I was a bit nervous about reviewing Brian Doherty’s excellent new biography of Ron Paul and his movement. The Paulites are hard to please. I could type, “Ron Paul’s Great!” a thousand times, and I’d still get a slew of emails saying, “Why do you always use such a small font when you write about Ron Paul? When are you people in the mainstream media going to give him the respect he deserves?” Most political activists can’t handle light criticism. The Paulites can’t handle light praise.

A lot of journalists don’t like Paul’s people because of the way they behaved on the campaign trail. When not shouting the praises of the Texas congressman, they were often shouting down their opponents. I was present in New Hampshire this January when the news came through that their guy had placed second with 23 percent of the vote in the first-in-the-nation primary. To say that the crowd at the Ron Paul party went wild would be an understatement. They went bestial—all teeth and claw, hollering at the cameras and pawing at the stage.

The great Ron Paul paradox is that he sells himself as the most conservative Republican alive because he wants to take America back to a golden age of low taxes, no bureaucracy, and the sovereignty of the states. Yet his campaign has been anything but conservative. His supporters seem more like revolutionaries than activists, while his small-government philosophy signs him up to positions that can seem more libertine than libertarian—guns on planes, surrender in the War on Drugs, gay marriage on tap.

For this reader, the most interesting thing that a Ron Paul biography could do is to unravel that paradox and explain how it fits into the grand history of American conservatism. Luckily, Doherty is an intelligent, informed observer who does just that. By the end of his super-smart book you have a good sense of Ron Paul the man and Ron Paul the movement and where both might go next.

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The man was born in Pittsburgh in 1935. The son of a dairy owner, he earned a doctorate in medicine at Duke University’s School of Medicine in 1961. Like most of his generation, he served his time in the armed forces without complaint—as a flight surgeon in the Air Force from 1963 to 1965 and then in the National Air Guard from 1965 to 1968. He settled down in Texas with his wife and established a private practice in obstetrics and gynecology.

In terms of personality, that’s all you’re going to get from Ron Paul. The image Doherty draws is of a straightforward, ordinary man who loves his family and has honored his country. No George W. Bush-style drunk driving or Kennedyesque shenanigans. The only color in Paul’s early life is ideological. Always opposed to government handouts, he refused Medicaid or Medicare payments and lowered fees for those patients who could not pay. To conservatives in his care, Dr. Paul was both sound and affordable.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the liberal antics of presidents Johnson or Carter that encouraged him to enter politics but the flip-flopping conservatism of Richard Nixon. Paul—who “had already been reading his Hayek and his Mises”—was shocked by President Nixon’s decision to go off the gold standard and fight the inflation of the early 1970s with price controls. In Paul’s own words, he knew it would “usher in a new age of rampant inflation and big government and I wanted to speak out.” It was 1974 and, thanks to Watergate, no one wanted to run as a Republican for Congress. Paul did, and he lost. But the name recognition he gained set him up for a win in 1976.

He went to Congress as an issues politician, and he refused to lavish time, or the taxpayer’s money, on special interests. “Dr. No,” as he became known, was a curiosity. On the one hand he was charming, politically gifted, and enjoyed broad support across the conservative movement. On the other hand, he took a lot of awkward stands in Congress that isolated him from the Republican caucus—stands on things that weren’t obvious conservative issues. “He’s the cult politician par excellence, in the sense that his enthusiasms tend to be mightily, but thinly held, across the American landscape,” says Doherty. In other words, Paul’s matured libertarianism was consistent but only appreciated by folks whose numbers were spread “thinly” across the country. And often its policy agenda appealed to isolated activists rather than a broad coalition. Just as it was logical for Paul to quit the Republicans in 1988 (on the not widely held premise that Ronald Reagan had been a closet liberal) and run as a Libertarian presidential candidate, so it was inevitable that his run should be beset by internal squabbles and slim national support.

Illustration: Michael Hogue

It was when he was launching his comeback to Congress in 1996 that Paul demonstrated the quiet strength of his political brand. According to Doherty, “Paul’s opponents… painted him as a madly radical libertarian who would be for selling heroin in public schools.” They cut ads “trying to portray him as a loon… weird noises, booooiiing, cartoon like effects, he must be crazy.” But one meeting with the “quiet, calm, wonkish country doctor” put voters at ease. A former activist told Doherty that personal contact immediately disabused them of “the idea that he’s any kind of dangerous nut. [His opponents] tried to portray him as a dangerous extremist, but meet him and he’s painfully ordinary.” Paul won the election by a squeak: 51 to 48 percent. But once voters get used to Paul, his support ticks up. In his 2010 congressional race, he took 76 percent.

September 11 turned Paul from a local curiosity into a national phenomenon. Strangely, the American left failed throughout the noughties to develop a consistent, compelling response to the Iraq War. It didn’t even feature as a front and center issue for the Democrats in 2008, when instead they debated the rather more trite question of who it would be more historic/cool to see as president: a woman or an African-American. Only Ron Paul—identified erroneously as a right-wing Republican—astutely and passionately articulated the case against the military-industrial complex.

This was a case of cometh the hour cometh the man. Paul brought two things to his argument: that disarming “wonkish” quality that made him sound like less of a radical than he really was, and an intellectual depth that was lacking on the left. Perhaps one of the reasons why he ran stronger in the presidential contest of 2012 than in 2008 is that his small-government philosophy offered an integrated critique of the two biggest crises then facing America: war and the credit crunch. Paul argued—in a way that no Democrat could—that welfare and warfare were linked, that they were all part of the growth of government beyond the limits placed upon it by the Constitution. The U.S. has to finance war, so it creates new taxes. The new taxes feed the public hunger for programs, so the taxes grow. As the state enlarges domestically, so it is emboldened internationally. The twin compulsions of imperialism and social democracy birth a new movement that gives them political legitimacy: neoconservatism. And neoconservatism leads to debt, cheap money, crass speculation and… the credit crunch.

The message was powerful enough to achieve some genuine breakthroughs in 2012. Paul’s ability to raise millions was remarkable, while his activist base seemed like a force of nature. His third-place showing in Iowa was incredible because it was against the odds, and in the face of a media that alternately demonized Paul and pretended that he didn’t exist. His second place in New Hampshire should have resulted in him being given top-tier status by the party and press. Instead it outraged and confused them in equal measure. He never got a fair crack at the nomination.

But Paul had flaws, too. His foreign policy could be distracting—not necessarily because he was wrong but because it underscored his quirkiness and made him unacceptable to the vast majority of hawkish Republicans. Paul’s willingness to answer honestly any question put to him was a disadvantage for a politician, as when he told Bill Maher that the Civil War was unnecessary. Then there was the revelation that back in the 1990s he had put his name to a series of newsletters that were borderline racist and homophobic. For some of us, that was a step too close to the fringe. To use the parlance of Paul’s liberal supporters on campus, “Not cool, dude. Not cool.”

But his biggest problem was his fans. Doherty recalls a conversation with a “tipsy young Romney supporter” during the Iowa caucuses who admitted that she liked Paul but hated his followers. “They were outside agitators, she insisted, almost scary in their intensity.” Reading between the lines, Doherty has some sympathy with that view. I do, too. After all, isn’t conservatism about sustaining order, not tearing it down?

And yet, Doherty correctly concludes, it is the Ron Paul following that will be his most important legacy. His activists are already getting elected at a state level, while his son is a rising star of the Senate. Best of all, the Paulite vote is young and only likely to grow. Doherty writes, “The results in Iowa showed signs that Paulism, with its appeal to the young and to independents, might be the key to the future of the GOP. Entrance polls for the Iowa caucus had Paul pulling 48 percent of those age 19-29, and 44 percent of independents.” In Virginia, where Paul went up against Romney alone, the libertarian won 61 percent of voters age 17-29 and 63 percent of those 30-44. He won the poor and the unmarried as well. But—and here’s the problem—he also won the votes of self-described liberals, those who “oppose the Tea Party,” and supporters of legalized abortion. That’s why Paul did so well among independents in 2012: they were drawn from the libertarian cult, not the mainstream Republican church.

The most intriguing part of Doherty’s book is his consideration of where Paul’s movement fits within U.S. political history. He finds comparisons here, there, and everywhere—some of Grover Cleveland’s fiscalism, a little of William Jennings Bryan’s populism, a dash of Goldwater’s rampant right-wingery. But with all these figures there is some disagreement (with Bryan on coinage, with Goldwater on foreign policy) that makes him impossible to place within the grand tradition of American history. It’s one more reason why his presidential races have proved disappointing, even as they have revived the spirit of American politics. Ron Paul is his own man, stubbornly pushing a brand of libertarianism that almost defies electoral good sense. Paulism is a principle still in search of a party.

Timothy Stanley is author of The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan and a blogger for the Daily Telegraph.