Following the GOP primary process is an exhausting feat best left to professional masochists. If I ever feel the need to submerge myself in a sea of collective idiocy, I think I’ll head down to one of the clubs on Pittsburgh’s South Side; at least the stupidity there is physically contained instead of being broadcast nationwide. There is exactly one interesting thing about this whole circus, and that’s the attention being garnered (again and still) by Ron Paul. I’m not terribly interested in debating his merits as such; if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you already know my feelings concerning the good doctor, and in any case, you can pretty much peruse any number of sources, from Mr. Destructo’s three-part Vice series to Paul’s own voting record, to figure out why he’s not really an acceptable candidate. What’s interesting to me is why the guy who is basically your racist, homophobic, anti-choice uncle is incredibly popular (especially with people who should know better) and what that says about the generally fucked-up state of our political discourse.
I think there are two major reasons for Paul’s popularity; these reasons are somewhat intertwined, but they involve two separate aspects of Paul’s personality. The first of these is his general on-screen demeanor (as opposed to, say, the shit printed in his newsletters): it can’t be emphasized enough that Paul is essentially the only candidate who doesn’t look like a raving lunatic on stage. He’s always composed, always calm, and always on-message. He doesn’t forget his lines like Perry, he doesn’t have flecks of foam around his mouth like Newt, and he doesn’t look like he’s just adopted whatever stupidity is most recently popular with the Republican base like Romney. It wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if the three aforementioneds engaged in a Muslim baby-eating contest on stage, but Paul comes across as genuinely concerned about the effects of the American war machine on both our diplomatic standing in the world and its effects on actual, living human beings. In a sea of candidates trying to outdo each other in callousness, it’s quite a bizarre sight. I think Paul’s telegenic image and ability to sound like a relatively reasonable human being half the time goes a long way towards explaining his appeal to people who, most likely, would never otherwise consider voting for a Republican, including a fair number of young-uns from my generation.
But there’s another aspect to Paul’s appeal which I think is equally important: it’s his deft use of classic conspiracist thinking. In this way, he’s different in degree if not in kind from the rest of the Republican pack, but the difference is key. Whereas the other candidates tend to focus on fairly traditional conservative bugbears (e.g. liberals, feminists, gays, socialists, elites, Muslims, atheists, and all plausible and implausible permutations of the above), Paul tends to direct his ire towards the Federal Reserve, a seemingly anodyne policy point that nevertheless has gained great traction among a certain libertarian fringe. This would seem to be a weird hill to choose to die on, but it makes sense in the following way: since the Fed is an institution that exists mostly orthogonally to the culture war issues, you don’t end up alienating anyone over a contentious social issue. Feminists aren’t likely to vote for Paul due to his anti-choice views, but there’s nothing in feminism to dispose a person one way or the other on questions of monetary policy, and people whose commitment to reproductive rights isn’t nearly as strong (e.g. a whole lot of dudes) are probably going to be more readily swayed by abstract arguments over the merits of fractional reserve banking. In any case, by keeping the focus on these technical issues and keeping his retrograde views on homosexuality, race, and women behind the scenes, Paul maintains a loose coalition of moonbats obsessed with one particular aspect of American governance that might otherwise be torn apart over social issues.
The reason why the focus on the Fed is such a great example of conspiracism is because it addresses a key psychological need of the people who participate in this kind of magical thinking: the need to feel that you know something special that no one else does. It would typically not occur to any reasonable person to attribute all the ills of the world to a single banking mechanism coupled with a fiat currency. There are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made of the Federal Reserve, but these criticisms are grounded in accusations that its actions are often seen to be more to the benefit of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Still, this is no more a condemnation of fiat currency than the existence of identity theft is a condemnation of having bank accounts. It is precisely because these views are counterintuitive that they are so attractive to conspiracists. After all, if the answer were obvious, then others would have probably figured it out by now, but this way, the conspiracists feel as though they possess a sort special knowledge that others do not (witness how often Paul’s defenders drop “sheeple” or any of its variants in [online] discussion). I think this is a huge part of what attracts people to Paul, despite the fact that it doesn’t happen to be accurate in the slightest.
Doubtless many will protest that I have failed to mention Paul’s anti-war views or his views on the drug war as reasons to support him. I certainly support the positions he takes on those subjects, but I don’t think these things alone can quite account for the depth of his support. After all, there are presumably plenty of people who could be found to run on those positions on, say, the Libertarian ticket, who have neither Paul’s history of noxious racism nor his gold-bug tendencies. I’m sure Reason could come up with more than a few such candidates, some of whom might even try their hand at the Republican primaries (as, indeed, Gary Johnson has done). I don’t believe it’s coincidental that the strongest support is going to the candidate of the conspiracist fringe. When confronted with the disastrous methodology for accomplishing his stated goals (End the drug war… BY DISMANTLING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. End the war on terror… BY DISMANTLING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT), Paul’s supporters are apt to engage in dismal mental contortions that involve a careful explanation of why Paul will be able to, as president, accomplish exactly those things that you like about him and none of those things that you don’t like. The cult of personal infallibility, the invention of just-so stories and ad hoc explanations for any and all criticisms, and the all-encompassing nature of the theory of Ron Paul governance are all classic signatures of magical thinking that brooks no counterexamples, a technique which puts at its users disposal an explanation for virtually all aspects of politics in digestible form.
Nevertheless, Paul’s candidacy is terribly important in one way, and that simply has to do with what it says about the liberal/progressive wing of the electorate. It should be both stunning and embarassing to liberals that the one guy who actually seems genuinely opposed to American militarism is vying for the presidential nomination from the party that practically has “bombing brown people” as one of its platform planks. Over at Naked Capitalism, Matt Stoller has written up an interesting piece about the challenge that Paul presents to liberals, but while I think his main thesis is correct (well, the challenge part is), his details are wrong. Stoller alleges that Paul attacks liberal thought by focusing on the nexus between central banking and war financing, but this really isn’t a problem for any liberal at all, unless one mistakently believes that wars didn’t happen on the gold standard. The truth, I think, is much, much simpler: Paul presents a challenge because it’s embarassing that liberals have not been able to field a genuinely anti-(terror/drug)-war candidate who doesn’t come with a horrible social platform and thinks that the solution to all ills is to shatter the country into small pieces. There were people (myself included) who thought that Barack Obama could be that candidate, but… well, you can see how that worked out.
That is the real challenge that Paul presents to liberals: the existence of his candidacy exposes the complete failure of Democratic Party politics to produce anything like the stated goals of the liberals who routinely cast votes for that party. Paul is riding a wave of disaffection with the standard political narratives by offering a conspiracist alternative that aims to explain every aspect of politcs via a simple (and obviously incorrect) theory. The fact that he is able to do this by advocating anti-war positions should be taken by all liberals as a direct condemnation of our failed politics and of our failed expectations of our own (alleged) ideological allies. If anything, Paul is a hell of a lot braver than any Democratic presidential candidate of the last 12 years: he’s willing to take his viewpoint to an obviously hostile constituency, while virtually every Democratic aspirant to the Oval Office has been competing with their party-mates to see how many hippies they could throw under the bus.
I’m not voting for Ron Paul; he sucks, even if he’s right about some things, even some very important things. But a lot of liberals should think about how it came about that the only person willing to say something even remotely sensible about our foreign adventures is doing so in ideological opposition to virtually his entire party. And how it came to be that our own (supposed) political allies can’t muster a tenth of that kind of spine, and may not even want to do so.