A Republican debate in Florida in late November marked this electoral season’s debut of Adolf Hitler, that reliable presence in American presidential campaigns. The Arizona senator John McCain, struggling to draw even with the garrulous ex-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the Mormon technocrat (and former Massachusetts governor) Mitt Romney, decided to burnish his pro-war credentials. The problem was, there was almost nobody to burnish them against. Seven of the eight candidates on stage had vied for months to outdo one another in their lock-stock-and-barrel support for George W. Bush’s Iraq policy.

That left Ron Paul, the 72-year-old, ten-term congressman from Texas, to bear the brunt of McCain’s wrath. Paul objected to the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein’s tyranny from the moment Bill Clinton first proposed it in 1998. He has called the present war illegal, immoral, un-Christian and, worst of all, unaffordable. ‘I’ve heard him now in many debates talk about bringing our troops home and about the war in Iraq and how it’s failed,’ said McCain, glaring across at Paul as applause began to swell. ‘And I want to tell you that that kind of isolationism, sir, is
 what caused World War II. We allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement.’

Half a century ago Republicans were the more isolationist of the two parties. Paul is the last of the breed. As such, he has been a punching bag for the seven pro-war candidates. When he said in South Carolina in May that the 9/11 attacks were due to American occupation of Arab lands, Giuliani demanded the floor, and a retraction from Paul. ‘I don’t think I’ve heard that before,’ Giuliani said, ‘and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th.’ The crowd cheered deliri-ously, and Giuliani vaulted ahead in the polls.

But something funny happened. The episode helped Paul, too. His fundraising rose. Soon he was far outstripping all his rivals on MySpace, YouTube, Meetup and the other internet sites where political organising gets done and buzz gets created. In a 5 November online fund- raiser — pegged to Guy Fawkes Day — he took in $4.2 million, the largest single-day haul in Republican history. So by the time McCain accused him of breaking faith with the troops, Paul could roll his eyes and ask why, then, was he raising more money in contributions from military personnel than any of the other Republican candidates?

Paul is an American political type familiar in mythology but rarely seen any more in the flesh — a backwoods autodidact. Fresh out of the Air Force in the late 1960s, working as an obstetrician in the hellishly humid coastal lowlands of Texas, he began reading the hard-money economists of the ‘Austrian school’ like Hayek and especially Ludwig von Mises. They changed his life. Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard drove him into a fury, and into politics. Paul got elected to Congress on a platform of gold, truth-telling, small government and respect for the US Constitution. By 1984, when he lost an election for the Senate and left Washington for a decade, he was a guru of radical free-marketeers. These would be his supporters (and funders) when he won the Libertarian party’s nomination for president in 1988 and again when he returned to Congress as a Republican in 1996.

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Paul’s association with ‘libertarianism’ has confused American voters, including his own. In theory, libertarians — those who oppose regulation of both the economy and society — should make up a broad swath of the American electorate. In practice, their message doesn’t resonate much beyond dope-smokers and orgiasts who believe they are taxed too much. Paul’s big TV interviews have been alongside flesh-peddlers and reprobates of various descriptions. Last spring he was slotted on the influential Daily Show with the hardcore pornographer Larry Flynt; a month ago he shared a slot on the Tonight Show with Johnny Rotten and the reconstituted Sex Pistols.

Nick Gillespie, a prominent libertarian journalist, sees Paul’s rise as evidence that ‘more than at any other time over the past two decades, Americans are hungering for the politics and free-wheeling fun of libertarianism’. If so, they have made a strange choice in Ron Paul, who may be the least freewheeling presidential candidate since Calvin Coolidge. The son of a hardworking German Lutheran milk-seller in Pennsylvania, he is now a devout Baptist. He doesn’t travel alone with women and upbraids his staff for using expressions like ‘red-light district’ in front of women.

He may not be a teetotaller, but you are unlikely to find photos of him pouring Budweiser down his gullet in some local watering hole, a staple of campaign-season publicity in heavily Irish southern New Hampshire.

Paul’s internet prowess also leads people to mistake him for the candidate of ‘tech-savvy’ innovators and the academic avant-garde. This is an optical illusion. A lot of that internet presence consists of country & western songs burned in the candidate’s honour and replays of his greatest debate hits. Just as the left-leaning National Public Radio gets much of its audience in the conservative hinterland (the residents of New York or San Francisco don’t need NPR), it is probably the least cosmopolitan political junkies who use the internet for their activism. Urban and suburban voters, after all, can go to political rallies. Internet politics probably has a stronger pull on people in places where the main pastimes are dusting your gun collection and watching the grass grow.

Paul is not a libertarian or a pacifist or a cyber-utopian. What he espouses is old-fashioned conservatism — so old-fashioned, in fact, that it is scarcely recognisable as conservatism. Since socialism is not in the Constitution, Paul refuses on principle to accept his congressional pension, just as he refused to accept Medicare and Medicaid payments when he was a doctor. His campaign in New Hampshire is the rump of the 1992 and 1996 Pat Buchanan campaigns, built around voters who oppose abortion and any restriction on their right to carry guns. Like the backers of the UK Independence party, he views old constitutional arrangements as unimprovable, and thinks bureaucratisation and constitutional tinkering inevitably bring a price in liberty. He is obviously right. Where he is wrong is in failing to notice that other people see this, too, and have simply judged the price affordable.

Paul’s unwillingness to do anything that doesn’t square with the Constitution has produced some spectacularly courageous votes — he was one of only three Republicans to vote against the USA Patriot Act, which broadens federal wiretapping authority — and some spectacularly eccentric ones. He is often the sole dissenter against, say, minting a medal in honour of a civil-rights hero; or meddling in the business of disreputable sovereign states. (His was the only vote against a measure to condemn Robert Mugabe’s violence against Zimbabwean farmers.) Since he views the smallest deviations from the Constitution as dangerous, his warnings often take on an apocalyptic tone. ‘The stage is set for our country eventually devolving into military dictatorship,’ he said recently.

Sallies such as these have turned this most rationally conceived campaign into catnip for the least rational elements of the American electorate: people convinced that a secret cabal of bankers runs the country, people who don’t think any plane hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, people so angry about widening inequality that they favour smashing the ̵
6;system’, no matter how, so long as the people who got rich over the last quarter-century get what’s coming to them. And, of course, people who hate the Iraq war.

Paul’s anti-war message remains the centre of his candidacy. It is the least radical thing about him. Paul likes the traditional description of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. On the eve of the Iraq war, when other politicians were reading manuals on arms-control policy and biographies of Churchill, Paul immersed himself in St Augustine. Asked last June at a New Hampshire debate to name the most pressing moral issue facing the US, Paul replied, ‘We have rejected the just-war theory of Christianity.’

Paul has risen to 5 per cent in the polls. That is not enough to win next month’s New Hampshire primary, but it is not far, either, from where Pat Buchanan was polling before he won New Hampshire in 1992. Recent months have complicated the political calculus. The 2006 elections, in which Republicans were chased from power across the country, were an unambiguous negative verdict on the Iraq war. But the troop surge and the change in strategy engineered by General David Petraeus have stabilised the battlefield situation. The political costs of the war have fallen to a level where they are sustainable indefinitely. Democrats committed to removing troops from Iraq have been hedging more, and pontificating less.

Paul’s anti-war position, based as it is on Christianity and the Constitution, has been less easily shaken. Next month will tell whether he can keep his momentum now that Americans have made plain that they don’t object to the war as much as they object to losing it.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated