In many ways, the crowd seemed a lot like the recent antiwar rallies I have attended -- largely consisting of "average" folks, with a visible 10 percent of the crowd consisting of what can only fairly be described as the "lunatic fringe" (more on that later). Otherwise, everyone from hippie-types shouting "free the weed" to right-wing Christians concerned about a "North American Union" were in attendance (in addition to a good deal of regular-looking, "normal" folks), highlighting the politically transcendent appeal of Paul's radical anti-war, anti-corporatist message.
Particularly surprising to me was the speech by Naomi Wolf, a prominent feminist and one-time adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, on the 10 signs that a country is drifting toward fascism (video shot by yours truly below):
A few years ago I would have expected Wolf to be just another Democratic partisan willing to write-off Ron Paul as a kooky "right-wing extremist." But many of Paul's positions on the most pressing issues of the day -- opposition to empire, torture, and the national security state -- are what would usually be characterized by the establishment media as "far left", and appeal to many people who are dissatisfied with the Democratic Party's embrace of corporatism and illegal, aggressive warfare.
As Wolf noted in her speech, for far too long those who agree with Paul's stances on those issues would allow themselves to be divided by a range of red herring wedge issues that are largely meaningless when a country is engaged in illegal foreign occupations and indefinitely detaining suspected "terrorists". When it comes down to it, those who agree on the immorality of preemptive war, warrantless spying, and torture should not be divided by their differing views on the estate tax -- priorities, people.
Yet for decades both the Democratic and Republican parties have been busy scaring their respective bases with the horrifying prospect of the other party taking power, obfuscating the fact that, for all practical purposes, there is no real disagreement between the parties on the worthiness of an imperialistic foreign policy.
That said, there were several speakers at the rally who, if the goal is to appeal to as broad an audience as possible by focusing on a message of peace and freedom, were . . . questionable choices, to put it mildly. In fact, one man who followed Wolf -- a retired Arizona police officer by the name of Jack McLamb -- rambled on with crackpot conspiracies about the "New World Order" so ridiculous it was if they were intentionally designed to marginalize the entire event.
In addition to your garden-variety "9/11 truth" kookery (cheered on by a not insignificant Alex Jones-worshipping segment of the crowd), McLamb went off about how government agents are, apparently, affixing color-coded stickers to the mailboxes of would-be troublemakers. The purpose? Well, you see, a red sticker on your mailbox signals to "foreign troops" that one should be taken out to a field and shot. A blue sticker, in contrast, merely means that these undefined foreign soldiers should take you to a Halliburton-constructed concentration camp.
As one Ron Paul supporter standing next to me astutely observed, "so how does that work with apartment complexes?"
With such a range of fairly respected speakers -- Wolf, former CIA agent Michael Scheuer, talk show host Charles Goyette -- it boggles the mind as to why rally organizers would allow someone suffering from bizarre paranoid delusions to address the crowd. If supporters of Ron Paul are looking to shake off the "fringe" label, inviting a guy who makes the "9/11 was an inside job" crowd uncomfortable doesn't appear to me to be the most effective strategy.
In fact, due to the quality of some of the speakers -- another man who later took the stage went beyond mere "secure the borders" rhetoric to a full-on, xenophobic rant about how there were too many "illegals" committing crimes in the U.S. (undocumented workers actually commit less crime, but hey, they tend to have darker complexions so what do the facts matter?) and that, h'yuck, we ain't learnin' no Spanish -- I ended up leaving before Ron Paul actually spoke.
Judging by the near-total lack of applause the speaker received, I'm guessing I wasn't the only one perplexed as to why a rally in favor of a guy who made opposition to war and the police state the focus of his campaign (and who, even with his anti-illegal immigration rhetoric, has said he finds the concept of a border fence "rather offensive" and that "I think we could be much more generous with our immigration") would allow a speaker to engage in such rank bigotry and fear-mongering about "illegals".
Such is the downside to creating a political coalition that includes everyone from Green Party supporters to the close-the-borders crowd. On the one hand, Ron Paul's message, by transcending the obsolete constraints of "left" and "right", is able to attract a large, diverse following that shows the potential mass appeal of a simple "bring the troops home and follow the Constitution" message. However, that larger following often brings a whole range of crazies with their own pet issues who are not so much concerned with ending the American empire as they are with demanding that people buy into the lunacy that WTC 7 was brought down in a controlled demolition, god damn it (as I witnessed one man try to convince a group of perplexed Chinese tourists who were walking by).
As the late Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes...
(Also see The American Conservative's Kelley Vlahos and Daniel McCarthy for their takes on the rally.)
And since this is a post about Ron Paul, what better time then to hawk one of my interviews with him? This one, from January 2007, I believe was the first interview with Paul about a potentially launching a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination: