By John H. Richareson
April 21st 2011
He is a constant in a changing world, an emissary from an older America. A self-styled constitutional purist, he has for forty years been a voice in the wilderness. But now he has sparked a movement that has put him at the center of the struggle over what kind of country we want to be. But is America ready for his radical vision?
Now it's time to go backstage. Down the narrow space between the back wall and the high blue curtain, washed by the white noise of eleven thousand overcaffeinated believers waiting in a huge ballroom filled to standing room, plus two overflow ballrooms where the man's message will be received on giant screens. Here's the door to the small drab room where assorted politicians wait to audition to be the future of America. And here's Ron Paul, smiling and holding out his hand. "Nice to see ya," he says.
"You seem a little busy."
"Yeah, we're just about to get ready here."
On the other side of the cinder-block wall and high blue curtain, voices cry out one and two and then a sudden chorus, Ron Paul, Ron Paul, End the Fed, Ron Paul! Ron Paul! End the Fed! RON PAUL! RON PAUL! In another twenty minutes, he'll walk out into the wall of lights and the crowd at this Woodstock for conservatives will explode in cheers and applause and shouts of Ron Paul! and End the Fed!, another step in his amazing journey from eccentric regional oddball to the red-hot center of the American debate — after a lifetime of ridicule and obscurity, sweet vindication indeed.
Now he sits back down, pulling a padded office chair up to a round linoleum table. He's small and trim as a ten-year-old, with an unshakable air of small-town decency, and his expression seems to have just two settings: In repose, at seventy-five years old, with white hair and dark emphatic eyebrows and those deep bags slashed across his cheekbones, he's every inch the stern patriarch. But when he smiles, his features soften and suddenly he's Tom Sawyer cruising the neighborhood on his beloved Schwinn.
He smiles like that when he explains why he's never found it hard to be on the short end of a 1-to-434 vote. "Sometimes a bill will be maybe 51 percent good and 49 percent bad, and you just have to have your own rules about that. Generally speaking, if a bill has bad stuff in it, even though there's a lot of good stuff, I still think that's incrementalism."
See, it's not about him. Ron Paul doesn't think that way. It's about this neat idea, principles versus incrementalism. That's why he's taken more lonely stands than any other politician in American history: against the Iraq war even though he's a Republican, against the Defense of Marriage Act even though he's a conservative Christian, against farm subsidies even though he represents a rural district, against the Texas Medical Center even though he's from Texas — the list goes on and on. He refused to award congressional medals to Rosa Parks, Ronald Reagan, the Pope, and Mother Teresa. After Hurricane Katrina, he voted against sending federal help to Louisiana.
"Once you say, 'Well, you know, we live in the real world and sometimes you have to give in a little bit,' then you're never yourself, you're never your own person, and they'll badger you to death. So it's much easier for me to follow a set of principles than fussin' and fumin' on knowing exactly when you're supposed to throw in the towel."
The hands crossed in his lap are the oldest things about him, parchment between knuckles knobby with age, an echo of his almost priestly mixture of kindness and abstraction. He's still the man who treated poor patients for free and flew home from Washington to deliver babies. But now his patient is a rather audacious idea.
"The police are supposed to be local people, and your own community should decide how many policemen you want. And at the national level, we have nearly a hundred thousand federal agents now who carry guns — OSHA and EPA and the IRS. They carry guns, and they shouldn't."
And the income tax should be cut to zero. "The income tax is based on the principle that the government owns everything, and they allow you to keep a certain percent. So people on the Hill, even Republicans, say, 'Well, we can't cut taxes 'cause that'll cost the government money.' Well, it's your money! How can I say that it's costing government if I give you more of your money back?"
Other Republicans have demonstrated an astonishing talent for revirginization — yes, they voted for destructive and unnecessary foreign entanglements, heedless expansion of the federal budget deficit, and vastly increased federal powers, but once Obama became president the hymen of their small-government ideals spontaneously regenerated. Paul chose to use the new Congress's ceremonial reading of the Constitution — a tribute to him — to chastise his colleagues for the hollowness of the stunt. "Will there be no more wars without an actual congressional declaration?" he asked. "Will the Federal Reserve Act be repealed? Will only gold and silver be called legal tender? Will we end all the unconstitutional federal departments, including the Departments of Energy, Education, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Labor? Will the Patriot Act be repealed and all the warrantless searches stopped? Will the TSA be restrained or abolished? Will the IRS's unconstitutional collection powers end? Will executive and judicial quasilegislative powers be ended? Will we end the federal war on drugs? Would we end the federal government's involvement in medical care? Will we end all the federal government's illusionary insurance programs? Will we ban secret prisons, trials without due process, and assassinations? Will we end our foreign policy of invasion and occupations?"
To the people who say this is wildly impractical, that the whole point of democracy is to make compromises, that you can measure his irrelevance in his long record of lonely votes, the congressman has an irrefutable answer. "It depends on how you measure effectiveness. If you want to pass a law just to say you can pass a law and say, 'I passed ten bills last year,' that's one way to measure effectiveness. The other way is to establish a record and send the message and get people to join you and maybe change people's thinking in the long term. I would say I'm more long term. The next election has never been of much interest to me — it was the next generation that I cared about."
The next generation is on the other side of the blue curtain. RON PAUL! RON PAUL! RON PAUL!
Something strange is happening. It's February in Washington, and for days, these ardent young Ron Paul fans have been zooming around town in packs, skinny boys in dark suits, like church groups or squads of young Scientologists, full of purpose and excitement, all very amiable but also laser-focused and given to chanting Ron Paul! or End the Fed! at any given moment. Most of them paid their own way to come here, couch-surfing and doubling up in cheap motels. They did this because the whole point of this event — the annual gathering of hardcore conservative activists known as the Conservative Political Action Conference — is to gauge the enthusiasm of the base. But the Republican leaders who run the event are doing everything they can to ignore the enthusiasm of the base.
The clash started right at the beginning. The Paul kids spent much of their time attending a completely separate convention across the hall, where the speakers — people like Tom Woods, author of Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse — tell them that elites are looting the national Treasury, that the Patriot Act treats every American as a suspect, that Abraham Lincoln was a dictator who used the Civil War to close newspapers and put editors in jail. At around three on the first day, they began streaming into the territory their advance troops had established on the left side of the main ballroom. Scattered through their ranks were a handful of modern primitives with big hoops in their ears, a girl with a Korn logo tattooed on her shoulder, a Muslim woman in hijab.
Up onstage, Donald Trump was shuffling through his notes and saying that what we need is a competent leader. On cue, one of the kids shouted: RON PAUL!
Trump ignored this. "$4.54 for gas because we have nobody that calls OPEC and says, That price better get lower."
Trump ignored that, too.
At last, Trump turned to the left side of the room. "Ron Paul cannot get elected, I'm sorry."
The room erupted. Boo! Boo! Boo! Trump smiled at such foolishness. "I like Ron Paul, but honestly he has zero chance of getting elected."
More boos. And when Trump tried to change the subject, another cry broke out. END THE FED! END THE FED!
The Republican leaders who are putting on this show have been as startled as the rest of the country at the sudden potency of once marginal ideas. But to the kids, it's obvious. This is Ron Paul's moment. He's been warning for forty years that easy money would lead to economic collapse, then easy money led to economic collapse. He warned that the Iraq war would be an expensive and bloody mistake, and the Iraq war was an expensive and bloody mistake. He spent forty years asking Congress to follow a strict interpretation of the Constitution and investigate the Federal Reserve, and now there's a powerful freshman class of Republicans pushing a strict interpretation of the Constitution and an investigation of the Federal Reserve. In 2009, he slipped an amendment into the Wall Street — reform legislation that forced the Federal Reserve to release the details of thousands of secret loans it made during the 2008 financial crisis — the Korea Development Bank? Caterpillar? — and suddenly polls started showing that Americans disliked the Fed even more than the IRS. Every Republican in the House signed on to his bill to audit the Fed. In Virginia, Republicans have introduced a bill to study the possibilities of a state currency "in the event of a major breakdown of the Federal Reserve System." He's been called the "Tea Party's brain," and his son Rand is called the "senator from the Tea Party," and all day long the speakers seemed to have been participating in a Ron Paul soundalike competition. Senator Pat Toomey told a story about a little red hen who went on strike when a government agent told her that productive workers had to divide their profit with everyone else. Congressman Raul Labrador said that the best thing the government can do for a poor man is get the hell out of the way. Senator Ron Johnson ridiculed Democrats for passing regulations on fugitive dust and spilled milk, and Grover Norquist said that Obama takes money from people who have earned it and gives it to his friends. To a movement that fetishizes the Founders' act of rebellion over a tea tax, Ron Paul is the founding father.
When Trump finished, the moderator came out, joking. "Now there's a guy who doesn't suck up to an audience — I'm guessing there are a lot of Rand Paul fans out there!"
The left side of the room exploded in cheers. Then Rand Paul came on with curly hair and a confident rock-star energy that seemed to crackle in the dry air. In a speech that could have been written by his father, the most striking moment is a gauntlet in the face of mainstream Republicans: "If you refuse to acknowledge that there's any waste that can be culled from the military budget, you are a big-government conservative."
You could measure the shifting consensus in the size of the cheer, which built to a standing ovation. Then things really started to get uncomfortable. As Senator Paul waved goodbye, the Paul kids got up and began to walk out in an orderly file, hundreds of them crossing to the doors like a line of ants. Then, suddenly, boos and chants of RON PAUL! started breaking out along the line, as up onstage, a skinny old man in a dark suit began moving gingerly toward the podium.
The skinny old man was Donald Rumsfeld. From the center of the room, a commanding voice broke through the din: "QUIETTTTTT!"
A startled hush followed, and then Dick Cheney walked out from behind the curtain. He was the surprise guest, there to give his old friend CPAC'S "Defender of the Constitution" award. The authoritarian wing of the room exploded with glee as the Paul cadre continued to file out, an act of rebellion that threw everything slightly off. As the former vice-president told his old story about meeting Rumsfeld more than forty years ago during the Nixon administration, someone yelled, "Draft dodger!"
After a stunned hush, a single voice rang out across the room:
"Where's bin Laden?"
Necks craned as people looked for the source. There, over by the exit doors! That white kid with dreadlocks. In seconds, men in suits descended upon him and led him away.
Rumsfeld smiled, but he looked shaken. Not only should you buy a dog if you need a friend in Washington, he said, you should buy a small one, "because he might turn on you."
In the hall, one of the Paul kids muttered in disgust, "I was hoping someone would get up and throw the Constitution at him."
A CONSERVATIVE COSMOLOGY We measure the schism between Ron Paul's libertarianism and everybody else. Click here to enlarge the full map.
All this started because Ron Paul said something he wasn't supposed to say. During the second Republican presidential debate in 2007, when they had him shunted off to the far side and gave him as little airtime as possible, the subject of Al Qaeda came up. "They attack us because we've been over there," he said. "We've been bombing Iraq for ten years."
The idea that terrorists attack the U. S. because "they hate freedom" was always more of a slogan than a serious position, but it had frozen into Republican orthodoxy. "That's really an extraordinary statement," said an outraged Rudy Giuliani. "I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11." Even the moderator got huffy. "Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?" But Paul just continued in the same placid and rational way, oblivious to ordinary political calculations. "I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and free. They come and they attack us because we're over there. I mean, what would we think if other foreign countries were doing that to us?"
Outraged, some GOP officials mounted a campaign to have him barred from the next debate. The American Conservative dismissed his answer as a "technical response" that "didn't connect with the audience." Michelle Malkin said that "Ron Paul really has no business being onstage as a legitimate representative of Republicans." But the Internet exploded. Tens of thousands of young people joined his Facebook and Meetup groups. On hip news sites like Digg, stories about him consistently topped reader-interest statistics. The million-eyed hydra that is YouTube began spewing out Ron Paul raps and ballads and homages and even a rockumentary. He held an online fundraiser and raised more than $6 million in small contributions in a single day. And young people started showing up to his speeches by the thousands. At the University of Michigan, they broke into their first chant. END THE FED! END THE FED! END THE FED! They lit dollar bills and held them up like lighters at a Rush concert.
It wasn't just the war that moved them, the kids at CPAC explained. Ron Paul put a deeper meaning beneath everything. Words that other politicians used like screeches of chimpanzee code, Paul actually meant and could explain so that everything from the economic collapse to marijuana legalization to terrorism actually connected and made sense. Like the words on everyone's lips these days, small government. The way Ron Paul explains it, the U. S. Constitution was all about setting up a balance of powers in order to prevent a recurrence of government tyranny, a purpose emphasized by the Bill of Rights. The underlying principle was freedom. But there was a birth defect, in Paul's view, and that was Alexander Hamilton's success at pushing the other Founders down the path of centralized federal control. He doesn't care that it was a powerful American government, based in Washington and willing to invest in its people, that ultimately made the United States into the world-historic power that it is today, with a huge economy and a vast middle class. Nor does he care that it was that strong central government that ensured the survival of the young country, which was on the brink of failure without it. Nor does he care that the U. S. Constitution actually came into existence to take power away from the states, leaving them but the scraps in the vestigial Tenth Amendment. And he doesn't care that it was actually the sainted Jefferson who executed the Louisiana Purchase (unconstitutional in Paul's view), which doubled the size of the country. If we had stuck to what Congressman Paul views as our founding principles, we would have undoubtedly been a smaller and poorer and less consequential country, but also purer and freer and more peaceful. It's a trade he is willing to make.
From here, Paul's analysis leaps to the work of three refugees from totalitarian countries — Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Ayn Rand. All three saw pretty much any central government planning as a step on the "road to serfdom," as Hayek put it in the title of his most famous book. Planning was rooted in the idea of compassion, in the idea that a government had the right and even the obligation to take from the "producers" and give to people in need. Hayek and Mises showed how this led to a central bank that inflated the money supply to build grand projects or finance wars, slowly smothering freedom with the infinite ravenous blob of government. Rand popularized the movement with a novel called Atlas Shrugged, in which unions and regulation so ravage the American economy that the last producers withdraw to a hidden valley called "Galt's Gulch" while violent starving hordes wander the countryside like escapees from a Cormac McCarthy novel.
The last piece of the puzzle is the Federal Reserve, the demon child of Alexander Hamilton's central bank. Hamilton said a central bank could regulate and issue dollars, which would help the young nation trade with other nations, build an infrastructure and a Navy, react to crises, and pay off the Revolutionary War debt. But Thomas Jefferson warned against it in almost apocalyptic terms as a system "contrived for deluging the states with paper money instead of gold and silver, for withdrawing our citizens from the pursuits of commerce, manufactures, buildings, and other branches of useful industry, to occupy themselves and their capitals in a species of gambling, destructive of morality, and which had introduced its poison into the government itself."
Hamilton won, but his victory was only temporary. As every Ron Paul follower knows, the nation got rid of the central bank twice and brought it back each time. The last time was in 1913, when a cabal of private bankers led by J. P. Morgan created the Fed at a secret meeting on Jekyll Island. That set the stage for disaster, in Paul's view. He argues that the Fed caused the Depression by inflating the money supply to cause the boom of the Roaring Twenties, financed the welfare state and thousands of coercive attempts at social engineering, and made it way too easy to pay for a long series of unnecessary and wasteful wars.
This is why we can't trust a "fiat currency" like dollars, Paul says. In a world that seems to be out of control, where experts tell us what we're supposed to think, we need to place our trust in something real. That was Ayn Rand's message, linking liberal relativism to tyranny to paper currency. "Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced," Rand said. "Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it."
To Paul's followers, this story has become as familiar as the gospels. At CPAC, they even told it through a startling animated movie that portrayed bankers as monsters with octopus arms and bloodsucking ticks for heads. A cartoon Thomas Jefferson said the tree of liberty regularly needed to be watered with the blood of patriots, and the room broke into wild cheers when Aaron Burr shot Hamilton dead — and cheered again for the death of Hank Paulson, the former treasury secretary.
Any observer of the news can see how many of Paul's preoccupations have become central themes
to the public debate — the Jeffersonian view of the Constitution, the revisionist claim that liberals made the Depression worse, the hostility toward bankers awkwardly stitched to a celebration of capitalism, the idea that there is something both impractical and immoral about taxing the "producers" — impractical because it only stifles them, and immoral because it is theft. The government has no legitimate claim on any citizen's money.
Common as these tropes have become, these are truly revolutionary ideas, which have taken root so firmly that it has become essential conservative thought that any taxation is theft, and that any spending of the public coin is socialism.
The difference is that a lot of conservatives just say this stuff without meaning it. It was conservatives, after all, who said that you can have small government along with two wars and seven hundred overseas military bases. But Ron Paul goes the other way. Philosophical and systematic and pure in a way that young people may be best qualified to understand, he lays bare the contradictions. That is the reason his ideas have spread like hidden veins throughout our culture, the reason he has become such a stunning challenge to the existing order. He means the words that everyone else just uses. He's flinty as a Founder and solid as the gold standard — not just the messenger but also the message.
This is how one of his CPAC fans puts it: "He makes you study economics, history, philosophy — when that light goes off, it lights up everything."
Backstage, Paul sits quietly in his chair, his hands folded in his lap. Trump's dismissive words didn't bother him, he says. "I don't take it personally. I mean, I'm always amazed at how much support we get. I always assumed that there would only be a small number of people who cared."
He really seems to mean this. Last night, during an appearance with his son Rand in front of a thousand young fans, he said he had always worked on low expectations. "I thought I'd come and go, and nobody would notice I'd ever been to Congress."
Spontaneously and in unison, the audience reacted: "Awwwwwwww."
"For years and years, I'd go to a campus and get fifteen or twenty people."
A boy stood up and shouted: "I love you, man!"
Sweet moments of male tenderness are the last thing you'd expect at the most conservative political gathering of the year, but Paul regularly inspires this kind of response. He tries not to let it affect him. "I'm always guarded," he explains backstage. "If I prepared for grand victories and said, 'I'm going to Washington, I'm going to balance the budget and restore liberty' — I mean, you could become neurotic. 'Cause you'd walk away and you wouldn't do anything."
On the other side of the curtain, prompted by some remark from the moderator, a thousand voices call his name. RON PAUL! RON PAUL! RON PAUL!
Paul usually stays away from personal topics — and he wouldn't think of framing a political attack in personal terms — preferring to focus instead on ideas. But the intensity of the moment leads to a rare glimpse of his earliest memories and deepest motivations. "We were five boys and we were all born in the Depression, so there wasn't really a lot of stuff around," he begins. "You didn't get allowances — you wanted money, you had to go work."
He was five when he got his first job, checking the bottles on the conveyor belt at his father's small dairy and earning a penny for each dirty one he caught. For the rest of his life, he remembered taking four or five of those pennies to the local store and getting a small bag of candy. He also remembered his grandmother saying they should hold on to the family land "in case the money goes bad."
After that, Paul worked all the time. He was a star on the high school track team, president of the student council, a wrestler, a swimmer, and an honor student, but he also managed to mow lawns, deliver newspapers, clerk in a drugstore, paint his high school, and work for his father's small dairy business. "I remember when I was sixteen, I thought I was pretty grown up because my dad allowed me to drive a truck," he says with a smile. "The milk truck was a very important thing to me."
Pick up Esquire's May issue for the full story, and click here for exclusive interview outtakes and more on Paul's economic solution on The Politics Blog.