By Reid Cherlin, GQ
I'd seen Mary Willison in the dusty parking lot outside the Ron Paul event, fishing a homemade END THE FED sign out of the trunk of her red BMW convertible. She was tall and blonde and wearing a black t-shirt depicting the 76-year-old congressman as Captain America; she'd driven up from Los Angeles to the desert town of Pahrump, Nevada, to volunteer for the caucuses. "It snowballs," the 33-year-old told me of her self-education in all things Ron Paul. We were standing in a crowded roller rink, and she was waiting in the long line to get her picture taken with the candidate. "It's like shining a light into the dark corners of our government, and that's what he started."
By conventional standards, Ron Paul did not have a great night on Tuesday. He finished second in Minnesota, at 27 percent, but well behind Rick Santorum at nearly 45 percent. In Colorado he finished a distant fourth at 12 percent. Coming off a mildly embarrassing third-pace finish in Nevada, it would be fair to say that an operation built to do best in caucus states -- where turnout tends to be low, and organization and voter intensity tend to pay dividends -- has largely failed. But the vote totals seem to be beside the point for the Paul diehards; sure, they want him to be president, but they're on a journey of discovery, which matters more. "It's kind of like the rabbit hole," Willison said, openly referring to The Matrix. "Once you do a little bit of research and you listen, it just leads to more and more and more information."
Like Neo, young, angry Ron Paul supporters have had their eyes opened: Everywhere they look they find more illusion and falsehood. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth... "We've got the Food and Drug Administration," Willison said, shaking her head, "and now we come to find out that it's toxic. They're not helping us to be healthy; it's the opposite... We're actually getting sicker. There's more cancer every year. Our water is polluted; our foods are genetically modified. Once you start looking into that stuff you just realize how out of control the government has gotten."
The specifics of her objections seemed a bit contradictory: She said Paul would be the best candidate for the elderly, because "he's gonna shore up Social Security and Medicare benefits." But she immediately proceeded to disparage such entitlements as "a pyramid scheme, and there's not going to be anything there for us by the time we're ready to retire." She railed against government intervention, but blamed Obama for acting too late on the foreclosure crisis. Pointing out these inconsistencies, though, wouldn't do any good. Because the more that others object -- including a media elite they see as ruthlessly anti-Paul -- the more certain Paul supporters are that it's everyone else who doesn't get it.
"I was researching candidates," 27-year-old Elizabeth Belcastro told me at the rink, "and my friend was like 'have you seen Ron Paul yet? Try him next.' So I went and I just did the research..." Belcastro, a smiling Nevada native in a knit scarf and headband, works as an acting usher at the Cirque du Soleil show at the MGM Grand. And here she, too, told of getting drawn deeper and deeper in: "Then it wasn't just Googling Ron Paul, you know? It turned into Googling the Federal Reserve, and then Googling the war in Afghanistan, and Googling everything that happens."
The feeling of interconnectedness she found so tantalizing is what seems to be such a powerful draw to the movement, more than any of its particular tenets. (No one I talked to, for example, told me how exactly the Fed's destroying America. But then, I didn't ask.) It's enough for them that our various national ills -- spending, taxes, wars, inflation -- are all bound together in a web of deceit. You could almost see the ones and zeroes scrolling down the screen.
Later that day, Paul visited a sprawling gun shop and shooting range on a grubby block off the Vegas strip. Patrons milled around holding Paul signs and checking out the store's dizzying inventory of ass-kicking assault weapons. (The .50-cal sniper rifle, sadly, was marked "for display only.") "I think a lot of people are disillusioned by what Obama said and what he did," Garrett Gebhardt told me as the crowd waited for Paul's entrance. "NDAA, the fact that he supports that, and he was the one who went for the provision that allows for the assassination of American citizens -- liberals really dislike that. They really dislike that he hasn't done even the liberal things that he said he would do," like implementing a single-payer health care system. "He's in bed with Goldman Sachs and all the other big corporations that the 99-percenters don't support."
Gebhardt is boyish-looking at 32 and has the slicked-back dark hair and blunt accent of his native Brooklyn. ("Church Avenue," he says. "I grew up right above the F Train stop.") Recently he moved from Kansas City to Las Vegas, where he works in retail, expressly because he wanted to caucus for Ron Paul. And he's a talented proselytizer. Nearly 10 minutes into Gebhardt's parade of horribles -- the Fed, evil corporations, a conspiracy against Paul's Nevada delegates -- I realized I'd stopped taking notes; it was all just washing over me.
"I go around and I spread it around to everybody," he said as gunfire erupted behind the wall. "A lot of people weren't aware of who Ron Paul is, and some people still aren't. So it's been a process where it's spreading in a viral way." It's easier to get young people, he said, not just because they tend to be disaffected, but because they're already comfortable with web tools like YouTube, where troves of doom-foretelling Ron Paul speeches are readily available. "The older generation," he said, "a lot of the problem in translating that for them is they're used to television, whereas my source is Google and other things like that, lots of news sources online. They're just not seeing it."
It being the incontrovertible evidence that our liberties are being robbed from us by collusion between corporations and politicians, and that Ron Paul is the only candidate who has seen the sacred, crushing truth. Gebhardt, though, was upbeat. There seemed to plenty of time for others to take the red pill and go tumbling down the rabbit hole. "Once they start to see it," he said, "then they start to listen -- and then it's just a matter of letting them pick it up for themselves. You just have to kind of set the ball rolling down the hill."
"Dude, that was amazing, man," a kid with a frosted crew-cut told his buddies as they filed out of the event. Amazing enough to get him to caucus? Probably not, judging from the results there and elsewhere. But if you think a bunch of numbers on CNN are what the Ron Paul movement all about, then you just aren't seeing it.
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