It was a dangerous night in South Carolina: the ten candidates for the Republican nomination gathered, and a debate broke out. Damage control was swift. Party elders rushed to excommunicate the instigator. Pundits howled, bloggers convulsed: “moonbat on Kool Aid,” “crackpot,” “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”


But for all that pious fury, a candidate few Americans had heard of owned the next day’s headlines. Ron Paul had committed the sin of truth—and the reaction revealed much about the party that shunned him.


The evening began predictably enough. Focus-grouped down to their ties, the heavyweights managed to attach conviction to issues they rarely think about, while a pack of also-rans nipped at their wingtips. The audience inserted polite applause. Then the play went off script.


Asked if bringing our troops home from Iraq was really a Republican position, Ron Paul countered, “There’s a strong tradition of being antiwar in the Republican Party. It is the constitutional position.” Had 9/11 altered that, his questioner inquired. Paul responded that American foreign policy was a “major contributing factor. … They attacked us because we’ve been over there; we’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years…” The crowd went silent. “Are you suggesting that we invited the 9/11 attacks, sir?” A more packaged candidate would have prefaced his answer with a disclaimer—“Of course we did nothing to deserve the attacks.” Paul believes this, but he doesn’t park on Madison Avenue. “I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it…”


The party men could stand it no longer, and Rudy Giuliani volunteered to chasten the prodigal: “That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve heard that before…” The audience thundered approval, and Rudy pressed his advantage: “I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.”


But he did mean it—and gave no ground: “If we think we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem. They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and free. They come and they attack us because we’re over there.”


The moderator declined to follow up and moved on to less disruptive subjects —for once the Confederate flag seemed safe—but Paul’s inconvenient truth lingered in the air and led the coverage.


Less noted was the reaction of the crowd, Roman in its fervor. What were they applauding? Giuliani’s sloganeering prowess? Or his profession of ignorance? Neither commends him—or them.


Believing that our enemies’ motivation is beyond the scope of legitimate discussion should render Giuliani incapable of strategic analysis. Surely the old prosecutor doesn’t think that discerning a felon’s motive absolves him of the crime? He told Larry King that his plan for pacifying Iraq was to “Do it with more troops—maybe 100,000, 150,000 more.”But on what basis did he make that decision if realists who come within ten feet are ordered to recant?


The alternative is that Giuliani really is as remote from the facts as he claimed and was rejecting something he knows nothing about. Worse, he shouted down a more knowledgeable man.


Still the crowd downed that cocktail of arrogance and ignorance, delivering the loudest applause of the night and proving Alexander Pope’s maxim: “shallow draughts intoxicate the brain.”


Beyond the hall, ovations rippled across the Republican ranks. Wrote RedState’s Rob Bluey: “If Giuliani goes on to capture the nomination, his response to Ron Paul will be one of the moments that is replayed years from now. It was so powerful that I found myself cheering him on in front of the TV.”


Other candidates clamored onto the bandwagon: “I thought Mayor Giuliani’s intercession there was appropriate, and frankly, very, very excellent,” said John McCain. “I really appreciated it because we should never, never believe that we brought on this conflict. This is an evil force that is trying to destroy everything we stand for and believe in. And this is a transcendent struggle. That’s why I want to be president of the United States.”


It’s come to this. The party once known for its sobriety wants to be lulled with stories about evil forces and immaculate heroes. Prudence yields to utopianism, intellectual combat to blind thuggery. Gone are the wisemen who cast long shadows and wrote great books. Lost too is the Right’s old default that distrusted power and those who want it, replaced by a vision of the irreproachable state.


There’s an impoverished efficiency to this new regime. Millions take dictation from talk radio, keep I-hate-Barbra-Streisand books climbing the bestseller lists, and enjoy the nightly spectacle of Alan Colmes being waterboarded. The ideological contests that once provoked fierce infighting are settled: all that remains is to purge offenders and sell the party line. “If Republicans start thinking like this, we’re dead,” radio talker Glenn Beck said of Paul’s dissent. If Republicans start thinking, they may realize that indignation isn’t argument.


“Ron Paul really has no business being on stage as a legitimate representative of Republicans,” Michelle Malkin told Fox’s John Gibson. She’s right—though not for the reason she thinks. Unwilling to engage the facts of Paul’s case, she made up her own, attempting to associate him with the 9/11 Truth Movement, which believes the U.S. was complicit in, or at least forewarned of, the terrorist attacks. Members of the group attended a Paul campaign event, but he has never endorsed their conspiracy theories. Malkin later admitted her error but not before denouncing “tinfoil hat wearers who indulge in this kind of fantasy, where America bears blame for global jihad.” No doubt a chorus of Republican faithful again cheered their TVs.


It’s voguish to pronounce a “conservative crack-up,” but just the opposite is occurring. The once marginal tendency has won mass appeal—a kind of victory. But it had to leave behind that frontier where intellectual pioneers wrangled ideas scaled to the terrain. As the ranks swelled, the canon shrunk to a single issue that brooks no challenge. It fits comfortably into a Fox soundbite and finds followers aplenty. So powerful is the martial accord that anyone who disagrees must be something other than conservative: liberal, traitorous, mad.

There’s power in that consensus—and fragility. Einstein wrote, “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.” Ron Paul proved that he has brain and backbone. But the party he’s bidding to lead has lost the ability to distinguish between a constitutionalist and a crackpot.