At one level, yesterday’s Ron Paul event was a political sideshow. (This despite the fact it drew some big names: EMceed by none other than Tucker Carlson and addressed by Grover Norquist: more on him later). Jesse Ventura seemed to be doing his best to cement this impression, by pandering to the crowd about the ultimate perpetrators of 9/11.

But in the midst of an ideologically exhausted and downright moribund Republican party, the event at the very least had passion in spades. And most interestingly it served as a kind of ideological fossil: an stark reminder of what conservatism in this country once was and what it has become. Neither of them are particularly pretty pictures, but the journey from one to the other is worth contemplating.

I walked into yesterday’s rally in the midst of a rip-roaring speech from Tom Woods, a hard-right Austrian economist who was laying into “McBama” but especially the Republican party, which he said was run by a “neo-con death cult,” and full of “blood-thirsty savages.” Strong stuff.

As a counterpoint to the conservatism of today, Woods held up the model of Robert Taft. Taft is to paleo-conservatives and libertarians what Ronald Reagan is to the regular conservatives. He was a unapologetic plutocrat, a vociferous opponent of the New Deal. suspicious of US involvement in World War II, deficit spending and farm subsidies, a life-long enemy of unions and a zealous advocate of “hard money.” On domestic policy at least, this has been, more or less, the core genetic code of conservatism, stretching back over a hundred years. Today, paleo-conservatives and libertarians get together at seminars to discuss these ideas at the Robert Taft Club. When Ron Paul addressed the crowd in 2007 he offered an encomium to his political hero.

Paul, Tom Wood, and his fellow speaker, libertarian activist and writer Lew Rockwell, are correct to note that the Republican party has, (with the exception of union-busting) thrown off just about every last vestige of this tradition. The central conceit of post-Reagan Republicanism is that it represents “smaller government,” but that’s never been its record, or, arguably, its intent. Modern American capitalism, as Jamie Galbraith, author of the new book The Predator State, argues is simply about Big Government in the service of a small group of interests: “predation has become the dominant feature–a system wherein the rich have come to feast on decaying systems built for the middle class.” (Tom Frank’s new book is a tour of what this looks like up close.)

Of course, part of the reason the paleoconservative agenda has never been implemented is because its wildly unpopular. People like Big Government, hard as that might be to believe. But if the Ron Paul movement stands for a radical scaling back of the state, in its social welfare function, in its militarism, in its regulation of the currency, they at least stand for something. I vehemently disagree with a whole lot of it (though on the war, civil liberties and the war on drugs, they’re better than either of the two major party candidates). It’s not politically popular, but it’s substantive, no question.

Of course, there’s always an inverse relationship between the size of a movement and its ideological purity. But by the end of a few hours at the rally I was left, probably by design, asking myself just what the Republican party stands for. That turns out to be a surprisingly hard question to answer. I’ll give it a shot in a post later.