Why is Ron Paul so popular? His moment as a serious presidential contender has come and gone, but in 2012 the twelve-term libertarian congressman from Texas put in his best showing yet during the Republican primaries, emerging as a crowd-pleasing favorite among the GOP base, bemused liberals, and an increasingly vocal cadre of young supporters. Despite the seventy-six-year-old's age, he is selling a novel synthesized libertarianism that draws upon several distinct taproots: Ayn Rand's Objectivism, free market economics, Paul's own monetary populism, and even leftleaning antiwar activism. Melded together, this libertarianism offers something for everybody, yet not enough for any one constituency that would enable it to gain electoral success.
But libertarianism may be a rising faith. During the twentieth century, its adherents engaged in a Faustian bargain with the GOP: they ignored social and military issues in exchange for low taxes and putative free markets. This made libertarians incapable of shifting the GOP's stance on issues such as abortion and marriage equality and doomed their critique of militarism. Libertarianism has also been hard to take seriously because it has been a voice crying in the wilderness as the state continues to expand and voters shy away from austerity politics.
But fast forward twenty or fifty years. What does libertarianism look like in a future where spending is truly constrained by debt? Where austerity politics have become reality? What will libertarian ideas sound like to a generation famously skeptical of Social Security, strangers to the promise of defined-benefit pension plans, grateful for any job? In the past, economic insecurity kindled support for liberalism, but amid the fierce anti-statism of today, it is often government that takes the blame for our economic woes. This mood has made it possible for the anti-politics of libertarianism to carve out its own space between Left and Right.
Although libertarianism is often stereotyped as the creed of the pimply teenaged computer nerd, the controversy over Paul's racist newsletters highlights the candidate's origins in a darker kind of populism. Between 1988 and 1996, Paul's newsletters to his constituents and supporters brimmed over with virtually every far right obsession and hatred - from conspiracy theories about the Trilateral Commission to racist suggestions that New York be renamed "Zooville." Paul has since apologized and distanced himself from such views, and even his opponents admit the newsletters probably don't reflect his current or true beliefs.
But sources once close to Paul, such as disaffected staffer Eric Dondero, suggest that the congressman knew the combination of race and anti-statism made for political capital in the 1990s. The racist newsletters consistently drew the highest response from readers, according to Dondero: "The wilder they got, the more bombastic they got with it, the more the checks came in." For all his claims to purity, integrity, and consistency, Paul was willing to traffic in racist posturing for financial gain.
Further, Paul's newsletters were also nods to the past of libertarianism and its intersection with racial politics. In 2004, he described the 1964 Civil Rights Art as a "massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society." And his son Rand nearly sank his 2010 Senate campaign when he told Rachel Maddow that private businesses had the right to discriminate on race. After public outcry, Rand Paul retreated, issuing a statement that he categorically supported the act and would not attempt to repeal it.
But what really distinguishes Ron Paul is not these ties to libertarianism's ugly past, but his knack for transforming monetary issues into a bridge to a new generation of voters. Paul's quixotic campaign to "End the Fed" and restore the gold standard brought him young fans, who flocked to see him on his End the Fed book tour and crowded his campaign rallies on college campuses. …