- - Tuesday, May 29, 2012

By Brian Doherty
Broadside Books, $26.99, 294 pages

In all of modern American politics, there is perhaps no phenomenon more bizarre than the loyal following of Ron Paul. The candidate has a rare set of ideas, and he is not a particularly compelling speaker. Yet many of his fans would take a bullet for him.

Brian Doherty of Reason magazine has been watching Mr. Paul for decades, and in his “Revolution” - or rather, Ron Paul’s “rEVOLution,” as it’s stylized on the cover to emphasize the backward “love” - he tells the story of how an unassuming Texas legislator and gynecologist came to lead such a movement.

Mr. Paul is often referred to as a “libertarian,” and he does want a radically smaller government. But when it comes to describing Mr. Paul, “libertarian” leaves a lot unsaid. What libertarianism is to the mainstream American political debate - an interesting participant that’s far from the center on many issues - Mr. Paul’s take on libertarianism is to libertarianism itself.

While most libertarians are leery of governmental attempts to manipulate currency, Mr. Paul’s opposition to the Federal Reserve and his support for the gold standard border on an obsession. Where most libertarians support abortion rights, Mr. Paul is strongly pro-life, though he thinks abortion policy should be set at the state, not federal, level. Whereas most libertarians are cosmopolitan advocates of open borders, Mr. Paul has been critical of immigration. And while most libertarians are at least skeptical of foreign entanglements, Mr. Paul has taken an almost across-the-board anti-war stance. He even went so far as to tell Rudolph Giuliani, at a Republican debate in 2007, that Sept. 11 was a result of U.S. meddling in the Middle East.

Mr. Paul has been around for a long time. He was first elected to the House in the 1970s, and he even ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1988. But in Mr. Doherty’s narrative, that Paul-Giuliani exchange was the spark that lit the fire of the rEVOLution; Mr. Doherty says that in his research, he met countless people who came to support Mr. Paul when they saw him face off with the former New York mayor. To Mr. Doherty, Mr. Paul’s foreign policy - “peace,” as Mr. Doherty describes it - is one of the main draws of the Ron Paul movement.

Whatever the cause, Mr. Paul has been a significant force since then. No, he never had any prayer of actually becoming president - Mr. Doherty tells the almost heartbreaking story about how his devotees poured tons of effort into New Hampshire, perhaps the nation’s most libertarian state, during the 2008 primaries, only to come away with a mere 8 percent of the Republican vote. But wherever a small, highly dedicated fan base can make a difference - at the Iowa straw poll, in Internet polls, in guerrilla marketing campaigns - Mr. Paul always makes a strong showing.

This following is almost as interesting as the candidate himself. They are not geared toward the old-school basics of campaigning - one Paul aide complains that it’s hard to get the unorganized rabble to sit down and make campaign calls. But they’ve come up with a unique and thoroughly modern way to spread the word about their man.

Mr. Doherty meets a number of people who - completely independent of the campaign - take time off of work to travel the country, distributing materials they’ve written and printed themselves. Paul fans are also experts in Internet promotion - they use social networking to coordinate with each other and promote Mr. Paul’s ideas. They pioneered the “moneybomb,” a campaign technique that involves encouraging all of a candidate’s fans to donate money on the same day, usually to celebrate an important anniversary.

Of course, there are problems with having a dedicated, active fan base that isn’t tied to the official campaign - especially around a candidate with views as quirky as Mr. Paul’s. The lunatic fringe - complete with racists, Sept.11 truthers and every other breed of wacko - is never far away from a Paul event; one group of supporters Mr. Doherty writes about had to make its meetings invitation-only to keep the crazies out.

As Mr. Doherty explains - but downplays - Mr. Paul himself is partly to blame for this state of affairs. Some years ago, newsletters were published under Ron Paul’s name with undeniably racist statements, such as that the Rodney King riots ended only “when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.” (Incredibly, Mr. Doherty suggests these comments might have merely been attempts at shock humor.) Mr. Paul also hobnobs with various questionable characters; he appears on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ radio show, and he’s spoken warmly of the John Birch Society.

Nonetheless, a variety of factors - the Tea Party, rising anti-bank sentiment, Republicans’ tiring of foreign interventions - have combined to make the 2012 primary a welcoming place for Mr. Paul’s ideas. While Mr. Paul has stopped campaigning and plans to retire soon, he has won enough delegates that he is almost guaranteed an important role at the upcoming Republican convention; in contrast, he was treated so poorly in the lead-up to the 2008 convention that he hosted his own competing event across town. This time around, he even won 23 percent in New Hampshire. His son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, is widely considered a better ambassador for libertarian ideas than his father.

There will be no President Ron Paul - but the man has brought the country a little closer to his way of seeing things. And his journey as explained by Brian Doherty is a fascinating one.

Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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