by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The tattooed and pierced longhairs never showed up to see Senator Rand Paul speak with students at the University of South Carolina in Columbia last month. Those in attendance drew instead from the preppy set, with brushed bangs, blue blazers and proper hemlines, some wearing sunglasses on neck straps like jock jewelry. They mostly hailed from college Republican circles, and the room where they gathered, a wood-stained memorial to the state’s old power structure, was named for the politician who led the fight to protect school segregation in the 1960s.
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You could call them activists, even rebels in their way. But this was not a gathering of losers and outcasts. Paul knew this. And that was the whole point he wanted to make. The freaks, the geeks, the oddballs–they mattered too, even here. “I tell people the Bill of Rights isn’t for the high school quarterback or the prom queen,” he said, pacing with a microphone, in blue jeans and cowboy boots he’d borrowed from his brother. “The Bill of Rights is for those who are unpopular.”
Those were the ones who needed to be protected, he went on, from government’s attempts to collect their phone records, to confiscate their property without charges, to throw them in jail without a day in court. He mentioned slavery, Japanese-American internment and America’s history of anti-Semitism. He even name-checked Richard Jewell, the Georgian falsely accused of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, who was considered suspicious in part because he lived an introverted life. “My goodness, if that was the prerequisite for being arrested, then a lot of people would be arrested,” he said. …
… It would be one thing if Paul had stopped at Jewell, having injected a bit of counterculture sympathy into dorm-room debates. But his mission these days is far more consequential. This was South Carolina, after all, an early presidential-primary state that Paul happens to have visited more in the past couple years than any other likely Republican candidate. And his pitch was not just that America needs to think more about the freaks and geeks. He was arguing that the Republican Party, with its back against a demographic cliff, needs them too and that he is uniquely suited to play matchmaker.
“If we want a big party, then the party has to look like the rest of America,” he said, repeating a line he now uses across the country. “And that means with earrings, without earrings. With tattoos, without tattoos. With ponytails, without ponytails.”