US President Donald Trump delivers a speech at a rally in  Mississippi on November 26 as fake snow falls. Photo: AFP / Jim Watson
US President Donald Trump delivers a speech at a rally in Mississippi as fake snow falls. Photo: AFP / Jim Watson

He attracted a devoted following by criticizing the elites in both parties, their nation-building abroad and their economic policies that left most Americans behind.

He attracted the scorn of mainstream politicians and pundits – which only caused his followers to grow more devoted. And even though his past associations, allegations of racism, and his embrace of conspiracy theories raised eyebrows, his followers looked at the alternative candidates and concluded that he was their only chance of truly being heard.

“He” is not Donald Trump: I am speaking of Ron Paul’s quests for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012.

The overlap between Paul and Trump has been noted by others, but it’s their differences that tell us the most about the American electorate.

The Paul-Trump overlap

It wasn’t always this way. When Paul made his final long-shot bid for the presidency in 2012, Trump was merely contemplating running, and each was dismissive of the other as candidates. The brash, outspoken New York billionaire appeared to have little in common with the soft-spoken, grandfatherly Texas congressman, except that mainstream observers were sure neither would ever be president.

The 2012 election bore that out. Trump ultimately didn’t run, while Paul quickly faded after the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, then retired from Congress and left electoral politics entirely.

Paul’s message – that the US should leave Iraq and Afghanistan, make peace with Iran, and stop torture, surveillance and drone strikes – had found nothing but scorn from his fellow Republican candidates in those days, but he was one of a handful of candidates in that election cycle to tap into the deep disenchantment on the American right.

As things turned out, Paul, along with fellow gadflies Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all fizzled out against eventual nominee Mitt Romney’s fundraising juggernaut.

The Republican establishment, it appeared, had a tight lid on the nomination process for the foreseeable future.

And that’s why so, so many of us assumed Trump would fail after he finally announced his presidential bid in 2015. He was a distraction, a sound-bite-generating machine who would sooner or later stumble against the better-funded establishment players like (as ludicrous as it sounds it retrospect) Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.

Something was different about Trump, though.

The Paul-Trump divide

Ron Paul’s message, though anti-establishment, had nonetheless been hopeful – it promised freedom, peace and prosperity once there were no more disastrous invasions of other countries, no more domestic spying, and no more illegitimate government meddling in the economy.

Trump’s was negative from the outset, warning of illegal immigrant “rapists” and “drug-dealers,” of Islamic terrorism, and government action that failed not because the private sector is more efficient, but because Americans were governed by losers.

Through that anti-establishment anger, along with his denunciation of the Iraq invasion and mainstream politicians, Trump co-opted Paul’s movement. And then he did what few thought possible: He co-opted the Republican establishment itself through his celebrity, knack for free publicity and a series of primary victories no one had imagined possible just months before.

As Trump ran for re-election this year, extremely close former supporters of Ron Paul boasted of Trump’s record of keeping the US out of any new wars, of taking on the smug elites that had kept Americans down, and of his tax cuts. Not being fans of government action, Paul’s supporters were also immune to the most cutting indictment of Trump in 2020: that he had mismanaged the Covid-19 pandemic.

So why did Trump’s campaign succeed where Paul’s failed?

Grim lessons

If you look at the differences between them, what it says about the American electorate is not flattering. Paul denounced US efforts to pressure Iran and urged Americans to see the standoff from the average Iranian’s point of view; Trump ditched the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and ramped up sanctions that burdened the Iranian populace.

Paul opposed US trade deals only because they came with too many restrictions to be truly “free” trade; Trump celebrated government intervention in trade via tariffs. Paul warned of the United States’ unsustainable debt and the Federal Reserve’s “artificial” manipulations of the economy; Trump took deficits to an all-time high and pressured the Fed to manipulate interest rates more than it previously had.

Even their common distaste for military intervention came from a different motivation. Paul spoke on behalf of those on the receiving end of US missiles and drone strikes; Trump’s major objection to interventions appears to be that they don’t work.

And while many consider “tone” irrelevant compared with actual policy, it must be noted that Paul handled public appearances, and criticisms, with calm and restraint. Trump’s responses to criticism have been rather different, and many of his followers have taken their cues from them.

Apparently residents of Middle America who were not won over by Ron Paul’s pleading have responded to Trumpian rage at deeper level – it’s not enough for America to succeed, other countries must fail.

None of this is to suggest that Ron Paul was the best choice in 2008 or 2012.

One can oppose the Iraq war, open-ended occupation of Afghanistan and sanctioning of Iran without believing that the US must take a completely hands-off approach to foreign policy, particularly in deterring conflicts that might otherwise emerge.

And while Paul’s calls for responsibility in fiscal and monetary policy were welcome, the pure gold standard he supports has been out of favor among economists for decades, and for good reason. Furthermore, while Paul did not engage in racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic rhetoric in his campaigns, the newsletter controversy of the 1990s was just one sign of his willingness to make common cause with those who did.

His supporters who were far less shy about their prejudices or conspiracy-mongering needed little prodding to gravitate toward Trump.

Both Paul and Trump took a very genuine sentiment – dissatisfaction with the status quo and with the elites that failed Americans – and built movements around them. The number of votes Trump received, despite coming up short this November, as well as many Americans’ inability to accept his loss, shows that such sentiments will remain. 

But Trump’s presidency also showed the limits of anti-elitism in policymaking.

Rather than achieving complete denuclearization in North Korea, Trump leaves office with Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal bigger than ever. Iran has defied his sanctions and is closer to nuclear capability than ever before – and now firmly in China’s orbit. The US is more deeply in debt, and would have been even without the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not to mention the more than 250,000 American dead from the virus, whose economic wreckage Trump’s successor(s) will long be digging the country out of.

By winning the presidency Donald Trump proved what Ron Paul could not: that rage against the status quo is not enough.

Rob York, program director for regional affairs at the Pacific Forum, is also a PhD candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Prior to joining the Forum, he was a production editor at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and a chief editor at NK News in Seoul.