Three years ago, Republican kingmakers cheered wildly after the landmark Citizens United decision. The Supreme Court had voted to dissolve limits on corporate campaign contributions, leading many conservatives to believe they now had a permanent electoral edge. But veterans of the Grand Old Party hadn’t prepared for the budding insurgency within their ranks. They had not prepared for John Ramsey.
He was just 19 years old then, a kid from Texas attending college, when he inherited a fortune from his grandfather, the owner of a bank. Soon he exerted his newly legal right to form a super PAC, setting aside nearly a million dollars in seed money for what would be known as Liberty for All. In the spring of 2012, Ramsey and a coterie of fledgling, libertarian rebels threw their weight behind Thomas H. Massie, an obscure MIT-educated engineer—the Ayn Rand confection of the perfect man—who was running for a House seat in northern Kentucky. Massie had fallen behind the establishment candidate in the primary, but after the surge of support—cash for advertising—he won handily, defeating his opponent by 15 percentage points. And suddenly, John Ramsey, who like the Great Gatsby had come from nowhere, became the youngest power player in American politics.
In many respects, John Ramsey’s rise explains the rifts in the Republican Party. He is part of a new crop of politicos ascending within the ranks of the right. These young men and women are of a different strain, gravitating toward Ron Paul rather than George W. Bush. They came of age in the wake of 9/11 and grew disenchanted during the Bush years, feeling as though Republicans squandered American funds, mangled foreign policy and eroded civil liberties—all before the Great Recession.
Ramsey and his kind practice, ironically enough, a version of what the last president called “compassionate conservatism.” However, they come by the brand far more honestly, as they believe the federal government should leave well alone in all respects. In other words, they don’t feel compelled to walk the party line, and they have a carte blanche approach to politics—to life in general—picking and choosing what suits their unique sensibility, regardless of contradictions. It is, perhaps, the most natural extension of the Internet age, in which reality is a curated experience.
I wanted to understand this new crop, so I called John Ramsey and flew to Austin to meet him.
It’s Friday evening, and I’m sitting on a couch in Ramsey’s living room. Ramsey isn’t here. He’s expected at midnight, when he’ll return from a business trip. On the floor in front of me is a cowhide rug, which resembles a cow flattened with a cartoon hammer. Across the way a 62-inch television hangs on the wall above a shelf full of DVDs, stocked with such stirring titles as America Destroyed by Design, Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports Exposed and The World According to Monsanto.
Sitting next to me on the couch is Preston Bates, a jumpy 23-year-old from Kentucky. You can’t talk about Ramsey without first talking about Bates. The two met while volunteering for Ron Paul in 2011, and now he’s Liberty for All’s resident political guru, a sort of Stringer Bell in Vibram sneakers and skinny jeans. Bates has the tight, narrow frame of a marathon runner, and a head of dirty blonde hair that rises in a natural coif, like he’s just gotten off the autobahn.
As he talks about the current discord in the Republican Party, complex information streams out of his mouth, as if his brain were directly connected to the Internet or a live feed of his undergraduate thesis. “I’m more interested in the dichotomy and the dynamic that’s, like, authoritarian and free people,” Bates says. “I think the parties and the factions become distractions, and we don’t have real clash. Clash needs to be how we solve problems—locally in their communities, individually or through central planning, socialism, state communism. Because I’m actually open to local communism.”
I admit I have no idea what he means.
“I might be a capitalist insofar as I’d own the land,” he continues. “I’m not sure I’m gonna have everyone be an owner. But I also belong to a little co-op that’s a little grocery store. I’m an owner and also a consumer. I like that. I like being involved, being more integrated in the community. I like locally sourced food.”
Bates is dead earnest, essentially sweet, and maybe the least ironic person I’ve ever met. His version of hospitality is jacked up on amphetamines, and every few minutes he asks if I need water or coffee. The water comes from a cooler in the kitchen, and on the jug rests a magnet that somehow alters its energy for a purpose I don’t understand. “Coffee is a miracle,” he tells me.
Though raised a nondenominational Christian, Bates is open to other religious ideas. “I’m very tantric,” he says at one point, as he looks ponderously toward the exposed wooden beams in the ceiling. He’s also deeply fixated on the culture of “wellness,” a crucial part of his libertarian philosophy, and a key component of his approach to amending healthcare, which, for him, is not a universal right. “On my Twitter there are a couple of things I describe myself as,” he says. “And wellness is one. I’m interested in helping everyone become as well as they possibly can. They say that if you do yoga over the course of your life, you have 87 percent less health care costs than if you don’t.”
I ask him what yoga could do for people living in West Baltimore, where the local economy is destroyed and poverty endemic, almost a consequence of birth. Sickness, in such a place, is more likely to percolate and go untreated.
Bates seems surprised to hear this. “I’m born owning myself,” he says. “And I think other people are born self-sovereign.” He pauses for a second, and then adds, “I’m not sure I believe in luck either. I hear the probability part of what you’re saying. Yeah, what was the difference between me being born Preston Bates or me being born this indigent, poor child? I don’t know if it was luck or if it was probability.”
Besides, he finishes: “What is a poor person in Baltimore like relative to a person in Pyongyang? At least the poor person in Baltimore is in the richest country in the history of the earth.”
It’s just past midnight and we’re sitting in the kitchen when the duke returns to his domain.
“There he is,” Bates says.
John Ramsey enters the house, his heels clacking across the cherry wood floor. He stops a few feet in front of me and extends his hand; it’s big enough to palm a basketball and white enough to burn in the late afternoon sun. “What’s goin’ on?” he says, his Texas drawl turning the generic greeting into something musical, as his blue eyes glint in the overhead lights.
Ramsey is 6-foot-7, an inch taller than Michael Jordan, and built like a beanstalk. His hair is parted tightly to the side, and he wears a navy blazer with three gold buttons on either cuff, beneath which is a red gingham collared shirt tucked into his wrinkle-free khaki pants.
He steps back and seems to take measure of the place. He bought the house outright, for $300,000, and earlier this year moved into the neighborhood, which he refers to as “dicey,” though it looks like a quaint suburb to me. “Obviously I could go live in the ritzy side of town if I wanted to,” Ramsey says. The home is a four-bedroom split-level, 15 minutes from the center of the city, and totally unassuming from the outside: beige brick and clapboard facade, quaint front porch with two rocking chairs in the corner, a Ron Paul 2012 campaign poster in the picture window. Just off the kitchen is a dining room converted into a kind of bare-bones Pentagon workspace, though instead of the “War Room,” they call it the “Peace Room.”
Ramsey removes his coat and takes a seat beside me. He’s constantly on the road, meeting with prospective donors and gearing up for the next election cycle. “We’re sad that Justin Amash isn’t gonna run,” Ramsey says. “He’s like our hero.”
Amash, 33, is a sophomore Republican congressman from Michigan who, by his own account, believes in “limited government, economic freedom and individual liberty,” though not abortion, which presents a paradox. “I think I finally made my decision on that issue,” Ramsey tells me. “Obviously I’d like to see less abortions, but you cannot outlaw them.” Bates remains unsure. “I could hear lots of good arguments on both sides,” he says. Either way, the paradox is forgivable.
Upon Amash’s arrival in the Capitol, he became a headache for many of his fellow party members, who felt he was testy and uncompromising. Ramsey and Bates had worked the phones for him last year, and now they’re disappointed he’s not making a bid for the Senate.
“The other day the media was giving Amash crap about McCain and Graham calling him fringe,” Ramsey says. “He was like, ‘What are you talking about? Those two are the fringe of the Republican Party!’”
“He’s the most active tweeter in Congress,” Bates chimes in.
Their enthusiasm for Amash, however, wanes when I mention Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader whose seat is coming up for election, and for whom they reserve a special disdain. “He’s a crony capitalist,” they repeatedly say. The two are watching the race closely, debating whether to get involved or if it’s even necessary, as McConnell is currently under attack from both flanks.
“He sucks, he sucks, he sucks,” Bates wails.
“He’s, like, so bad,” Ramsey agrees. “He’s so scared too. It’s awesome. He’s shaking in his boots. You should’ve seen him when he met me one time…”
“He has no chin,” Bates interrupts. “Literally no chin.”
“At the RNC [the Republican National Convention] we met. I went up to him and was like, ‘Oh, Senator McConnell. Great to meet you.’ It was after we’d done a lot of work in the Massie race. He got this stoned look on his face and was like, ‘Good job.’ He seemed like he shit his pants.”
It’s early Saturday morning, and I’m sitting shotgun in Ramsey’s black Audi, while Bates trails us in his white Honda Civic. We’re on our way to a natural juice bar that will provide us with the necessary vitamins and minerals to start our day. Miranda Lambert sings on the radio, and tiny drops of rain quiver on the windshield.
Ramsey is dressed down in a baggy gray T-shirt and black mesh shorts. He drives with one hand on the wheel and gesticulates with the other, preparing to tell me “a story that’s never been told.”
It’s a political narrative about his childhood in East Texas, where he grew up comfortable in a poor, downtrodden area called San Augustine. “The high school I went to is more than 80 percent black,” he says. “Most people don’t know that. Honestly, it’s where I get a lot of my values.”
He breaks for a red light and goes silent for a minute, as if obeying some larger command. When it turns green, he pulls ahead gradually, easing off the line. “It was an experience for sure,” Ramsey continues. “It was neat, though. I learned a lot about the African-American culture and played basketball with all those guys—only white guy on the team. I’ll tell you what, they are some of the best athletes ever, but they have no opportunity. That’s something I wanna look at doing some day—athletes like that in small towns, creating some kind of fund that gets them out and puts them on the track they need to be.” He saws one of his freckled forearms under his nose. “But, yeah, playing with those guys—God. I was nowhere near their level. They were just so fast.”
Ramsey’s parents divorced when he was young. For a time, he lived west of San Augustine with his mother in Nacogdoches. His father stayed behind, on the family timber farm, and Ramsey moved back when he was 12, after his mom died of breast cancer. Both of his parents, ironically enough, worked for Child Protective Services.
As he entered his teenage years, Ramsey became close with “Big Papa,” his grandfather, the one who later left him a fortune. Big Papa lived in Hemphill, near the border of Louisiana, and died at the age of 92, bequeathing his bank to Ramsey’s older brother and sister. “Rather than inheriting, he invested in me,” Ramsey says. “I wanna carry on his legacy and grow it. My purpose for being successful and building wealth is to give it away.”
How much was “invested” in him is unknown—he keeps it a secret—though the sum seems to be quite large. To date, Ramsey has injected $3 million of his own money into Liberty for All, suggesting the “investment” was not received without a shred of guilt. “It was pressure,” he confides. “I’ve got a chance to change the world if I do this correctly.’”
Before coming to libertarianism in college, through a tennis partner already steeped in the cause, he was a conventional conservative. Eventually, he realized, the party was at loggerheads with his core values. “I care about people,” Ramsey says. “And it just seems, with the rhetoric of regular conservatives, they don’t sometimes. They don’t care about the poor.”
Ramsey wants to help the poor. He believes in “business as charity,” and some of his various for-profit ventures include real estate holdings, options trading, online education and a beverage called Never Hungover. But because he recognizes “business” can fall short, Ramsey also funds a traditional charity: the Center for Natural Living. One of the Center’s most significant projects is an awareness campaign, in which it educates the public about the negative effects of fluoride in tap water. The other is a reality television series titled “Sovereign Living,” in which a family attempts to go off the grid. So far, three episodes have been filmed, touching on such topics as solar energy, neighbor problems and natural home birth.
Ramsey pulls into the parking lot of JuiceLand and shuts off the engine. “Literally, with my charity, what we’re doing is competing with the government to provide welfare, showing a better way.” His voice goes up a notch in volume. “How do we empower people? You go into communities. You do different educational programs. You teach people. They come back, and, next thing you know, you’ve got groups helping each other out, growing food, trading with each other.”
“I wonder how that would work in Detroit?” I say.
“I wanna do work in Detroit at some point,” he says. “Detroit is such a train wreck.”
After drinking purple, protein-infused juice, we stop at two artisanal coffee shops—lots of flannel and Suicide Girls—just to be sure we’re properly caffeinated. Ramsey stays behind to make some calls, and I go with Preston to his daily cryotherapy session. On the way home, we pick up brisket sandwiches at a local barbecue stand, when it starts to pour, the first heavy rain in months. Bates embarks on a monologue about the beauty of nature. Then, as a sort of denouement, he announces, “I wish I could make love to a woman right now.”
Soon we’re back in the house, all of us devouring our sandwiches and chatting about the Federal Reserve. “Money’s a phenomenal idea,” Ramsey allows. “The idea to have money and just have that as a system.”
Ramsey and Bates want to place enough “liberty-minded” candidates in office to at least audit the central bank, if not repeal the Federal Reserve Act entirely. To them, the Fed is the United States’ number one problem, and abolishing it would be a way to solve most of our financial ills. They bemoan the bank’s opacity, how the average person is unaware how much money is in circulation. They long for a world in which the dollar is extinct, and, in its place, states go head-to-head with competing currencies.
Bates puts his sandwich down and explains that the dollar, every year, does less and less for the average person, going back to 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act was passed. As a nation, he says, we are worse off now than we were a century ago, except for “the Internet, which is the saving grace of society.”
This, I note, is a remarkably broad statement. It would seem to discount, among other things, the advent of stainless steel, synthetic rubber, toasters, Band-Aids, jet airliners, insulin, penicillin, scotch tape, photocopiers, microwaves, cortisone, pacemakers, the artificial heart, the polio vaccine, television, birth control, tampons, baby monitors, the electric guitar, the right for women to vote, the right for blacks to do pretty much anything and the creation of a real American middle class.
John Ramsey sits with his 28-year-old assistant, Meggie. They’re in the Peace Room, and she’s wearing white Keds and a flouncy scarf as she sorts through Ramsey’s expenses, asking him to make out checks. Bates chats on the phone, pacing in and out of the room. The team is gearing up for their next race, a Congressional election in Louisiana, where they plan to back a fresh-faced 27-year-old named Paul Dietzel and spend at least $500,000 on the campaign.
In 2012, Liberty for All spent $1.9 million on national, state, general and primary elections, backing 11 candidates, 10 of which either advanced to the next round or rode to victory. This is an impressive record, and Ramsey is fond of his new reputation as a kingmaker. “One thing that I enjoy,” he tells me, “is when I go somewhere and there’s a local politician, and they think, ‘Oh, there’s John Ramsey showing up. I’ve got to schmooze with him and see what I can get out of him.’ But it’s cool because, when they offer me some crummy deal, I’m like, ‘You know what? Go to hell.’ I’m able to slap them around a little bit.”
Though he can act brash, after Ramsey meets with a potential donor, he immediately sends a handwritten thank-you note. Sometimes he includes a bag of East Texas pine. “Just the benefits of writing a note,” he muses, “I got one back today. And he’s going to be a huge ally.” Ramsey pushes the note across the table, and the script is impeccable. “You are an inspiration,” one sentence reads.
He also likes to compliment the people around him as much as possible. Meggie, in addition to her administrative duties, is a painter—“very, very talented,” Ramsey says—and in her spare time, likes to cook. “She makes phenomenal food, like Italian food.”
When the rain stops, he brings me outside to show me his organic garden. The air is steamy, and the grey clouds have yet to part; an occasional wind blows droplets off the trees. It’s not a big yard, but it is idyllic. There’s a wooden fence, a deck, a composter and three raised beds made of limestone, where they grow everything from okra and kale, to pepper and watermelons. A fake owl has been staked in the ground to scare off the squirrels, but it isn’t working. “They were here first,” Ramsey says. “So I don’t get mad.”
As I look around at this serene suburban setting, I’m reminded of his comment about the neighborhood being “a little dicey.” And I ask Ramsey to explain. “If you drive around a bit back here—it’s transitioning,” he says, gesturing over his shoulder. “I mean, it was a very African-American neighborhood for a while, and now a lot of them are retiring and selling out because they made good money. It just shows what prosperity does in the city.” Ramsey smiles. “I like living in a neighborhood with culture and character.”
“So you interact with your neighbors then?”
“I do—very much so.”
“They all know you?”
“Definitely. They’re just great people. I think all my neighbors are black, except one.” He mentions a foster parent who does “the Lord’s work” and invites him over for “soul food.”
“John,” I ask. “Do you ever think about, in the future, running for office?”
“I don’t know. I keep it open.”
“So you wouldn’t rule it out?”
Ramsey looks up at the big trees and perhaps tries to imagine it. “Not going to rule it out,” he says. “But I would only do it if there were an opportunity to make people’s lives better, and genuinely try to make the world a better place.”