Telltale signs could be seen from the parking lot of the University of South Florida’s Sun Dome—a military Humvee adorned with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, “Truth is Treason in the Empire of Lies” written on the back windshield of a car—plenty of paraphernalia insisting that the revolution continues.
The GOP may be running the show this week, but this was a Ron Paul party.
On Sunday, thousands of fervent supporters of the former presidential candidate packed into the 11,000-seat venue at USF for one of the last hurrahs for the 12-term Texas lawmaker. Having failed to best Mitt Romney in his quest for the GOP nomination, Paul is retiring from Congress after 24 years in the House.
This was not your typical GOP crowd—there was hardly a three-piece suit to be found. But Romney might have killed to draw a crowd this size, especially with its zeal (few supporters came without signs, T-shirts, buttons, and flags) and attention span. Paul’s audience sat through five hours of tributes to his life and career before he finally took the stage—and stood for the entirety of his hour-long speech.
The 77-year-old obstetrician inspires the kind of adulation among his supporters generally reserved for rock stars. He is, to them, the standard-bearer for liberty, a revolutionary figure in American politics, even if the Republican Party establishment has always treated him like the dude in the tinfoil hat heckling congressional hearings. Historian Doug Wead, one of the many speakers at the rally, said that Paul was a “clean boat in a sea of garbage.”
Across town, at the state fairgrounds, yet more Paul supporters were holding court at the three-day P.A.U.L. Festival (People Awakening and Uniting for Liberty, for those wondering), where his rally was simulcast.
“Let’s put it this way: If Ron Paul was a Democrat, I would be a Democrat,” said 28-year-old Henry Havoc of San Antonio, who drove 20 hours to see Paul speak. Sporting dreadlocks, Havoc held an American flag with the words “My country is sick” written on it. “We need a doctor,” he said, expressing his hope that a “Ron Paul party” would rise up in the next few months.
Paul has been espousing essentially the same message of fiscal conservatism and military nonintervention for decades, but it wasn’t until the end of his career that his views started gaining steam within the Republican Party. Some of his ideas once thought beyond the pale—axing the Federal Reserve, for example, one of Paul’s chief crusades—has been given lip service by prominent conservatives and the other GOP presidential candidates.
This time, Paul supporters had a healthy dose of righteous indignation mixed with their characteristic passion—they did not disguise their disdain for a party they believed had disrespected them. Paul did not receive a speaking slot at the convention; and although he had secured 175 delegates, organizers refused to seat those who had planned on supporting Paul in Tampa.
“The Republican Party is taking away from Ron Paul’s thunder,” said Richard Paulus, a 47-year-old sales consultant sporting a white beard and long walking cane, when asked if the event was a distraction from the main event.
Paul and his fans were optimistic that the movement he started will continue, with his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and others now taking the lead.
“Someone else will take up the banner,” said 56-year-old James Morris of Panama City, Fla. “He is not the perfect messenger. He just has the perfect message.”