The Unlikely Candidate

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting look inside the mind and the candidacy of Ron Paul. The Times makes an interesting reference to Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and how many of Rep. Paul’s supporters trace their origins back to the far-right John Birch Society and other conspiracy-minded organizations.

Rep. Paul has managed to assemble a fringe candidacy — attracting everyone from radical libertarian activists to left-wing anti-war protesters. The problem with this, as the Times notes, is that the only thing that holds them all together is their dislike of the status quo:

“We’re in a difficult position of working on a campaign that draws supporters from laterally opposing points of view, and we have the added bonus of attracting every wacko fringe group in the country. And in a Ron Paul Meetup many people will consider each other ‘wackos’ for their beliefs whether that is simply because they’re liberal, conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis, evangelical Christian, etc. . . . We absolutely must focus on Ron’s message only and put aside all other agendas, which anyone can save for the next ‘Star Trek’ convention or whatever.”

But what is “Ron’s message”? Whatever the campaign purports to be about, the main thing it has done thus far is to serve as a clearinghouse for voters who feel unrepresented by mainstream Republicans and Democrats. The antigovernment activists of the right and the antiwar activists of the left have many differences, maybe irreconcilable ones. But they have a lot of common beliefs too, and their numbers — and anger — are of a considerable magnitude. Ron Paul will not be the next president of the United States. But his candidacy gives us a good hint about the country the next president is going to have to knit back together.

The Ron Paul phenomenon is an interesting one from a political science standpoint because it shows how the paranoid style is still an active force in American politics. It isn’t because Rep. Paul is a political genius — the Times piece makes it clear that he’s not exactly up to speed on modern politics, not knowing what The Daily Show is or knowing about GQ Magazine. It’s because Rep. Paul has become a symbol for those who live on the paranoid fringes of American politics. His message is all about rejectionism — rejecting foreign entanglements, rejecting the war, rejecting the Federal Reserve, etc. His campaign is attracting the hard left and the isolationist right because they can both latch onto one of his positions and seem to care little about the others.

Ultimately, cranky radicals will be with us forever — there are always those whose sensibilities include seeing sinister conspiracies in common events. Rep. Paul simply attracts those sorts — and while those people may love posting to blogs and spreading their theories, they’re not a political constituency. Even Rep. Paul himself knows that he has a virtually nil chance of winning. However, he seems to have stumbled upon the right message at the right time to become a fringe candidate who has managed to garner the support of the disaffected in American politics.

At the same time, there’s a problem with that. The paranoid style is not a healthy style in American politics — the radicalism of the John Birch Society was not a healthy force in American politics during their Cold War heydays. The sort of conspiracy theories spun by Rep. Paul’s supporters — the 9/11 “Truthers,” the Federal Bank conspiracies, the anti-Israel lobby — all of those are comforting fictions to some, but fictions nonetheless. Those who buy into these alternate realities only feed their own paranoia, further isolating themselves from the American mainstream. While the vast majority of them are harmless — when that sort of paranoia spirals out of control, people like Timothy McVeigh end up taking action. It certainly isn’t the case that Ron Paul supporters are the equivalent of the Oklahoma City bombers — far from it. What is true is that an atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy leads to more and more radicalism and less and less civic engagement.

Rep. Paul is hardly a bad guy — he’s a crank, but a harmless and affable one. His rise to pseudo-celebrity is less about his own political skills, and more about being in the right place at the right time. Certainly the idea that the government has grown too large and too intrusive isn’t crazy — in fact, it’s rather crazy to argue that the state of our federal government would be shocking to the Founders of this nation. The problem with Rep. Paul’s candidacy is that it is based out of that paranoid style in American politics, and that style isn’t a healthy one. Rep. Paul may end being the political heir to the Lyndon LaRouche movement, but that’s hardly a good position to be in.

Rep. Paul does have real principles, and some of his positions are workable. It would be nice to see some serious discussion about returning to the principles of constitutional federalism that our Founders intended. However, those realistic positions are washed away by the bizarre cult of personality that has grown up around Rep. Paul — and in some ways, that’s the tragic aspect of the whole thing. Rep. Paul’s success has been as an avatar for the political fringe, but that avatar may well end up swallowing the real Ron Paul — an affable country doctor with some interesting political views and a strong sense of public service.

9 thoughts on “The Unlikely Candidate

  1. I agree with you that a cult of personality around him would be very damaging, but I don’t think that has happened… yet. I think the mistake you make, as well as many others, is that Ron Paul’s support is mostly made up of radicals. His philosophy entails that of the Founders as well as old-school Republicanism. What I mean to say is that there exists a growing number of disaffected conservatives in his movement. Of course, my evidence is anecdotal, based on mostly reading blogs. The reason Dr. Paul’s candidacy appears as a radical movement is because the news tends to concentrate on his more “fringe” supporters.

  2. Hi Jay,

    Thanks for an interesting take on Ron Paul. I think your article sort of misses the point. RP’s platform is essentially a return to the Republicanism of Goldwater and Reagan. Thats what Ron Paul stands for.



  3. If you would look up Ron Paul’s positions, it’s fairly clear that he is not a 9/11 truther. He does support opening another investigation into 9/11, as it seems clear that the cause of it was gross incompetence in regards to al-Qaeda threats and intelligence, with both the Clinton and the Bush administration to blame. When asked directly about 9/11, Ron Paul is absolutely certain the root cause was Islamic Terrorists, not some brain-dead conspiracy theory du jour, e.g. the buildings were brought down by thermite.

    Given, there are some loonies who latch onto Ron Paul’s message… but it’s usually to fulfill their own agenda, not the other way around. If you talk to people at his meetups, most are rational, hardworking Americans who are fed up with the control of our government by massive lobbying by special interests and corporations. Most Americans are tired of the Iraq War and the erosion of our civil liberties. He happens to be the most anti-war candidate and the more pro-liberty candidate. Most of these meetups arose spontaneously, and are quite numerous: Other candidates have to *pay* people to become activists.

    On a side note about fringe groups, I’d say the most reasonable ones are those who want to get rid of the Federal Reserve and restore a hard-backed currency… Think about it this way, our money has been backed by absolutely nothing but the world’s faith in the US economy and the soundness of our government, since Nixon abolished the gold standard in the 70’s. If there’s a crisis in our currency, bad things will happen. In 2000, The Euro could buy 0.7 dollars (approximately). Now the Euro can buy 1.3 dollars, so some paranoia is justified in this regard. The Founding Fathers warned us about central banks and stressed the importance of sound money. It doesn’t have to be backed by gold necessarily, just backed by something real as opposed to nothing but faith.

  4. That would be the “paranoid fringe” that has more cash on hand than something like four of the other GOPers combined. The thing is, these nuts are gaining power in your party, not losing it.

  5. Egosumabbas: Certainly Rep. Paul isn’t a “Truther” — unfortunately it seems that his candidacy seems to have supported quite a few of them.

    As for central banks, the Founders certainly weren’t uniformly opposed to them — Alexander Hamilton certainly was not.

    It isn’t possible to back US currency with gold or other hard assets — nor is it particularly wise to do so. Hyperinflation isn’t a concern in an industrialized state with a strong economy — unless the US government collapses, it isn’t likely to happen. The rise of the Euro isn’t a big problem — the EU economy is about 1.3% the size of the US economy, and even then the overvaluation of the Euro is good for us because it makes US exports more attractive to European buyers.

    Most of the anti-Federal Reserve arguments are based on bad economics — floating currencies give governments the flexibility to deal with recessions like the one in the early 2000s. Had Greenspan not been able to increase liquidity, the recession would not have been so mild. The price and supply of gold has nothing to do with the price and supply of goods and services — so you’d be hitching your economy to something that has nothing to do with the performance of the economy as a whole. (And in 100 years or so, imagine what would happen to a gold-backed currency when some enterprising entrepreneur captures a large asteroid and starts mining it for gold, increasing the overall gold supply by a large magnitude.)

    Nobody uses a gold standard any more because it just doesn’t work, and calls for getting rid of the Federal Reserve tend not to be particularly well-considered arguments or arguments based on bad or misleading data.

  6. In the parking lot of my apartment building (in Iowa, mind you), I saw a couple of “Ron Paul for President” bumper stickers. Found that intriguing, but really did a double take when I saw who occupied the vehicles hosting those stickers….military guys who are always decked out in their fatigues when coming or going from the building. Funny how the guys you seem to want to “demoralize” by giving up on the mission have already given up on it….and are latching to the most fervently anti-war candidate they can find.

  7. I think Ron Paul’s core political base might have been a bit radical 3-4 months ago, but now his message has spread to the general public and what you see now is Americans from all over the political spectrum engaged in Paul’s message. Just look at the crowd and interviews of Paul’s voting base and you don’t get the sense that they’re nut jobs. Freedom and an honest government are truly becoming popular and that is something that a lot of the US, not just the “wackos”, have in common.

  8. Frankly, I just can’t understand why anyone would think a cross-dressing homosexual black disco singer would make a good president…………what?? Oh, wait.

    Ron Paul not RuPaul?? Oh. Nevermind.

  9. The lead story leaves out a lot. Makes assumptions & seems bent on discouraging his campaign.
    That’s OK. Not being a media darling like CFR members Rudy G, Fred T & the Bill & Hillary show, is a huge PLUS to me. CFR?? OH NO!! Not another conspiracy nut!
    I suppose NewsWithViews & contributors like Edwin Vera & Devvy Kidd are all nut jobs as well. But they have done their homework…unlike the author of the lead.

    Here is a sample of a NewsWithViews “nut case”. Might as well call me one as well as I agree with her.
    Here is another, by Pastor Chuck Baldwin.

    Is “Ron Paul not RuPaul” a campaign slogan? 🙂

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