Understanding the Cult of Paul

13 10 2011

A few weeks ago, I received a group email from a concerned conservative acquaintance. The subject: Texas Congressman and presidential hopeful Ron Paul’s comments on the causes of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the United States’ ongoing reaction.

Real hope for America?

My correspondent was shocked at Paul attribution of anti-American terrorist activity to a policy of military aggression and overseas “occupation.” In his mind, Paul was not merely attacking US military and diplomatic policy: he was criticizing American society and our way of life. He didn’t understand how Paul could consider himself a Republican, or for that matter, how anyone could support his presidential campaign.

I didn’t take the time to respond and explain that I am, in fact, a Ron Paul supporter; perhaps I should have set aside a few minutes to make my case. In any event, his comments made me take a moment to reflect on the Ron Paul movement–specifically how strange, contradictory, and even threatening it might appear to an establishment-aligned outsider.

To the casual observer, the Paul camp likely seems a bit…peculiar. His supporters are enthusiastic, devoted, and mischievous. They don’t always look or behave like typical Young Republicans, because they aren’t typical Young Republicans.

They are as likely to raise millions of dollars for Paul’s campaign during one of his successful “moneybombs” as they are to flood informal online polls in support of the Congressman from Texas. A small but significant segment of his base does not believe in the legitimacy of voting. Some are anarchists who do not even believe in the fundamental legitimacy of the state. Many (myself included) place more value on Paul’s ability to introduce new ideas than on his viability as a political candidate. It’s an odd mix of personalities, philosophies, and strategies.

A cadre this unique demands a figurehead who is anything but conventional, and Paul certainly fits the bill. He is, after all, a fairly unlikely messiah. He’s aged. He’s no Obama when it comes to golden oratory. He uses his platform as US Congressman to discuss complex issues, such as the Federal Reserve System and Austrian economics, which are not easily reduced to campaign-ready sound bytes.

He is at once both radically anti-establishment and the ultimate politician: the more curmudgeonly and contrarian Paul becomes (he is often the sole vote of opposition to symbolic Congressional resolutions), the larger his base of support seems to grow. Paul has been in Congress, with some interruptions, since 1976–but his recent surge in popularity began with his 2008 GOP presidential primary campaign. This is not accidental.

Trite as it may seem to say, Americans (and in particular, the youth) are more tired than ever of politics-as-usual. The Bush Administration did an excellent job turning voters away from Republicans, and Obama is certainly doing his damnedest to do the same for Democrats. Paul is able to capture the interest of disillusioned individuals from both sides not by being more moderate, as conventional political wisdom dictates; rather, he does so by being more radical.

Paul is nothing if not a consistent defendant of individual liberty. He is anti-tax, but anti-corporate welfare as well. He is a man of traditional values, but he staunchly opposes the War on Drugs. He comes from a conservative district in the red state of Texas, yet he is harshly critical of the military adventurism that has recently been so familiar to the American Right.

He is not, as many on the Right may fear, anti-American; rather, Paul loves his country but fears his government. He has drawn an important distinction between America’s vibrant society and its stodgy, corrupt, and meddling political institutions–a distinction that conservatives routinely blur and progressives work to erase entirely.

As a new generation independent-minded activists and thinkers comes to embrace limited-government, libertarian ideas, it’s no wonder than Paul is at the center of a great deal of enthusiasm–he is one of the only mainstream political figures to unflinchingly defend this philosophy.

Whether or not you agree with Ron Paul or his supporters, you owe it to yourself to learn about the ideas that drive the movement forward. We Paul nuts can be zany, but we’re principled, reasoned, and mostly harmless. Best of all, we believe that our ideas will outlive the Paul candidacy and offer real solutions to the problems our society, our country, and our world are grappling with today.

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