The Gospel According to Ron

MINNEAPOLIS--Sometimes Ron Paul seems like a bona fide political prophet. Here, for example, is what the Republican congressman from Texas and former GOP presidential candidate had to say about militarism and American culture during the closing speech of his three-day "Rally for the Republic" this evening: "We get taught history in our public schools, and who are the great presidents? The great presidents are always said to be the ones who run a war! Why don't we have the peace candidates be the great presidents?"

Less than a minute later, Paul--who, much to the consternation of his supporters, wasn't offered a speaking slot at the RNC--offered his gloss on the definition of patriotism: "Today, they want you to believe that patriotism means you support everything the government wants. A true pa-tri-ot defends liberty and the people!" This elicited thunderous applause and a chant--RON PAUL! RON PAUL!--from the 8,000 or 9,000 people inside the Target Center, even before Paul finished his thought: "And just naming a bill the Patriot Act doesn't make you a patriot. A true patriot will repeal the Patriot Act!"

Also noteworthy: Paul's remarkably edgy assessment (remember, this dude's a Republican congressman!) of the root causes of Islamic terrorism:

It just happens that we as a nation have allied ourselves with secular Muslims, imposed our will by propping up these puppet governments in the Middle East, antagonizing and actually giving motivation to the radicalism that wants to come here to kill us. But why should that be so strange? What if somebody came over here that looked differently than us, had different religious [sic] and different values, and put an air base on our land and imposed their will? The one good thing that would come of that is that his country would be totally unified, because we would resent the occupation of any foreign power on our land!

Other times, though, Paul's ideas can seem odd, or even downright spooky. So, he doesn't want the federal government to fight needless wars, or violate civil liberties, or throw people in jail for smoking pot. Super. He also doesn't like the U.S. Department of Education; or the Federal Reserve (three times tonight, the Pauline crowd whipped itself into a frenzy with an "End the Fed!" chant); or participation in international bodies like the U.N.; or any kind of environmental protection that isn't based solely on property rights; or the fact that we can't all bring guns on airplanes. (If we could, he suggested tonight, 9/11 might have played out differently.)

What's more, while Paul usually makes his Gospel of Freedom sound marvelously benign, there are occasional glimmers of a dark side. "If we have people who ignore [the Constitution], it won't serve our purpose," Paul said tonight. "We have to have a moral people and...moral politicans who represent us." Hmm. Also, if Paul's dream of a truly free America is ever realized, you'd better make sure you carry your weight. "When we have a free society," Paul intoned, "we reject the idea of people being leaches and looters and plunderers. We don't need them."

But really, how much does Paul actually matter? Outside the Rally for the Republic, I spoke with a few people who said they'd been die-hard Republicans until Paul helped them focus on the internal rot plaguing the GOP; now, instead of voting for John McCain, they were thinking about voting for Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party, or Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party, or even writing in Paul himself. So there's a chance that Paul could have a sort of indirect Nader affect on this year's presidential election.

Judging from the way he closed his speech, though, Paul's ambitions are bigger. His goal, evidently, is affecting an ideological revolution that touches all parties; the Gospel of Freedom needs to be spread not just within the GOP, but among Democrats and independents as well. And if the U.S. (or, as Paul invariably terms it, "The Republic") becomes even less hospitable to freedom--if, for example, the draft gets reinstated--he'll just have to help freedom's allies fight back. "When do we get so dissatisfied with our current operation trying to bring about change?" he asked as his speech drew to a close. "There is a time and place, I think, for peaceful civil disobedience. The changes brought about by Gahndi and Martin Luther King were peaceful. And they understood the consequences."

Scoff if you will, but the way Paul's audience reacts to him is something to behold. People don't just applaud when Paul hits a high note; they thrust their arms triumphantly skyward and release exultant screams of joy. A woman sitting a few feet to my left--a middle-aged librarian type wearing a sundress and a homemade "Ron Paul '08" bib--looked, on more than one occasion, like she was about to have an orgasm right there on the floor. The object of their affection, meanwhile, is a short, slight, somewhat shrill gentleman who--when he's not thundering away like the second coming of Barry Goldwater--seems genuinely tickled that he and his supporters actually found each other. "Can you believe," he asked at one point, "that 18 months ago, at the beginning of this campaign, I didn't know any of you existed?"

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