Ron Paul gets real

For months the presidential bid of Rep. Ron Paul has been the very essence of an alt.campaign. In the real world, the Texas Republican and part-time Libertarian, who opposes the occupation of Iraq, the Patriot Act, the Federal Reserve, and most of what has transpired in Washington since congressmen traveled by horse and buggy, barely counted. Ignored by reporters and pundits, he hovered in the low single digits in the polls.

On the Internet, however, Ron Paul (no relation, as best I can figure) lived a vibrant second political life as avatar for a dedicated cadre of Ron Paul true believers. These "Paultards" and "Ronulans" (as they have come to be called online) spammed mailboxes and electronic polls. They laid siege to the comments sections of unfriendly blogs, getting themselves banished by conservative sites like RedState and Fox talker Sean Hannity's online forum. And then on Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day, (a spectacularly weird choice, as Jacob T. Levy explains), they raised $4.2 million online in 24 hours for the Ron Paul campaign, breaking all previous marks for fund-raising in a single day.

An alt.campaign overnight changed the landscape of the real campaign, and the blogosphere buzzed to figure out what it might mean.

"Rep. Paul has drawn millions with his message of liberty, and refrain from empire building" is how a typical and anonymous fan explains it at True Economy. "The message of non-intervention, secure borders, no entangling alliances, no income tax, ending the war on drugs, and liberty is rapidly spreading."

For some of the less enchanted, Paul's big jackpot was better viewed as a tactical triumph — "the single biggest example of people-power this cycle," Markos Moulitsas concedes at DailyKos — or an object lesson about the special role the Internet plays in linking "crazy uncle" politicians and those alienated from politics as usual, according to Matt Stoller at Open Left. (Too bad that no blogger with a taste for irony stopped to ask where Ron Paul would be today if not for the Internet, a set of technologies born of the Defense Department and the alphabet soup of big government agencies he denounces.)

For most bloggers, both right and left, Paul's haul doesn't "really change anything," as Kevin Drum writes at Political Animal, "and everyone knows it." Steve Benen agrees at The Carpetbagger Report. "In today's Republican Party, a die-hard libertarian who opposes the war in Iraq, hates the neocons, wants to eliminate most of the federal government, and wants a return to the gold standard can only generate so much support."

Bloggers on the right leap to confirm the natural limits of Paul's GOP appeal. "He's a crank, a troll, a cult leader" who has no place in the Republican party, Beth writes at My Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. "He's a candidate campaigning on a Michael Moore view of the world," David Frum harrumphs at National Review. "It's an anti-war candidacy and little else ...," Paul Mirengoff contends at Power Line. "The only other seriously distinguishing feature of the campaign is that it's nutty. ... Republicans should respond to voters who find Ron Paul appealing with a cold shoulder."

But right-wing bloggers can't so easily excommunicate Paul from the Republican temple. His is a "conservatism of exceptional purity," writes John Derbyshire, taking the longer view at National Review. "Reading through [his] policy positions, an American conservative can hear the mystic chords of memory sounding in the distance, and hear the call of ancestral voices wafted on the breeze ... [T]his is your father's conservatism — the Old-Time Religion. What is there among Ron Paul's policy prescriptions that the young William F. Buckley would have disagreed with?"

The answer, of course, is opposition to war and empire. The old-time conservative religion was isolationist. William F. Buckley's innovation was to yoke a revived conservatism to the Cold War national security state and the imperial presidency, and banish the isolationists, who believed liberty to be incompatible with war, to Republican purgatory. But the cranky old right never disappeared. The anti-interventionists resurfaced in 1972, during another unpopular war, as the Libertarian party, and their brand of politics — gold-bug, (Ayn) Randroid, anti-imperialist, anti-militarist, Don't-Tread-on-Me, lower-case "r" (and, too often, racist, nativist, anti-Semitic) republicanism — has deep roots in the American psyche.

With Ron Paul as their vehicle, they are trying to find a home again in the GOP. But as David Weigel writes at Reason's Hit and Run, Republicans are "mocking him and his supporters as deranged flat-earthers. ... Are Republicans flying so high that they can just amputate a wing of their party? Obviously not. So why are they doing it?"