Most of the time, the college students attending the Young Americans for Liberty Conference (#YALcon15) are, in the words of one attendee, “lost puppies.”
They’re kids who don’t fit in on their own campuses because their interests (Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek) are not shared by their peers. But for just $30 they can attend this libertarian confab intended to “mobilize young people committed to winning on principle,” according to #YALcon15’s website. And they can all feel, for 96 hours, as though they’ve found a home here together in Washington, D.C., in a Catholic University of America dorm called Ryan Hall, as they put on their most decorative bow ties and sit through speeches and presentations tailor-made for people just like them—people committed to Winning on Principle.
I saw, in no particular order, a young man in a kilt (he wore the same one two evenings in a row, in fact); a young man in a pink button-down shirt on which he wrote, in black marker, "#RAWMILK" (he said he is from Wisconsin); a row of libertarians ask a YouTube star, one by one, how they, too, could become YouTube stars; and a line a mile long of young people (committed to Winning on Principle!) who had waited their whole lives to see Ron Paul in the flesh.
But while Ron Paul may be their Dumbledore, #YALcon15, run mostly by former Ron Paul staffers, is mostly sponsored by the Koch brothers. And while Ron Paul served as the headliner for this Koch event, his son Rand left pundits scratching their heads with his decision to skip the Koch brothers’s donor retreat in Southern California. As the rest of the Republican presidential primary contenders were preparing to ship out West for the weekend, the Kentucky senator was headed to some minor campaign events in Iowa.
The Rand Paul campaign assured me and other reporters that he had received an invitation to the Kochs’ retreat but had a prior engagement and just isn’t the kind of guy to flake out on plans. But his absence was made all the more puzzling by the fact that he a) is fundraising poorly and could use a billionaire to help him out; and b) was panned for his performance at the last Koch summit, in January. There, he gave what Politico’s Ken Vogel characterized as “rambling and sometimes unpopular answers,” and wore his signature outfit of blue blazer, jeans, and cowboy boots, a look some super-wealthy donors found offensively casual.
The younger Paul’s campaign has been an attempt to set himself up both as the obvious favorite for libertarian-leaning voters and as someone who has broader appeal to other factions of the GOP and even the Democratic Party. That would seem to make him the obvious favorite of the Kochs, who are libertarians who also see winning elections as their main priority. It hasn’t worked out that way, however. As Dave Weigel, writing for Bloomberg Politics, noted in January, “Paul libertarianism is not Koch libertarianism.”
But for young libertarians, the movement has a face, and that face is Ron Paul’s. “He’s the bait,” Justin Raimondo, the founder of Antiwar.com, told me. Raimondo is part of what he describes as the hard-core wing of the libertarian movement, and the Kochs, to people like him, are sellouts.
David Koch ran for president in 1980 as a libertarian, and he got nowhere. After that, he turned his attention to influencing politics in other ways—through think tanks, notably—but he also made his libertarianism mainstream. To have real influence on policy, you have to win, and to win, you have to be appealing. So the libertarian movement split off into separate factions, the Koch-founded Cato Institute and the Murray Rothbard-founded Ludwig von Mises Institute, which served the more hardcore libertarians. Ron Paul, as Weigel wrote, was closer to Rothbard. When he ran for president, in 2007, “the worry” among more mainstream libertarians, according to Weigel, “was that Paul’s brand of populist, Federal Reserve-bashing libertarianism was not the best way to sell the philosophy…This proved spectacularly wrong.”
The Kochs “decided to ally with the conservative wing of the Republican Party,” Gus diZerega, a former friend of Charles Koch, told me. “After that he lost his soul, I guess that’s the way to put it, and lost all intellectual honesty he once had.”
Despite their “selling out,” or whatever you want to call it, and reluctance to embrace Rand Paul, the Kochs may still understand that Ron Paul remains the best way to turn young people on to libertarianism and mobilize them to “Win on Principle”—or be grassroots activists, more realistically, for right-wing candidates.
So while the Kochs were in Southern California focused on selecting the candidates most likely to win, they were employing a different kind of cynicism on the other side of the country.
“The Koch people are sort of like parasites on YAL,” Raimondo said. “They’re seeking to use YAL as a transmission belt to suck people into their network and suck them into whatever plans that they have.”
#YALcon15 is sponsored by 23 organizations that are categorized—on the back of each attendee’s name tag—as “Platinum,” “Gold,” or “Silver,” and the vast majority of those 23 organizations are part of the Koch brothers’s fundraising network, or the "Kochtopus," as it has been labeled by critics.
The “Platinum” sponsors for #YALcon15 are: The Charles Koch Institute, founded by Charles Koch; The Leadership Institute, which is bankrolled by the Koch brothers; Students for Liberty, also funded by the Koch brothers; FreedomWorks, founded by the Koch brothers in 1984 as Citizens for a Sound Economy, split off into two organizations in 2004, the other, also listed as a Platinum donor, was named Americans for Prosperity and ultimately became the Kochs’ central political organization.
The “Gold” sponsors: The Reason Foundation, to which the Kochs are donors and David Koch is a trustee; The Drug Policy Alliance; The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has received more than $1 million from the Koch donor network; Generation Opportunity, into which Freedom Partners, a Koch-funded group, funneled $11 million; and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
The “Silver” Sponsors: The Tea Party Patriots, who once filed a complaint with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics because Harry Reid publicly criticized the Koch brothers; Freedom Partners, which is funded by the Koch brothers; The Heritage Foundation, which has received more than $11,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation and $1 million from Freedom Partners; The Institute for Justice, the seed money for which was provided by Charles Koch; The Cato Institute, co-founded by Charles Koch; The Ayn Rand Institute, which is supported by the former CEO of the Cato Institute, John Allison; The Pacific Legal Foundation, funded by the Koch brothers; The Independent Institute, which the Koch brothers’ younger brother, William, is associated with; The Fund for American Studies, funded by the Koch brothers; the NRA, powered by the Koch brothers; The Liberty Fund, organized by the Institute for Humane Studies, which receives funding from the Koch brothers; Foundation for Economic Education (FEE); and the America’s Future Foundation, which gets its interns from the Kochs’ fellowship program.
According to YAL’s website, Gold sponsors are required to donate $12,000 and Silver $6,000. There’s no information about how much Platinum sponsors must donate. A spokesperson for YAL did not respond to my inquiry.
Sitting at the bar at Brookland Pint, a short walk from campus, Jimmy Mahaney, a young person from Cincinnati committed to winning on principle, was talking about how he ended up here. Congressmen Thomas Massie and Justin Amash had just spoken to him and the other YAL members, and Mahaney liked them just fine—even “liked” them on Facebook, in fact. But they weren’t the ones responsible for Mahaney’s political awakening. That was, of course, Ron. Mahaney, who plays trumpet, had overheard his marching band mates talking about the former congressman one day. “I kept looking more into it,” he said. “And all of a sudden, I realized this actually makes perfect sense.”
On Thursday evening, the conference room was predictably packed ahead of Paul’s speech. The crowd began chanting “END THE FED” before he even came out, and when he did come out, they got on their feet.
“There’s no secret that I think the future is in your hands,” he said. “Never before has the whole world been turned upside down like it is right now, both internationally and monetarily.”
The students gazed at him rapturously, as if he was doing magic before their eyes. Some recorded him on their phones. They all laughed at exactly the right moments when he joked about fiat money and the Federal Reserve. “Coming back to Washington, I don’t get too excited. Matter of fact, I don’t even visit over there,” he said, signaling toward the Capitol. “That’s too depressing.” Everyone laughed. “But I’ll come here because I will not be depressed with young people like you thinking about the future and understanding a little bit more than the whole crowd over there knows. You understand what liberty is all about, and that is what counts!”
After the speech, Mahaney posted a meme on Twitter: a picture of Paul, looking angry. “DIE STATIST SCUM,” it read. Jimmy captioned it: “RP be like #YALcon15.” He posted a picture of himself on Facebook with the former congressman. Jimmy smirked and held his two fingers sideways, spread into a v, over his right eye.
By Saturday, people were still talking about the speech. Outside the main campus building, “The Pryz,” a small group of people smoked Marlboros. One of them even saw Paul walking on the lawn with his security afterward, and he got to talk to him. A young man, from Southern New Jersey, complained that he had partied too hard the night before and slept all day—drunk sleep, though, not the good kind. He was so tired during the speech that he was nodding off. What kind of libertarian was he? he asked. Who can’t keep themselves awake for Ron Paul?
CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article incorrectly described John Allison as the CEO of the Cato Institute. He is, in fact, the former CEO.