08.30.09

Revenge of Ron Paul's Army

Ever wonder what happened to Ron Paul’s grassroots supporters? They’re crashing town-hall meetings—often armed—and heating things up as Congress enters its last week of recess. 

On the presidential campaign trail, Ron Paul was a grassroots sensation and then a media darling. He broke the record for GOP one-day fundraising online, culling $4.2 million on November 5, 2007. A rabid band of young, contrarian followers seemed to materialize wherever he traveled, setting up organizing camps to get out the vote for their libertarian hero. In the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus, Paul’s supporters even raised money to fly a blimp from North Carolina to Boston, bearing the words “Ron Paul Revolution.”

One of the Phoenix protesters, a former Paul campaign volunteer, carried an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. “This government is the most corrupt Mafioso on the face of the Earth.”

What the revolution didn’t deliver was votes—Paul’s best primary showing was in Idaho, where he earned 25 percent of the vote. Yet nearly a year-and-a-half after Paul officially dropped out of the Republican primary with a YouTube video, the influence of the Texas obstetrician-turned-politician—a guy still considered wacky and off-base by most in the political establishment—seems only to have grown. As members of Congress prepare for another round of town-hall meetings this week, one thing is becoming clear: Three-quarters of the way through 2009, it is fringy Ron Paul, more so than John McCain or any of his other primary opponents, whose ideology is setting the conservative agenda. Even without the direct influence of their titular leader, Paul’s campaign army is marching on, mobilized by intense opposition to health-care reform.

One of Paul’s main arguments from the campaign, that much social spending is unconstitutional, has become a rallying cry of the Republican base. At a health-care town-hall meeting in Sun City, Arizona, on August 25, a woman asked McCain, “I would like to know how the president is getting by with all of this money. … It’s against the Constitution. Doesn’t he know that we still live under a Constitution?” McCain was booed when he replied, “I’m sure that [Obama] respects the Constitution of the United States.” In part, Paul’s anti-federal ideology has gained traction because conservatives are incensed by President Obama’s ambitious—and expensive—domestic agenda, from health reform to the federal stimulus to bank bailouts. And in part, it’s because libertarian thinking is easier for mainstream Republicans to embrace on healthcare than it is on doing away with the Federal Reserve or ending American imperialism. Right wing poster girl Rep. Michele Bachmann, an originator of the false "death panel" rumor, has promised to schedule a Minnesota town hall meeting with Paul in September.

"I especially want to speak to the 19- to 20-year olds so they can know what their future will be under this level of debt accumulation and spending,” Bachmann said of the event. "They need to know their future. And so I’m bringing [Paul] in so we can have a discussion on monetary policy."

But there’s a darker side to the story: Some of Paul’s grassroots supporters have protested, armed, at health-care town-hall meetings. They are connected in a loose-knit, nationwide network of activists who believe the current federal government is largely illegitimate and unconstitutional. Some have ties to the “birther” movement, which believes—disregarding all evidence—that President Obama is not a natural-born American citizen.

To be fair, Paul’s Congressional office and his nonprofit, the Campaign for Liberty, have no direct ties to the gun-toting protesters. (And in Arizona this week, even a few health reform supporters showed up to a town hall with guns in tow.) Paul himself, despite a fertile history of race-baiting in his newsletters to supporters— positions he now disavows—sounds eminently reasonable in his opposition to health reform.

“What I don’t think is so substantive is the partisan rancor on both sides,” Paul told The Daily Beast. “For example, the noise you hear about 'death panels.' There’s a lot to be concerned with about end-of-life planning. But the use of terms has annoyed me.”

As he did on the campaign trail, Paul argues that inflation is the chief cause of rising health-care costs, and that the solution is tort reform and cutting taxes. He also blames the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “You can’t keep expanding a war in the Middle East and pretend you can come up with a $2 trillion medical-care program,” Paul said. “I think the statistics are showing that the American people are turning against the Afghanistan war. And can you imagine how much health care we could have had without the bailout packages?”

“With the collapsing of the economy and this rush for more government medical care, the people are much more alarmed and concerned and outspoken than I ever dreamed of,” Ron Paul said.

This sounds like reasonable opposition. But the fact is many of Paul’s most ardent supporters aren’t listening carefully to their leader. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on August 11, television networks captured William Kostric, a native Arizonan, standing outside a presidential town-hall meeting wearing a 9-mm handgun strapped to his belt. He held a sign referencing the Thomas Jefferson quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” Kostric’s MySpace profile lists Paul as his “hero” and someone he’d “like to meet.” The page also includes lyrics to a pro-Ron Paul rap song.

Eight days later in Phoenix, about a dozen men showed up with guns at another Obama town-hall meeting. The protest was organized by Paul supporter and fringe Arizona secretary-of-state candidate Ernest Hancock, who said he gave the police prior notice. During Paul’s campaign, Hancock designed the instantly recognizable “Ron Paul Revolution” logo, which flew on the Paul blimp and is frequently seen on T-shirts worn by the congressman’s young supports. Hancock also has a history of defending the anti-government Viper Militia, which was convicted on weapons and conspiracy charges in 1997.

“We need to make it clear that law enforcement here in Arizona supports our right to bear arms and that it’s not a problem,” Hancock told The Daily Beast, admitting, “my motivation for this had nothing to do with health care.”

One of the Phoenix protesters, Chris Broughton, a former Paul campaign volunteer, carried an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. “This government is the most corrupt Mafioso on the face of the earth,” Broughton later told the Arizona Republic. Broughton attends a church led by Pastor Steven Anderson, who delivered a sermon the day before the event praying for Obama’s death and calling him a “socialist devil.”

What more typical conservatives might not realize is that armed protesters like Broughton and Kostric represent an ideology far more complex and radical than simply opposing “socialized” medicine or increased government spending. Their worldview is pro-life, anti-tax, and hawkish on immigration, which they call an “invasion”—but also passionately anti-war and anti-authoritarian.

Indeed, Broughton and Kostric are both “team members” in an effort organized by the We the People Foundation to host a “continental congress” from November 9-22 at a lush spa and resort in St. Charles, Illinois. Their movement is motivated by a deep-seated belief that the current federal government is as illegitimate as 18th-century British rule over colonial America, and ought to be subject to “economic sanctions.” According to We the People founder and chairman Bob Schulz, a birther, the purpose of the event is “petitioning Congress for redress of grievances regarding the Second Amendment, privacy, property, money policy, and war powers.” Delegates will be elected in each state on October 10.

Schulz has ties to the legitimate Paul political apparatus. In December, he spoke at a libertarian “Boston Tea Party” alongside Rand Paul, the congressman’s son and a competitive candidate for a Kentucky Senate seat. The event was organized by Walter Reddy, the Connecticut precinct leader for Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty.

Paul is careful not to say too much about the radicalism of some of his supporters. “With the collapsing of the economy and this rush for more government medical care, the people are much more alarmed and concerned and outspoken than I ever dreamed of,” he said. “It’s a mixed blessing.” And he lauds the Obama administration for not cracking down on Kostric, the New Hampshire protester. “He was lawful, he was on private property, he never caused any trouble, and the law said that he could carry [the gun,]” Paul said. “So I was glad the administration didn’t demonstrate by hustling him off and putting him in prison someplace. He was a nonviolent individual showing it’s not the gun, it’s the individual that counts.”

Grassroots movements develop a life of their own, and the “Ron Paul Revolution” is no exception. With health-care reform, Paul’s supporters have found a perfect entrée into discussions with the Republican base. Now, conservatives and libertarians together, many of them inspired by Ron Paul, are effectively drumming up loud—and armed—opposition to Obama’s foremost domestic priority. And it turns out Ron Paul’s impact is more lasting that many of his critics, on both the right and left, assumed.

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor at The American Prospect. Her writing has also appeared in Slate, BusinessWeek, and The New Republic.