While the press often considers the Ron Paul movement to be chock-full of cranks, wackos, and conspiracy theorists, I take a more nuanced view. For me, the Ron Paul Revolution is like a cozy winter fire. From a distance, the crackling flames of individual liberty and freethinking libertarianism take the chill off sterile two-party politics. But get too near the searing embers, and they will cause blistering, profuse sweating, and all-around general discomfort.
I've driven up to the Earle Brown Heritage Center, where leadership training is taking place for the Ron Paultards, as they are often called. The Texas Republican congressman's people have decided that, though the presidential primary is long over, the Paultardiness must go on. And so they have convened in Minneapolis, to conduct a three-day shadow convention, the capstone of which will be an all-day "Rally for the Republic." Though my Mapquest directions are sketchy, it's readily apparent I've arrived at the right place. The bumper stickers are the giveaway, saying things such as "I don't suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it," and "My other car is a UFO."
More than 10,000 have made the Paul pilgrimage, arriving by plane, train, and "Ronvoy" caravans. Some stay in hotels, others under the stars at "Ronstock," which is being held in the middle of a farmer's pasture somewhere on the outskirts of town. (Attendees say it's like Woodstock, but with wi-fi connections instead of free love.) Or else they'll stay out at Camp Iduhapi, which, when I later stop by, I learn is the Lakota word for "campers who have unsafe amounts of political signage in their car windows." It's a testament to Paul's drawing power, considering he's no longer running for anything. To find this many people who've ever been this excited about John McCain, you'd have to go back to his press bus in the year 2000.
In the parking lot, I encounter Caitanya Dasa, a 15-year-old with braces who is getting something out of a van. It's the "Liberty Van," which is painted on the back of the Chevy Venture, along with "Truth is Treason In the Empire of Lies."
"That's a quote from Paul's book, The Revolution: A Manifesto," Dasa helpfully explains. He's in from Oregon after a 36-hour, near-sleepless trek with several people rotating driving duties, including his mom. Along the way, a swarm of gnats infiltrated their van, they were attacked by bees, and they ran over an entire bumper on the interstate. But it was worth the sacrifice. Because Ron Paul is here. "We were standing in the food line! And he comes up to us, and says, 'That looks pretty good!' " a breathless Dasa exclaims. "None of us knew what to say."
Dasa wastes no time in taking me to his leader. Behind the building, on the well-manicured grounds, there is indeed a buffet of bear claws, sticky buns, melon wedges, and fresh-squeezed juices. But Paul is the main attraction, standing there, having snap after snap taken by a photographer with a long line of admirers that he mows down one by one. He's like one of those Shaquille O'Neal cardboard cutouts you can have your picture taken with at the mall. Except Ron Paul is right here, in the flesh, right down to his black referee shoes.
I talk to the Oregon delegation waiting for my audience with Dr. Paul, the former obstetrician. Like most of the Paultards, and unlike most of the mainstream Republicans who are wringing their hands over whether to press on with their convention with Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the Gulf states, they are not going to let somebody else's bad weather get in the way of their gathering. "There's suffering all over every single day," one tells me. "So if I skip the sticky bun, the world would be better?"
Paul takes all comers, as he will at a Borders book-signing later that day, where I'm told he signs for no less than a thousand people. As I get a crack at him, he seems bemused by Republican skittishness over Gustav, and smells a rat. "They might've been looking for an excuse not to have the president speak," he says, "but I wouldn't accuse them of that. I've heard people say that."
He generally likes Sarah Palin, though is skeptical of her signing up with such a pro-war team. "When Bill Kristol says he loves her, it makes me wonder," he says. Since he knows my affiliation, I give Paul points for honesty. Then he hits me with a little more: "I wanna get [our interview] over with, because I wanna go eat breakfast." Like Dasa before me, I don't know what to say. "Try the sticky buns," I offer.
After breakfast, I settle into the invitation-only Leadership Summit with Dasa, who's not supposed to be there himself on account of being underage ("The side door works great," he says). The summit is to highlight the particulars of Paul's new permanent organization, the Campaign for Liberty, the mission of which is to promote individual liberty, constitutional government, sound money, free markets, and a noninterventionist foreign policy. As a gentleman in a colonial outfit, complete with tricorn hat, plays "Yankee Doodle" on a fife to call the meeting to order, an organizer named Deb Hopper rushes over and tells me I've got to go, this is a closed meeting.
"We're going to get down to some of the tactics we're going to be using," she says.
"What are they?" I ask.
"Not gonna discuss it," she says.
"Just one tactic?" I plead.
"Not gonna discuss it," she fiercely reiterates, before bouncing me to the sound of fife music, giving me a taste of how the Redcoats felt in the 1700s.
The next day, I attend the "Rally for the Republic" at the Target Center with 12,000 or so Paultards. The rally intends to call "the GOP back to its roots," if by "roots," you mean lots of people in tricorn hats, whose idea of a good time is batting around their favorite economists from the Austrian School. (I'm partial to Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, but then, who isn't?)
My journalistic detachment is dealt a blow, since emceeing the event is my friend and former WEEKLY STANDARD colleague, MSNBC's Tucker Carlson. We both like to think of ourselves as conservatives with strong libertarian overtones. We certainly like to do whatever we want, whenever we want, and hate paying taxes, as our libertarian brothers do.
Tucker did a hang-out with Paul piece last year for the New Republic, and I suggest to him that he's gotten too close to the story.
"You can stay on the sidelines with the jackals, or enter the arena, your face marred by dust, sweat, and blood," he says, archly paraphrasing Teddy Roosevelt.
I tell him I've got a good seat at the press table, but that I'll keep an open mind.
"Sure you will," he mocks. "Write the story before you come. Show up, and fill in the blanks. It's like journalistic Mad Libs. I've been there, man."
My high-placed Paultard source gives me all sorts of insider dope. Former Minnesota governor/pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, who is on the speaking docket, is a serious 9/11 denier. So the Paulians have convinced Ventura to button it on the subject, since furthering the cause of liberty and sound money doesn't have much to do with who Ventura thinks may or may not have felled the Twin Towers. Tucker also won't introduce a speaker from the John Birch Society, just as a matter of principle. And though the schedule calls for a 12:30 P.M. opening bell, "the hemp activists have taken over organizing," says Tucker, "so there's not a chance that we start on time."
Though he's a little bit nervous about his uncharacteristic role-"falling off a cliff," he calls it-Tucker opens the ceremonies with a stirring explanation of why he's here: because, although he signs on to no platform and supports no candidate (especially since Paul isn't one, though somebody should tell that to crowd members holding state delegate stanchions as though they're at a nominating convention to make Paul emperor), Ron Paul, unlike most politicians, is a decent, gentle, and kind human being, who has no interest in controlling you. He stands for freedom and therefore will defend your right to do things he doesn't even agree with, taking political hits for people with whom he has nothing in common.
One of the crowd is so moved by this testimony as to yell: "I love you, Tucker!" "I love you too," he shoots back, "And I mean that in a nonerotic, but powerful way." I can't help but think that this sort of interaction is good for the personal growth of the Paultards, as Tucker will introduce them to something they've likely never experienced before: irony.
The slate of speakers move along in a slow-as-molasses fashion. This must be a stroke to their egos, as I suspect there aren't many occasions when people such as Lew Rockwell, the founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, are treated like visiting rock stars complete with foot-stomping and Ron Paul balloons being volleyed around during their speeches. "By the way," Tucker at one point tells the crowd, "if you can't get enough of [constitutional lawyer/lobbyist] Bruce Fein, he will be signing books afterward, so please don't mob him, despite the temptation."
"We're gonna rock tonight!" promises presidential historian Doug Wead. And the speakers do, too. Such as when Conservative Caucus chairman Howard Phillips ticks off a list of his favorite Ron Paul bills complete with their congressional numbers. (Paul's opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor was a particular crowdpleaser.) Or when John McManus of the John Birch Society whips the crowd into a frenzy when asking what we should do about the unsound-moneychangers at the Federal Reserve ("Suck my butt, Fed!" frothed one crowd member).
A friend at the press table notes that "You can't light a match near anybody because there's so much double-knit here, the place would go up like that." I adjourn to an arena snack bar during a Grover Norquist anti-tax speech-actually I'm just guessing what his speech was about, but it feels a safe bet.
Backstage I find Jesse Ventura holding court. In jeans and a Navy SEAL T-shirt under a sports jacket, his large shiny head ringed with long wisps of unkempt hair, he has, since leaving office and moving to Mexico, taken on the demeanor of a deranged homeless man. When I approach, Ventura is talking about his Belgian Malinois attack dog who understands commands in three languages, and who's picking up Spanish as a fourth. "He's the smartest one in the house," he says, making an entirely believable claim.
I decide to bait Ventura, offering that some of the 9/11 Truthers in the crowd are disappointed their viewpoints aren't being represented.
"They will when I get up there," he growls. He says he's been studying the issue "for well over a year and a half," and he feels "very strongly that the truth has not been forthcoming."
When asked what the truth is and whether the government had something to do with it, he says, "I don't know. But I know this, I do have somewhat of a demolition background, being a member of the Navy's underwater demolition team, and I spoke to a few of my teammates a couple weeks ago. We're all in agreement that buildings can't fall at the rate of gravity without being assisted. And that's called physics, that's not an opinion."
Taking the stage, Ventura has the crowd ululating as he hits all the hot buttons, from the evils of the Patriot Act and closed presidential debates to the need to jealously guard our Second Amendment rights. Then, keeping his promise to me (and breaching assurances to convention organizers), he gets down to business, to a little "something called 9/11." It's like lighting a match around the double-knits. They ignite.
Under the impression that there are no stupid questions, Ventura proceeds to ask several: such as why doesn't the FBI website's list of top ten international terrorists include the 9/11 attacks among Osama bin Laden's other crimes? And why hasn't the Justice Department charged Osama bin Laden? Though he doesn't actually accuse the government of participating in the attacks, he doesn't need to, judging from the crowd reaction. "Inside job!" someone chants.
Backstage afterwards, Ventura is further holding court for reporters, after having hinted to the crowd that he might be amenable to a presidential run in 2012 if the Revolution stays on track. "I will be watching!" he threatened.
Tucker hadn't heard the speech, so I break the news to him that Ventura got off his leash. Being a devout believer in the conventional, single-bullet version of the 9/11 attacks (that the terrorists acted alone), Tucker is both alarmed and offended, but doesn't have much time to reflect. He is accosted by some grubby indie-media types who start trying to engage him: "Have you ever heard of the Controlled Demolition Hypothesis. . . . Who I believe did it are the ones who control our money systems. . . . Have you followed the [National Institute of Standards and Technology] report on the collapse of building seven?"
After a brief sparring match with the nutcakes, Tucker looks ashen. "This is crazy. I've got to get out of here. Let's go get dinner." We slip out the back door of the arena to hail a cab and get some steaks. But Tucker's still supposed to be emceeing the event, and Paul has yet to speak.
"Are you going to tell him you're leaving?" I ask.
"Nahhh," Tucker says. "I really like Ron Paul. I don't want to hurt his feelings."
The beauty of the Ron Paul Revolution is that whatever you miss, you can catch on YouTube. (Number of Paul videos: 150,000 and counting.) The speech is a six-parter, so I don't watch the whole thing, on account of wanting to be present when my young children graduate from college.
Still, Paul sounds some nice notes on personal liberty, not wanting to control others, and the importance of adhering to both moral and constitutional principles, neither of which are in fashion where he works. Government should serve us, not the other way around, and we are not beholden to any government for our rights. "Rights are something that are very precious," he says. "They don't come from the government, they come in a natural way or a God-given way . . . as a right to your life and a right to your liberty. . . . A true patriot defends liberty."
It's an attractive line. And it's easy to see why people subscribe to the Ron Paul Revolution. Easier still when you're nowhere near it.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.