Jacob Heilbrunn

The Rise of Ron Paul and the Tea Party

Ever since I visited Ron Paul's office, I've been fascinated by him. Its walls are festooned with proclamations from Austrian economists warning about the perils of debauching the national currency and inflation. He also has currency from Weimar Germany on the wall, showing how its purchasing power plummetted during the 1920s. Eventually it took a wheelbarrow full of bills to buy a loaf of bread. One famous anecdote has it that a customer in a cafe ordered a coffee. When he ordered a second one ten minutes later, the price had doubled. "You should have ordered them both at the same time," the waiter instructed the astonished customer.

Paul's obsession with currency and the Austrian school of economics, led by Ludwig von Mises, has led a number of commentators to view him as something of a nut. I didn't get that sense at all. The sense that I did get from Paul is that he is nostalgic for an older America--pre-New Deal America. He seems to think that the country has gone soft. Its citizens look not to themselves but to the Federal government when hard times hit. Paul's bugbear is the Federal Reserve, which he wants to abolish. Now Paul's message seems to be gaining, well, currency, as the Tea Party trumpets his message.

In the current issue of the Atlantic, Josh Green has an excellent article on Paul called "The Tea Party's Brain." If you haven't seen it, I urge you to read the piece. Green refers to Paul as "slightly unhinged" when he starts talking about economics, but his bottom line is simple:

As the Republican Party swings into line behind him, it has upended the consensus that has prevailed around fiscal and monetary policy since the Great Depression, pressuring the Fed and blocking any additional stimulus. With the Tea Party gathering force, Paul is at last where he has always wanted to be: in the vanguard of a national movement.

Green believes that Paul will run for president again and that he could have a significant impact on the other candidates. Paul's foreign policy views are unpopular with the GOP, but most attention is being paid to the economy. Could Paul even land a spot as the junior partner on a Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin ticket? A vice-president Paul would be a fascinating thing to contemplate. The likely prospect is that the economy will continue to be in bad shape in 2012. Unemployment may well hover at ten percent or even go higher. Fertile territory for Paul.

Unlike Palin, Paul has made a serious study of economics. As John Judis notes in the New Republic, liberals are too quick, as he puts it, to "stigmatize" the Tea Party types. According to Judis, the Tea Party is falsely condemned as being racist or the tool of big business. He argues,

it fits above all into the framework of American populism, which has always had right-wing and left-wing variants, and which is rooted in a middle class cri de coeur—that we who do the work and play by the rules are being exploited by parasitic bankers and speculators and/or by shiftless, idle white trash, negroes, illegal immigrants, fill in the blank here. What’s important is that these movements, which gather strength in the face of adversity, can go either right or left. During the 1930s, they tended left rather than right. During Obama’s first term, they have gone primarily to the right. There are many reasons for this, but at least one has to do with how the White House has blamed Main Street and Wall Street equally for the financial crisis.

The Tea Party has put a decisive end to the Bush era, when the GOP endorsed big government. Now it is rhetorically opposed to it. Whether the Tea Party will be able to cut back government is another question. But Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, among others, have already adapted their message to cater to the concerns of the Tea Party. The Tea Party isn't about to reshape the Republican party. It already has. And the biggest beneficiaries appear to be Ron Paul and his son Rand.


(Illustration by Christopher F. Bauer)