At five feet eight inches, Rand Paul is much shorter than his pictures make him seem. The disorienting thing isn’t exactly the shortness, though; it’s the fact that he’s physically small, compact like a pixie or an action-figure toy. Outside, it’s muggy from intermittent storms and the sky looks wrung-out, colorless. It’s even hotter inside the Drake Community Library, where Paul is holding a meet and greet rally.
The library is absolutely packed. The air inside is congealed and diaphoretic and somehow also clinical. From what I can see, most of the crowd are young people– high-school kids and students from the community college in town– and an overwhelming number of Grinnell students milling around and talking to one another in low voices. The atmosphere’s a little tense. The older people present are clearly locals, and devoted Paul-supporters. A group of fortysomething women fan themselves with RAND bumper stickers. Several of them trail heat-dazed toddlers.
The crowd’s even thicker in the conference room where Paul is set to give his speech. It’s hard to move freely. A line of people snakes around the circumference of the walls. I recognize a Grinnell student and say hello. It turns out that the line is for people who want to take pictures with Paul or shake his hand. At second glance I realize it’s made up almost completely of Grinnell students. One wears a READY FOR HILLARY t-shirt.
“Are you here ironically?” the student asks.
Up close Rand Paul seems kind of shy, or maybe he’s just bored. His features are small and round and he looks a little like an overgrown Boy Scout. Surely he knows his audience—at least fifty percent of the present demographic are students from one of the most liberal colleges in the country—and just wants to get this rally over with. He looks like he could be in line at the supermarket; there’s something obligatory and despondent about his expression. Perhaps sensing this, a lot of bravado vanishes when our student group walks up to him for our picture. Smiles waver between barely concealed dislike and pity. No one really looks at him and he responds likewise, stiffly positioning himself to our far left. Later I see that the picture’s been posted to Facebook with the caption “Cute pic we took with a wax statue of Rand Paul.”
After the line dies out, Paul takes to the podium. There’s about half an hour left for his speech.
He opens with a joke (he’s fairly personable in that faintly icky way Republican politicians tend to be):
“I know Grinnell’s a tough school,” he says. “I hear half of you have perfect SATs and the other half know someone on the Board.” This gets a laugh, but it’s cut with irate murmurs—no one wants to play along. He gets serious, begins talking about the government reading our search history and tapping our phones, and I kind of zone out. Across from me diagonally a youngish guy has his eyes fixed on Paul with intense concentration. An elderly man and woman stand to Paul’s far right. The woman holds a carpet-patterned handbag to her chest. A few students shift from foot to foot. One covertly scrolls through her phone.
“The U.S. borrows one million dollars a minute!” Paul is now saying. “That’s a trillion dollars a year.” Like much of his rhetoric, it’s kind of a dumb statement, showy and inaccurate, but his dramatic tone gets an impressed silence. So far he’s discussed the NSA, national debt, college loans, and the war on drugs. “College kids make mistakes,” he says. “Let’s put the real criminals in jail: murderers, rapists, thugs, and bums.” This comment spurs a ripple of discontent through the crowd as students wince or snort, or turn to whisper to each other. It’s fairly excruciating. Paul has this glazed, resigned look like he’s retracted into himself—it’s an exacerbated version of the look some Paul-supporters in the room are wearing as well. The expression is polite, but the undertone is something like, “What the hell are you liberals doing here, anyway?”
It’s not an unfair question, even for a guy who just said, “We’ve got a long way to go, but racism and segregation are over.” The whole thing feels like a set-up. Paul is a figurehead on display, with his red striped tie and sad, crunchy Matthew Morrison haircut. Mocking him seems redundant and intellectually empty, like yelling at your racist grandparents– the ones who grew up in sepia-toned backwater towns and consider bread a vegetable. In short, making fun of Paul seems mean and not very funny, and overshadows the real, deep anger towards political injustice that seems to be at its root.
Once the rally’s over I fall into the line filing out of the conference room. Again it’s mostly composed of students—locals stand around and chat amiably, laugh with one another. The air outside is cool and tinged with the faint crackly smell of an incoming thunderstorm. People filing out look up at the sky and their faces seem momentarily shucked and clean.
I think back for a moment to Paul’s closing statement. Face shining slightly with perspiration, he stood at the podium and cleared his throat a final time. “I will defeat the Washington machine,” Paul says. “I will unleash the American dream.”
If I’ve learned anything today, I’ve learned that cruelty isn’t exclusive. Anyone can be cruel, regardless of class or race or political affiliation—a perversion of Paul’s American dream unleashing itself back on his own head. Here, at last, there’s something for everyone. The fervent cheers that ensue after Paul steps from the podium, indiscernibly ironic and genuine, deafen the room and spill into the street outside for passing pedestrians to hear. The kind of sound that makes you stop and listen.