campaigning to push Paul over the top there.

The official campaign has ponied up more than $1 million for TV commercials in the Granite State. The three ads focus on Paul's personal integrity, on his opposition to national ID cards and other civil liberties violations, and on his support for a noninterventionist foreign policy. In one spot he notes that "both parties have put their pet schemes ahead of our rights"—a direct blow against his own party.

In the age of Bush Republicanism, Paul barely qualifies as a party man in good standing. But in New Hampshire independents can register and vote in the Republican primary on Election Day. And in the Iowa caucus, any legal voter can show up and vote for Paul. That's good news for a campaign that must rely on support beyond the Bush-era GOP faithful.

'We Want to Have a Peaceful Revolution'
The inventor of the phrase "Ron Paul Revolution," and the designer of the T-shirt logo in which the evol in revolution looks like the word love backward, is 46-year-old Ernest Hancock, a longtime activist in the Arizona Libertarian Party and a radio host. The logo recycles an image he developed for his own (losing) 2006 bid for secretary of state in Arizona. "We want to have a peaceful revolution, so the love is effective in portraying a revolution, but not violence," says Hancock, known among Libertarian Party activists for always staking out hard-core, no-compromise stances. The logo, which is not an official campaign symbol, is immensely popular among Paul fans, dotting the nation wherever Paulistas can show up in T-shirts or put up stenciled signs or banners.

Hancock says that when he first heard rumors that Paul might be running, back in January 2007, "I called [campaign chairman] Kent Snyder and said, 'All I need to know is if this is for real.' When he said yes, I said, 'Thanks, have a nice day, you'll never hear from me again.'?"

Hancock spends most of his time these days crossing the nation, showing locals how to make Ron Paul Revolution signs economically, how to find used banners and billboard pieces for cheap or free and print on the back. He advises activists on how and where to hang them. Hancock's an anarchist, but he has learned to love the federal highway system for the opportunity to reach a captive audience on the cheap by hanging banners off overpasses.

And if the banners get torn down within hours? "So freaking what?" he says. "Two hundred thousand people saw it." And, uh, is any of this illegal? "I don't know," he says. "I don't care." Well, Ron Paul is on record as supporting civil disobedience.

Hancock's crusade is not the only guerrilla effort on Paul's behalf. Meetup groups are organizing a campaign to send thousands of handwritten pro-Paul letters to Iowa voters. A strange variety of viral videos infects YouTube, many of them featuring unofficial Ron Paul campaign songs. The range of styles in these Ron Paul ballads reflects the eclecticism of the Ron Paul Revolution: from wan old-school folk to '90s-style jazzy trip-hop, from sprightly garage rock to straight Sinatra steals. Some lyrical samples, from the trip-hop number: "We need Ron Paul/For the long haul/Cause he'll stop all the wars/Where the bombs fall." From the garage pop tune: "Ron Paul!/He's got brains and he's got balls/Ron Paul!/Who you gonna cast your vote for next fall?/Ron Paul!"

An Eclectic Revolution
As a very successful politician, Ron Paul knows how to sell what's appropriate at any given moment, within the bounds of his principles. This talent helps forge a movement that appeals across gaps that standard political analysts might think unbridgeable, such as the one between pot-smoking libertine college kids and evangelist pastors.

When Paul speaks to those pastors in Des Moines, he talks about border security, sovereignty, and the North American Union, topics missing from the college talk. He tells of witnessing a casual abortion in medical school, and how much it disturbed him. But even to this audience he stresses that preventing abortion must ultimately be a cultural, spiritual, and family matter, not something solvable through top-down federal action.

Afterward, a couple of pastors tell me they're "less libertarian" than Paul but plump for him anyway. The "leave us alone" message has wide appeal; as Nate Howe, an L.A.-area computer security worker in the banking industry and an organizer with the local Meetup group, tells me, a recent Hollywood fundraiser found "Ron Paul talking to someone who's very accomplished in business and then a kid next to him with a Mohawk, and both are saying, 'I like this guy; he's saying go live your life, and if you don't hurt anyone, the government shouldn't bother you.'?"

I hear variants of this from many Paulistas. They recognize their scene's eclecticism but see no reason that, whatever your personal values or lifestyle, you can't get behind the man who wants to leave you alone.

There's one strain of the Paul movement, though, that often alienates his other supporters and potential supporters. Ranging from John Birchers to 9/11 Truthers, they're the type whose distrust of government is enmeshed in elaborate, complicated, and implausible conspiracy theories. To the extent those people have a favorite candidate, it's apt to be Ron Paul. One big reason: He shares their refusal to believe the government always has good intentions.

My friend Phil Blumel has been active for the last decade in Florida GOP politics and has been following Paul closely for two decades.

He's a big Paul supporter and has been encouraged at how many rank-and-file Republicans seem open to his message. He understands Paul's appeal to the conspiratorial types, though he doesn't share their interests, and doesn't think Paul really does either. "I've heard him speak 40 times, and you can never really tell that he actually believes in any particular conspiracies," Blumel notes. "But he speaks in a language such that conspiracy nuts believe that he does. Me not being a conspiracy nut, he speaks vaguely enough that I can listen and it doesn't sound like he really buys it.

"That's a political skill," Blumel jokes, "triangulating between the sane and the insane and keeping them both on board." As an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign who nonetheless disagrees with Paul's stances on immigration and sovereignty, Blumel has been pleased that as the campaign has gained traction, Paul has emphasized issues with more mainstream appeal: war and the economy.

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.