The Ron Paul Revolution: 10 years on
Ten years ago in March, an upstart political campaign was announced by obscure Texas congressman Ron Paul. Ron Paul had served in Congress on and off since the 1970's while serving as an obstetrician in his off time, and could hardly have been considered a national figure of any kind. Paul had an extremely conservative outlook, particularly regarding government spending and the role of the federal government, and as a congressman he earned the nickname "Dr. No" for voting against any piece of legislation did not meet his own exacting standards of constitutionality. Paul, who had supported George Bush's initial promises of a non-interventionist foreign policy and modest government, had grown disgusted and disillusioned by Bush' ineptitude and his administration's rampant corruption and expansion of their own power. Paul embarked on this initial campaign with modest ambitions for influencing the course of Republican politics, completely unaware of the historic ramifications his campaign would have on the course of American politics. A decade later, living in Trump's America, is the perfect time for looking back at the fundamental lessons of the Ron Paul campaign and what it tells us about the truly ludicrous direction this country has gone since.
First of all, some context of the time would be useful. The Iraq War was still raging years after it was meant to be over, and Bush's troop surge was surging ahead in a half-assed attempt to wrest stalemate out of the jaws of defeat. The nation still rode a wave of domestic prosperity, but the seeds of the catastrophic Great Recession had been sewn throughout the over-mortgaged suburbs of the American middle and upper class. Social media, though widespread among youth, was not a daily part of life for the majority of people, and CNN, MSNBC and Fox News were still seen by many as reliable sources of news and opinion. George Bush had proven himself to be exactly the kind of bumbling incompetent that the nation had feared, and his administration had been routinely disgraced by scandal ever since his controversial election. The mortar was not yet dry on the permanent war mentality that has cemented itself on the American psyche, and civil liberties were still a hot-button issue among liberals and democratic politicians.
In this political landscape, so alien to us now, the future of the country was wide open as George Bush left the presidency with a thorough coating of egg on his face. Of course, we all know what happened next. Barack Obama rose to triumph in a highly contentions primary election over the presumptive candidate Hillary Clinton and eventually ascended to the presidency. Over on the Republican side of the election, major cracks were beginning to form in the pillars upholding the party establishment as Ron Paul's grassroots support network fought its way through the centurions and into the national spotlight. While the ultimately failed candidacy eventually went overwhelmingly to Arizona Senator and off-kilter lunatic John McCain, Ron Paul fundamentally changed the game concerning how a modern election is run and revealed the instability and disillusionment at the heart of the Republican party that would eventually lead to the election of reality TV star and non-Republican Donald Trump.
Paul positioned himself in dramatic opposition to the rest of the candidates that year, and he was the only candidate to present any kind of coherent vision for change in the country. He took a hard stand against the Iraq War and United States militarism generally, boldly bringing terms such as "empire" and "blowback" into mainstream political lexicon. In televised debates he quoted Ronald Reagan to justify withdrawing militarily from the Middle East (2:24 in the linked video) and pointed out that violence against the United States resulted from American military aggression across the planet (6:18). He advocated for a massive decrease in federal spending and the abolition of numerous federal bureaucracies. He loved to speak extensively on the esoteric issue of monetary policy, and his "End the Fed" mantra survives to this day as a genre of political meme.
Paul broke every political orthodoxy and refused to stay silent on any issue. At the time, any politician contradicting the official narrative of American inerrancy on the national level was downright shocking, and many people heard these ideas for the very first time from Ron Paul's mouth. Televised debates shamelessly gave him very little time to speak, and practically all coverage of the Paul campaign emphasized his hopeless chances of winning the primary. While his campaign was a long shot from the start, the media giants of America did everything they could to make this a reality.
However, Ron Paul's appeal was diverse and, to the powers the be, quickly revealed itself to be dangerous. His words and positions resonated with a rather diverse set of demographic segments that included religious conservatives, college aged liberals, survivalist hillbillies, armed services members, entrepreneurs and more. The way that the campaign grew organically and independent of official channels is what makes it so historic and so truly extraordinary. His appearances on national television, when he was given the chance to speak, were astounding given the poise and eloquence with which he tore down the bipartisan orthodoxy. In a jingoistic atmosphere of war and sacrifice, Paul quoted Ronald Reagan to a Republican debate audience to justify his support for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq. He was the only politician in the race to acknowledge the role of American imperialism and military domination of the Middle East in engendering hatred and resentment of the United States. He forecast a coming economic crisis on account of the reckless spending by the government and the ill-advised monetary policies of the Federal Reserve. He was only able to make his voice heard because of the world-changing power of the internet, and his supporters turned this technology heavily to his advantage.
Ron Paul was arguably the first "internet" candidate in American history. While national media outlets repeatedly belittled him, ignored him and finally fought against him, his supporters were able to use the internet to organize, fundraiser and promote his campaign in a way that had never been seen before. Today, the internet and social media permeate society and public discourse, but in 2007 and 2008 (the "MySpace era") the internet was just beginning to dominate American and then global life. Ron Paul, elderly even at that time (he was 71) did not so much harness the internet as "the internet harnessed him."
Online, the mainstream media blockade could be sidestepped, and Ron Paul rapidly became the most popular Republican candidate on MySpace and YouTube. His supporters, independent of his central campaign, were so enthusiastic that they did the groundwork themselves, free of charge. Out of the masses rose the logo of the Ron Paul rEVOLution (with, like, love backwards man), which emphasized peace, love and sound fiscal policy as the basis for a fundamental change in the country's direction. The internet did what the internet does and very quickly Ron Paul's campaign became promoted by ostentatiously expensive blimps and rapping pizza-men. They organized the largest online fundraisers in history at that time, one of which raised over $6 million in 24 hours. Paul's supporters did an end run around traditional media channels, hinting at the revolutionary powers that the internet could have on modern politics.
In the end, Ron Paul's rEVOLution failed to place him within the halls of power. A media blackout and smear campaign, and procedural tricks in certain state Republican conventions minimized the impact of his first campaign. However, the coming of the Great Recession (which he had been predicting for years) Paul did gain significant status for his economic views and began regular appearances on mainstream news outlets. He wrote multiple bestselling books outlining his political ideology, and founded the successful Campaign for Liberty organization. He ran again, much more competitively, for the candidacy in 2012 against a similarly uninspiring Republican field, and was ultimately defeated by empty-suit candidate Mitt Romney. Romney predictably lost to the charismatic Obama. Republicans had twice gone with the establishment and lost, and they had primed the rise of another outsider who would have much greater success than Paul could have hoped for.
In a weird way, Ron Paul's campaigns presaged the rise of Trump, a sort of Bizarro World Ron Paul. Like Paul, Trump muscled his way into the political system on a wave of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Media organizations as well as party insiders mobilized to stop him, but Trump was able to weather the storm, defeat his inept Republican adversaries and take power after yet another failed run by Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump was able to capitalize on his identity as an outsider in a way that Ron Paul never could, largely because he was such an obnoxious jackass.
Ron Paul's greatest mistake was his steadfastly intellectual public persona. He was constitutionally (pun intended) incapable of "playing the game," an activity which Trump excelled at. Americans are a fickle and boorish electorate who demand simple answers that justify their already held biases and beliefs. Paul always treated his audience like they were reasoning adults and never sank to level of justifying the accusations made against him by hostile media. Where Paul's intellectual arguments took minutes to explain and hours to understand, Trump's bravado hit the lowest common dominator exactly in the sweet spot. While Paul always tried to steer the conversation to policy, Trump hurled ludicrous accusations right back into the faces of his attackers. Where bewildered audiences did not quite know what to do with Ron Paul's calls to "End the Fed," Americans couldn't help but talk about Donald Trump's recommendations to "Grab 'em by the Pussy." This was key to Trump's national success; no one felt he was talking down to them, and he was no more eloquent or intellectual than any everyday joe. He did not ask for any awareness or education from voters, and they were happy to not give it to him. Trump's wealth and name recognition were enormous compared to Ron Paul's, so he could do battle with the media establishment and actually win.
Trump was never held down by an ideology or political philosophy, and this allowed him to change his rhetoric at will to fit what he felt his audience wanted to hear. I believe the most overlooked aspect of the 2016 elections was the millions of people who voted Trump out of disgust at the political establishment that had been dictating the course of things for decades. Not necessarily because they were racist, not necessarily because they were stupid, but because they were tired of an orthodoxy that refused to listen to outside perspectives. Paul's followers were never a particularly large or homogeneous group, so their influence was not decisive in the election of Trump, but the frustration engendered by his unsuccessful runs had soured Republicans to their own political leadership and certainly had an effect of putting the current president over the top.
Americans had rejected their humble Demosthenes, and by 2016 America was a Gordian Knot and they wanted their Alexander. What they actually got was Donald Trump. You shit the bed America, now lie in it.