Ron Paul and the Right Wing Revolution
Esquire, Apr 2012
To libertarians, the US Presidential election is not about which government the country should have, but whether it should have a government at all. On the campaign trail in California, Esquire encounters tax refuseniks, drug law reformers, anti-war campaigners, survivalist militias, student activists, ultra-conservatives and ultra-liberals, all united in their loathing of Washington and Wall Street, and their worship of an elderly Texas Congressman called Ron Paul. Is America on the brink of a grassroots right-wing revolution?
Photographs by Steve Schofield
The freedom kids are out in force tonight, packing the tennis stadium at the University of California in Los Angeles. They’re here to see the doctor, the leader of the revolution, the man on all those “Ron Paul 2012” T-shirts in the two-tone Che Guevara style. It’s a mixed crowd of suits and mohawks and jocks and tattoos – mostly white, but Asians too, and Iranians and cute Armenian girls in summer dresses. And they’re fired up, like the home team before kick off. For 20 minutes, they’ve been Mexican waving and chanting his name.
A crackle of excitement: there’s movement at the back gate behind the podium. The handle’s turning! Someone’s opening the door! This is it! The crowd of eight thousand rises to its feet and roars. It’s a welcome worthy of a rock star, an athlete, the kind of man who insp-…
Oh wait, it’s just some aide. False alarm.
Never mind – the kids are on their feet now. “End the Fed!” someone yells. And their signature chant ignites once more, blazing through the stands. “End the Fed! End the Fed!”
What with the drone war, enhanced interrogation, illegal wiretapping and record foreclosures – each one an emotive, dramatic issue – it might seem strange that American students are out protesting the Federal Reserve Bank. But these are strange times in politics, particularly on the right.
It’s late March, at the tail end of the Republican primary circus and the party has all but selected its challenger for President Obama in November. Already comics are mourning its passing. As primaries go, this was priceless. It appears that the American right is more deranged and confused than anyone had imagined. The party flailed from Michele Bachmann (“carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas”) to Herman Cain, the philandering pizza magnate who found inspiration in Pokemon: The Movie. Donald Trump took the lead at one point, by offering to open negotiations with the Chinese with the words, “listen, you motherfuckers.”
And then the field whittled to four candidates, each representing a facet of the fractured conservative id – money, religion, power or freedom. Money won out in the end, in the form of Mitt Romney, the Mormon robot, though Rick Santorum made a strong stand as the Christian medievalist, and even Newt Gingrich, the Beltway powerbroker, had a shot until he promised to colonize the moon. Now those men have dropped out. And the only man left to challenge Romney is the only Republican who speaks directly to the right’s dreams – the liberty candidate, Ron Paul.
Paul is a libertarian, a part of that radical fringe in America which views freedom as the luminous principle of life and the state as it’s sworn enemy, as the Constitution arguably has it. Traditional Republicans make the same noises of course – about free markets and limited government – but it’s empty rhetoric for the most part. George W. Bush spoke of freedom while expanding domestic surveillance. Libertarians are more committed. So while Paul may look superficially like your standard rear guard Republican – a 76 year old Texas Congressman and pro-life Baptist who served in the military and then worked as a physician, a gynecologist to be precise – he’s actually much more extreme. A Paul Presidency promises absolute freedom of markets and people, and a brutally downsized federal government, a proposal so radical that it forces a new vision of society and self. His critics are right – he’s simply too out-there to win.
But the stadium is full tonight. More than any other candidate, Paul has the youth behind him, and the troops. He trails in other categories, but the oldest candidate in the race has won state after state in the under-30 age group, racking up Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Michigan. He has been the most discussed candidate on Facebook. And he has received more donations from active-duty servicemen than any of his peers.
Furthermore, the devotion of his supporters is second to none. They are organized, tireless campaigners who fight his corner on comment threads and cheer his name in studio audiences. While some disparage them as “Paulbots” or “Ronulans”, other campaigns envy their “ground game”. His followers don’t care that he lags in the polls. They know that no other politician, except Obama himself, could raise an army like this on a college campus.
“I wasn’t political at all until five years ago,” says Tyler Kotesky, an 18-year-old political science student. “Then a friend of mine showed me his speeches on YouTube. You should check out “Ron Paul Was Right” from 2002, where he basically predicts all the calamities that will afflict the US in the next decade. It was like an awakening. That’s why our supporters are the most enthusiastic. The people have woken up.”
These are the stories they tell in the liberty movement – stories in which the penny drops and the lights go on, in which they were blind but now they can see. Time Magazine called Ron Paul “The Prophet” and his followers agree – they use language like “uncorruptible”, “right about everything” and “the perfect candidate”. And everyone mentions YouTube. “The mainstream media don’t give him a fair shake,” says Tyler. “We have the Internet. We go straight to the source.”
He’s a bit scary, Tyler. He’s an 18-year-old in a suit and tie who speaks approvingly of “substantive cuts to the federal budget.” He might be a child when it comes to women, but he’s debate-ready when it comes to the gold standard, the impending dollar crisis or any other of Ron Paul’s positions. We must end the Fed, he says, because it is the root cause – when government can print money, it can start wars without raising taxes, pay off massive corporations, and ultimately deflate the currency, effectively stealing wealth from the middle class. (Who said the youth in America is apathetic?)
“I’m running for central committee of the Republican party in my district,” he says. “Lots of us are. We want to take the party over. So whatever happens in 2012, we’ll be ready for 2016.”
The story of this election is less about Obama vs Romney as it is about the teeming fringe movements who recognize that both candidates sleep in the same bed and that government itself is broken.
The power of corporations has never been so clear. In 2010, the Supreme Court made it official by permitting unlimited corporate funding for political campaigns, a ruling with the Orwellian name of Citizens United. As a result, individual billionaires were backing candidates like sugar daddies – Newt Gingrich had Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul; Rick Santorum had the asset manager, Foster Friess; Ron Paul had Peter Thiel, the libertarian co-founder of PayPal. Meanwhile, companies like Exxon, Coca Cola, Walmart and Glax0SmithKline not only push, but draft legislation for Congress to pass via their notorious lobbying arm ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. And then, of course, the core wound – the Wall Street bailouts. To see the very people who caused the crisis not only evade accountability but make out like bandits, made the blood boil on both left and right.
But an extraordinary thing happened. The right moved first. So when the people marched it was not against wealthy corporations, but on their behalf. Long before Occupy, the far right Tea Party movement took to the streets to protest all things Obama. They weren’t a pretty sight – a lot of old-fashioned right wing reactionaries, gun nuts and racists, frothing at the mouth about socialism. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer showed that their “grassroots” movement was being bankrolled by libertarian oil billionaires, the Koch brothers. But they didn’t read the New Yorker. They saw themselves as an uprising. And their message was plain: the enemy was not Goldman Sachs but Big Government with all its regulations and taxes – who else had spent taxpayer dollars bailing them out?
As Thomas Frank writes, in Pity The Billionaire, it was as “if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after Three Mile Island.” Rather than blame the anti-regulation, free market dogma that has reigned since Reagan, the right doubled down. Now was not the time to question the doctrine, but to apply it more severely. Or as a rogue preacher might say: your prayers didn’t come true because you’re not praying hard enough. And it worked. The Tea Party-backed Republicans swept to a majority in Congress in 2010, dragging the party so far to the right, that Reagan and Nixon would be turned away liberals. The extremists were in the building. And a new narrative told hold – the economy collapsed because the markets were not free enough, and there was too much regulation of Wall Street, not too little.
There is no purer advocate of these values than Ron Paul.
A fan of Austrian economics – as developed by Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman – he takes the notion of freedom and small government to its extreme. If there were a conservative elixir, libertarians carry the concentrate, a weapons-grade formula so potent that it hasn’t been tried since the 19th century. But this is his appeal – in these fallen times, Paul offers purity and ideology, he speaks to that religious yearning to return to a more innocent time, the birth of the nation, when America was as pure as a fetus, and filled with the promise of the Constitution.
Here he comes now, walking briskly out onto the courts at the UCLA tennis stadium. He’s a genial old grandfather of 76 in a crimson V-neck who looks, as Jimmy Kimmel said, “like the guy who gets unhooded at the end of every episode of Scooby Doo.” But he’s sprightly and cheerful, clearly pleased by the welcome.
“Looks like the revolution is alive and well!” he says, his old man voice wavering slightly like Grandpa Simpson.
For an hour he ambles through his usual revival tent message of liberty, individualism and sound money. The crowd boos and cheers on cue, like panto, but not because he’s this great orator – there’s no slickness to Ron Paul, no hokey patriotism or “amber waves of grain.” They cheer because his every piece of his platform is punkrock. This old, white pro-life Congressman from Texas is suggesting we dismantle America as we know it.
“The problem comes down to one thing,” he says. “The bigger the government, the less freedom we have!”
So he wants to come at it with a cleaver, hacking off five whole departments from the get-go, including energy and education. Then he’ll phase out the IRS and the income tax and gut the welfare state, slashing spending by a merciless $1 trillion in three years.
But then, he speaks of peace and ending all the wars at once: “We just marched in, let’s just march home!” No more world’s policeman or empire, he says. No more troops in Japan or Germany or Korea. Shrink the CIA to a husk, follow the Golden Rule in foreign policy, repeal the Patriot Act and end the war on drugs. “If you want to put something into your body, then that decision should be yours, not the government’s!”
When he says these things on national television, it’s exhilarating. Never before has a Presidential candidate proposed to end America’s most disgraceful policies. But it’s jarring at the same time, the way he lurches from far right to far left, morphing from Tory Horror Show to Chomsky-reading peacenik. It seems schizo, bipolar – a dream and a nightmare all at once. But this crowd can’t get enough.
“You do not need a majority to change the country,” says Paul. “You need an irate, tireless minority, as Samuel Adams once said, to start brushfires of liberty in the minds of men. And this is what’s happening. Freedom is contagious!”
Another crowd, another freedom rally, another gathering of Ron Paul supporters. Only this time, it’s a long way from campus, in every sense. The Crowne Plaza hotel in Irvine, Orange County, is your standard airport four star, the domain of wheelie luggage and blue-tooth types. But this weekend, it’s the venue for the Freedom Law Rally, an annual gathering of “patriots”, the kind they’ve been warning about on the news.
The Freedom Movement is a broad and colorful church. At one end are the young libertarians of UCLA and the people they read – the college professors, Reason magazine and the Cato Institute think tank. Billionaires like the Koch brothers lurk behind the scenes, writing checks. And at the opposite end are the less genteel “patriots”, the rough end of the Tea Party, a loose collection of militias, Minutemen, apocalyptic Christian groups and other assorted anti-government tribes. Timothy McVeigh was a patriot. And it’s no secret that patriot activity has risen dramatically under Obama. The Southern Poverty Law Center has raised the alarm more than once, and in February, the FBI joined in, holding a news conference to warn of the growing threat of “sovereign citizens” – patriots who believe they are not subject to federal laws. Sovereigns are not averse to violence. The FBI agents cited the case of the sovereign Jerry Kane, and his homeschooled 16 year old son, who were pulled over by two cops in Memphis in 201 – the boy shot them both.
“The Freedom Law Rally is probably the only annual convention that sovereign citizens have,” says JJ Macnab, a financial planner, who has been investigating the movement for 15 years. She’s writing a book and has testified on the movement before the Senate Finance Committee. “There are about 300,000 of them, a third of which are hardcore. And they’re not all poor white males. They’re MIT, high school, female, military. Many even work for government agencies.
A case in point – the organizer of the Freedom Law Rally, since he founded it in 2001, is Peymon Mottahedeh, an Iranian Jew in his fifties. He looks like a Persian Poncherello from CHiPs. A charming man, always ready with a wink and a smile, he would never describe himself as “sovereign citizen”. Like many patriots he considers the term a media concoction designed to demonize dissent against government. Rather, he sees himself as part of the “tax honesty” movement – or as they’re commonly known, “tax deniers” – which believes that according to a strict reading of the Constitution and the Internal Revenue Code, the government has no right to demand income tax. So even though he calls his organization the Freedom Law School, it’s not really a school and he’s not really a lawyer. He’s a salesman – some have said ‘scam artist’ – and what he’s selling are courses in how to avoid income taxes. Because in Mottahedeh’s world, income tax is voluntary.
“WHO is going to change the DESTINY of America?” In the main ballroom, one of the guest speakers, a Tennessee attorney named Larry Becraft opens the morning session in his wildly modulated southern twang. Becraft represents tax deniers who end up facing the IRS in court. “It isn’t the people in the café downstairs,” he says. “It isn’t the people on the freeway out there. No, the ONLY people who are going to change the DESTINY of this country are the people in the freedom movement. And ONE of the ways is by LEGAL contests in court!”
A man snores in the third row. His wife elbows him awake. But he’s not the only one – this is a napping demographic. It’s all grey hair and baseball caps, flannel shirts and parkhas. These are the boomers who didn’t quite boom, the ones the land of the free hasn’t quite set free. These are your old fashioned patriot extremists for whom paranoia is both a clinical and a political condition. There are maybe 200 people here, mostly men, who have travelled from as far as Florida and Washington, and their distrust of the government runs the gamut – from ho-hum conspiracies like the Bilderberg group and controlled explosions in tower two, all the way to the shape-shifting reptilians of David Icke.
Ron Paul was invited to speak here, as he did in 2005. He demurred because he’s more of a stadium act now, but these are his people. Mottahedeh reckons “pretty much everyone here supports Ron Paul.” After all, taxes have been a core resentment for the anti-government crowd, ever since 1913 when the 16th Amendment permitted income tax in the first place. Most here believe that the amendment wasn’t properly ratified, and even if it was, it’s immoral, as conference speakers keep stressing with the most incendiary rhetoric – in the liberty tent, taxes are “slavery”, “theft” and “the government putting a gun to your head”.
Defying the IRS, however, is a dangerous business. According to the Justice Department, over 95% of “tax defier” cases (as they call them) result in conviction, and often prison. But there’s always that five percent who slip through. So today, Becraft walks them through the day when they will have to somehow convince a jury, which pays its taxes, to exonerate someone who doesn’t.
“YOU got to become their friend,” says Becraft. “YOU GOT TO look ‘em in the eye and persuade ‘em, that you have a SINCERELY HELD BELIEF!”
And this is what it boils down to – the “willfulness defense”. You needn’t convince a jury that the income tax is illegitimate, only that you sincerely believe it to be, so there was no willful attempt to defraud the government. And how does one come to these sincere beliefs? Why, by reading the literature and taking the courses of tax honesty speakers like Becraft and Mottahedeh.
“I been to every one of these from day one,” says a man in his 60s in the first row called Larry (he wouldn’t give me his surname). He points to his video recorder on a tripod. “And I’ve recorded ‘em all. I even got boxes back home full of VHS – remember them? So when they come knocking, I’ll just tell ‘em, there’s my tapes!”
The biggest celebrity of the tax honesty movement is Joe Banister, a former IRS agent who turned against his employers and actually prevailed in court. A regular face on the patriot circuit, Banister is quickly surrounded by fans after Becraft’s speech. “This man has done more for the United States than any American president,” one says. “He ought to be on Mt Rushmore.”
Banister smiles awkwardly. A stiff, quiet man in a dark blue suit, he stands strict as a pencil in the corner. “I don’t do this for the fame,” he tells me later in the café. “I do this because I believe it’s right.”
He tells a road-to-Damascus story going back to 1996, only he was in northern California at the time, and it wasn’t God that spoke to him, that December morning, but right wing talk radio. A guest called Devvy Kidd started talking about the income tax. Banister, an armed IRS agent, felt duty bound to investigate further. So he contacted Kidd, who sent him a whole world of material about “the Rockefellers and the Federal Reserve and stuff like that”. And within a couple of years, Banister’s conversion was complete. He lost his job and his friends, and found himself facing the IRS in court.
He sighs. Even though his victory was sweet, he says, the blowback continues. He lives in Nevada with his wife and kids, working as a tax consultant, but his accountant license was revoked in 2007, and last year, the IRS sued him for undeclared income in 2002.
“They’re going to do everything they can to destroy me,” he says with a shrug. “And frankly, my faith keeps me strong. Being a Catholic, you know, the early Christians were martyrs.”
Religion and politics pollute each other in America, particularly on the right. But Ron Paul supporters are highly sensitive to the suggestion that their movement has a quasi-religious dimension. They’ve been depicted as cultish in the past by the “mainstream media” – which apparently includes Esquire – and one night, the rumor went around that I was a ‘cult guy’ because I have a book out about Mormon polygamist cults. So people stopped talking to me. I had to plead my way back in. And it’s hard to persuade paranoid people that you’re not out to get them.
The trouble is, there is something religious about the liberty movement. There are conversion stories. Freedom is treated as the answer to all things, the way, the truth. The adoration of Ron Paul seems to transcend politics – I’m yet to meet a supporter who admits any fault in his leader. And the end is always nigh. The apocalypse looms, and it’s all we deserve for neglecting the wishes of the founding fathers. Just as Christians long for Judgment Day, patriots long for tyranny, for their ultimate “I told you so” moment, after which there will be, as promised, a golden dawn, a libertarian Utopia in which a natural order and harmony is restored. There’s no shortage of this apocalyptic glee at the conference.
I meet a pair of young women at the Rally chatting cheerfully about the impending civil war and breakdown of society. “You don’t know about this?” They gasp and giggle. “Oh my God! The mainstream media are soooo behind!”
Evidently gas prices will spike, the currency will deflate, riots will break out and the government will implement martial law in order to throw us all into – a phrase I keep hearing – “mass concentration camps.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will run them, as they apparently did during Hurricane Katrina, and if you don’t believe it (because it’s been widely debunked) just ask Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, who has been going on about it for years.
“They’re building a FEMA camp near my house,” says one girl. “It’s top secret, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.”
“Yeah, and they’ve invented this new microwave gun that can shoot non-lethal electromagnetic fields,” says the other. And she hands me a leaflet. “But we’re also very concerned about raw milk.”
This happens all the time. One minute, the state is this demonic force engaged in torture and mass slaughter, and the next, its worst crime is banning the sale of raw milk. And if it’s not milk, it’s the airport security pat down – Big Government is groping your sister!
Another religious quality of this movement is its obsession with the Word. The right has a scriptural fetish for the Constitution and for oaths that you don’t find so much on the left. So leftist rebels tend to break the law, while conservatives cite it. They find a clause or loophole that gives them permission, and they brandish it: “Look – it’s written down!”
In the tax denier movement, this manifests in strange and pedantic ways. Some argue in court that they are not citizens of the United States, but only of the state, so federal law doesn’t apply. Others claim that they don’t fit the definition of “person” as the Internal Revenue Code uses the term, or that if the American flag in the courtroom features a gold fringe, then it is a “maritime flag of war” and the court has no jurisdiction.
A man in dungarees called Tommy Teeple assures me that he’s not a citizen of the USA because he spells citizen with a small ‘c’. “I’ve studied this,” he tells me. “If your name is in upper case, that refers to corporate chattel, whereas if it’s in lower case, that refers to your flesh and blood person. So anything you see from a court will be in uppercase, and that doesn’t apply.”
Teeple is a landscape gardener, not a wealthy man. And his patriot arguments haven’t exactly helped him so far. He lost his home on the east coast when he stopped paying his mortgage because the loan “wasn’t real money. It was just computer numbers. In the Constitution, money is something you can touch – it’s either coins, or notes which are backed by coins.” It sounds like he was reaching for Ron Paul’s argument for ‘sound money’ – a return to the gold standard, and an end to the Federal Reserve. But the Sheriffs evicted him anyway, and he moved to the west coast where he now lives outdoors in Topanga canyon, just outside Los Angeles. “They got me in the end,” he says. “But they didn’t answer my questions. Which is why I think this stuff is real.”
This happens all the time too. People like Teeple pay a high price for their beliefs, and yet they cling to them even harder. Tax honesty is strong potion. Though leaders of the movement routinely end up in prison – Irwin Schiff, Eddie Kahn, Dave Champion, to name a few – new leaders and new followers keep coming. Probably the most famous is Wesley Snipes who fell in with Eddie Kahn in the late 90s (Snipes is now serving three years).
And there is violence at the edges. In February 2010, tax protestor Joe Stack flew his small plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, killing one government employee and injuring thirteen others. And since then, there have been at least 25 sovereign incidents around the country – shootouts, armed stand-offs and often plots of murderous ambition. In Michigan and Alaska militias have planned to kill cops in some numbers. And in Georgia, last November, five men conspired to attack federal buildings and release the biological weapon ricin in five metropolitan areas, killing thousands of people. The team included an explosives expert, an agricultural lab tech and a contractor at the center for disease control.
JJ Macnab is a go-to authority on sovereigns. “I travel around advising law enforcement on how to spot them,” she says. “For most sovereigns a cop is their only contact with the state. So I talk about pre-incident indicators. Like, if a cop asks ‘you know why I pulled you over?’, and they start speaking in 18th century speak: “I am a free man travelling upon the land”. That’s a red flag.”
It sounds comical. But Macnab thinks we’re headed for another McVeigh. “A lot of their beliefs have become mainstream, so a large number of sovereigns have kind of merged with the Tea Party, or the Ron Paul people. So the real extremists no longer feel that they have a movement, and they become lone wolves. That’s where the danger lies.”
Liberty in America has always had a dark side. The Founders, who began the obsession, were slave-owners, and freedom has been double-edged ever since. This year, the dark side will be voting for Ron Paul. He’s the candidate of choice not only for fresh-faced idealists like Tyler Kotesky, but also – and these are public endorsements – David Duke (former KKK Grand Wizard), Rev. Philip Kayser (Nebraska pastor who advocates the death penalty for homosexuality), Don Black (director of white nationalist group Stormfront) and the Militia for Montana. And there are others. Extremists hear Ron Paul loud and clear.
For example, when a tax denier couple holed up for a nine-month stand-off in their New Hampshire home with grenades, rifles and 60,000 rounds of ammunition, Ron Paul called them “heroic”. He was photographed with Don Black. He openly opposes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that forbids signs like “no blacks or dogs”. Then there are the newsletters which he published in the 80s and 90s, all featuring his name and written in the first person. They were so racist, it’s a miracle that his campaign is alive at all, let alone thriving. They predict “the coming race war” and describe black people as “animals”. Martin Luther King is accused of seducing “underage girls and boys.”
Strangely, the newsletters don’t trouble the younger crowd, which simply accepts Paul’s defense – that he didn’t write them, edit them, agree with them or even read them, since he was so busy working as a gynecologist. The argument goes that a handful of strategists wrote the newsletters to attract the extreme right to donate to his cause, and Paul, being too trusting and pure of heart, just left them to it. An error of judgement, nothing more.
But Paul defended one of the newsletters in an interview in 2008. And a subsequent report revealed that Ron Paul & Associates, the business which published the newsletters, earned him millions of dollars. Could he have plausibly overlooked such a profitable concern?
When I ask Tyler about this, he looks a little annoyed. “The mainstream media just keeps focusing on it because that’s the only dirt they have,” he says. “They ignore the fact that he opposes the most racist laws in the judicial system – the war on drugs.”
And he’s right. Paul is the only Republican to expose how the war on drugs targets minorities so effectively that in some states, blacks are over 80% of incarcerated drug offenders. He’s also the only one to point out that “rich white people don’t get the death penalty very often” (at a televised debate on Fox News).
I have to say, I’m not feeling the sovereign menace at the Crowne Plaza tonight. The doddery tax deniers have been outnumbered by a flood of young libertarians who are here to select candidates for the Republican party’s central committee. So youth is in the house, there are balloons in the banquet hall, and they’re playing a liberty tent classic – George Michael’s “Freedom”. And right now, it actually sounds pretty good. But then again, I have been smoking some rather powerful weed.
The cliché about libertarians is that they’re just Republicans who smoke pot. And they are. But they’re better than the Republicans who don’t. I’ve been hanging out with this noisy activist called Matthew ‘Boomer’ Shannon (his real name) who’s a seasoned Libertarian Party stalwart and all about the “sticky icky”. He runs a group called Regulate Marijuana Like Wine, and every so often, he and his pal Quiet Ken slink off to the car park to spark something up. A spot of “grassroots” politics. So I went to smoke some White Widow with them, a sativa. (In California, it’s legal – state law says pot’s just fine so long as the patient holds a valid medical marijuana card.)
It was an odd experience – five of us, packed into Boomer’s SUV, talking politics, and not trippy concept politics either, but proper nuts and bolts campaigning. Boomer was on about voter registration lists and whose friend was moving to which government committee in which district. Ken interjected here and there about gathering signatures. And I could neither keep up nor zone out to Rapper’s Delight on the radio. I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the bid to get on the ballot initiative in the fall.
These aren’t your Playstation-and-munchies stoners but a new and potent strain – the kind who become more determined to get Republicans elected the more they smoke. Boomer’s commitment to change the world didn’t mellow after the sixth bowl of the day, it accelerated. But I’m glad they’re around. A spot of weed is just the thing for a sovereign environment. It makes it easier to handle the blotchy old man who wants to deport 15 million Mexicans or the strange lady with the hair who’s convinced that the trails that planes leave in the sky are actually chemical weapons. A little puff now and again takes the edge off all that apocalypse.
“Ah! The Englishman!” A shrill, nerdy voice slices through the George Michael. It’s an old man, in a red sweater, who looks a bit like the late Clive Dunn circa Grandad. “You must be aware of Common Law, yes?” Things like this happen in the liberty tent. Earlier today, I had some old duffer walk up and start reciting the Magna Carta.
“It means there are two houses of government,” he says. “It’s a check and balance system. And that’s why you are my subject and I am your sovereign.”
“Yes! Go to the preamble to the Constitution. It says ‘we the people, and our posterity’ are the sovereign people of the United States. No others can apply! You have to be descended from those persons who were domiciled in one of the 13 colonies on July 4 1776 [Independence Day]. Everyone who came thereafter is an immigrant. So I am your sovereign. And a sovereign is a fountain of justice like the King. I am the highest authority. You can’t prosecute the King can you? No. Exactly.”
His name’s John Walkowiak and he runs a conspiracy bookshop in town. I wouldn’t call him threatening – he’s more of a comic character, a Constitution geek who has convinced himself he’s the king of America. But at the same time, there’s something simmering there, and it’s not good. He’s saying he’s above the law. And he’s using that Constitutional speech that JJ Macnab described – words like ‘domiciled’ and ‘thereafter’. So I call him “your highness” to be on the safe side. Highness. Now there’s an idea.
It turns out that I’m not the only one at the rally who finds Walkowiak and his sovereign ilk a bit woah, a bit much. There’s a handful of younger, saner activists here – Boomer, Ken and a few others, most of them have been invited to speak – and they have similarly jarring encounters with them.
The next day, Angela Keaton – the operations director of antiwar.com – is talking about the war rhetoric from America and Israel regarding Iran. And a man in the audience raises his hand. He says, “Why should we go to war for the Jews?” She falls silent for a moment. She’s not a bigot or a patriot or a “sovereign citizen” – she’s a bisexual Jew from West Hollywood, a “normal North American anarchist”, and a sophisticated commentator on America’s foreign policy.
“So do I explain why it’s wrong to conflate the Israeli government with Jews?” she tells me later. “Do I tell him about the Jewish objectors to Israel’s policy? And I thought: no. That’s not why I’m here. I’m not here to educate him on the issues, I just want him to listen to me, and maybe if he sees me as a human being, that whole Jew, non-Jew thing won’t matter so much. So I let it go. And I recommended a book by Chomsky at the end just to plant a seed.”
We’re in a hotel bathroom with a few others, passing a pipe around and talking ideas, a classic libertarian pastime. Antony Gregory is here, a well known journalist and thinker. So’s Drew Phillips from Freedom’s Phoenix, an Arizona-based website and radio show. These are the people that the UCLA crowd looks up to – pot-smoking, intellectual, libertarians, modern and open-minded, each one of them a college graduate. They’re a world apart from the tax denying paranoiacs downstairs, a different social class entirely. But this is what happens in the freedom tent: Worlds collide, cultures clash.
In the end, the culture clash may be the true Ron Paul revolution. By uniting social liberals and the hardcore constitutionalism of the far right, both formerly diametric cultures are now meeting uncomfortably in the middle – not only here at the conference, but on the national political stage.
“Ron Paul is bringing all kinds of queers and atheists and vegetarians into the GOP,” says Angela. “And it’s freaking them out. He’s culturally undermining their whole movement. I’m glad people think he’s this cranky right wing Christian, because then they’re not so threatened by the end of the drug war. And if people think that he is a little racist then good – maybe they’ll listen when he says that black men are disproportionately killed by the death penalty. I can’t say that stuff, but Ron Paul can – he looks like one of them.”
So today in America, for the first time, hardcore Christian patriots have entertained the idea of legalizing heroin. Mainstream Republicans have considered the end of American exceptionalism as a foreign policy. And similarly, liberals have had to consider the brutal Darwinian economics of the far right. When I ask who will protect the poor from corporations, if not government, Angela says: “Why trust the government when the same government sends them to die in wars? Why not trust free people and free markets? Free will and not coercion?”
And in this smoky bathroom, with the giddy high of the weed, it all seems possible. Maybe we don’t need government. Maybe if you leave people alone, they will be good to each other. And maybe this is the highest hope that anyone can have, a hope worth risking it all for. The sovereigns may be gripped by paranoia downstairs, but up here, freedom is full of promise.
The pipe comes around again. Maybe this is what Ron Paul meant by “brushfires of liberty in the minds of men.”