The Ron Paul Revolution

"There is a subset of Paul supporters who believe 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government."

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul during
a campaign meeting in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, USA
on October 13, 2007.


Thursday, Nov. 01, 2007

The Ron Paul Revolution

By Joel Stein

It sometimes seems as if someone is playing a cruel practical joke on Ron Paul. He goes to a college and delivers the same speech he's given for the past 30 years of his political career, the one espousing the Austrian school of economics. Only now the audience is packed with hundreds of kids in RON PAUL REVOLUTION T-shirts who go nuts — giving standing ovations when he drones on about getting rid of the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard. After a speech at Iowa State last month, when nearly half the crowd had to stand because there were only 400 seats, a hipster-looking student worked his way through the half-hour-long line to shake Paul's hand. This was surely it — the moment when the straight faces would break and Paul would be wedgied up the flagpole. "When you see Bernanke," the kid said, "will you tell him to stop cutting rates when gold hits 1,000?"

Politics might be rock 'n' roll for nerds, but the nerds aren't supposed to be quite this nerdy. The leader of the disaffected in next year's presidential election — the Howard Dean, the Ross Perot, the Pat Buchanan — is a kindly great-grandfather and obstetrician whose passion is monetary policy. Paul, a 72-year-old hard-core libertarian Republican Congressman who is against foreign intervention, subsidies and the federal income tax, is not only drawing impressive crowds (more than 2,000 at a post-debate rally at the University of Michigan last month) but also raising tons of cash. In the third quarter of 2007, Paul took in $5.3 million (just slightly less than G.O.P. rival John McCain), mostly in small, individual donations. On Oct. 22, he aired his first TV ads, $1.1 million worth in New Hampshire.

The numbers are even more impressive considering that as of early October, 72% of G.O.P. voters told Gallup pollsters they didn't know enough about Paul to form an opinion. He has been able to attract followers in the debates, where he's presented a clear, simple philosophy of personal freedom and responsibility. He bluntly refers to the U.S. as an empire. And the nerdiness lends Paul's simple message an aura of credibility, especially on a stage with more polished politicians and their nuanced positions. "He's about something that American nerd culture can get on board with: really knowing one subject and going all out on it," says Ben Darrington, a Ron Paul supporter at Yale. "For some people, it's Star Wars. For some people, it's Japanese cartoons. For Ron Paul, it's free-market commodity money."

The libertarian's traction is most apparent on the Internet, where his presence far outstrips that of any candidate from either party. His name is the most searched, his YouTube videos the most watched, his campaign the topic of songs by at least 14 bands. "The last thing I would listen to is rap," Paul says. "But there's something going on when there's a rap song about the Fed." On Tuesday, both Paul and Tom Cruise were guests on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The actor went to Paul's dressing room to thank him for his work on a bill fighting the forced mental screening of grade-school kids. "Go. Go. Go. Go hard," Cruise said. Paul turned to an aide and asked, "What movies has he been in?"

Paul's fans — and there were more than 100 of them in Leno's audience, many of whom had flown in from out of town — are entranced by a man who responds to surprising information with "Wowee" and a jaw-dropped smile not often seen apart from 5-year-old boys and Muppets. "It's the message. Ron isn't that exciting as himself," says Andre Marrou, who was Paul's running mate when he ran as a Libertarian in 1988. "I saw him referred to in print as semi-eccentric. He's maybe 10% eccentric. It's his ideas that are eccentric. But it's basic Americanism." Paul is such a strict constructionist that he autographs pocket Constitutions more often than Tommy Lee signs breasts.

But Paul's popularity can't necessarily be explained by a previously undetected craving for gold-standard debates on college campuses. His message, even if packaged in obscure economic lectures, is that there is something very corrupt, very Halliburton-Blackwatery going on with our military-industrial complex, and that can attract some pretty weird followers. At the Iowa State event, a student stood outside in a tricornered hat and Revolutionary War–era suit, ringing a bell. Representative Tom Tancredo, another long-shot G.O.P. candidate, tells me that after a debate in New Hampshire, one of his staffers 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." There is a subset of Paul supporters who believe 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government. And there are anarchists as well: They've picked Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day, for a fund-raising drive.

"His supporters are the equivalent of crabgrass," says G.O.P. consultant Frank Luntz. "It's not the grass you want, and it spreads faster than the real stuff. They just like him because he's the most anti-Establishment of all the candidates, the most likely to look at the camera during the debates and say, 'Hey, Washington, f--- you.'"

The one place Paul hasn't become a major player is where it counts: in the polls, where he hasn't broken above 5% and has yet to pass Mike Huckabee. Paul realizes he's not a favorite among the pro-war, pro-Bush Republicans. "A lot of times at my rally, I say, 'We're diverse. We even have some Republicans,'" he jokes. (His largest group gathers in liberal Austin, Texas; another sizable one is in San Francisco.) And he isn't sure where all this sudden support will lead.

Paul doesn't expect that he will win the nomination, and he has no interest in running as an independent again. But he also doesn't see himself endorsing one of the other Republicans in the general election. "Those people who support me wouldn't believe it," he says. "If I said, 'Giuliani's a great guy, and he'll reduce subsidies and bring the troops home'? I couldn't do that." Even nerd revolutions don't surrender.