The courtyard at Shooters Vegas was already filling up at twilight, when the Ron Paul advance party rolled in. They are beefy guys, all of them, with artfully carved marine buzz cuts, and billowing suits. They chew gum and look like secret service agents, but they ain’t. They want to be taken for that, though. They lean into each other, point out folks in the crowd, and exchange low whispers. They dress well, eat steak, and are running a smooth and professional operation — about as far from Paul’s fanatic, raggedy grassroots, or his even wilder base than could be imagined.

On Industrial Road, the long business-like street that runs beside the Strip, they rolled out of big cars, framed by the neon lights of the strip mall courtyard — P.F. Chang’s, a midmarket Chinese egg-roll chain, a 7-11, a souvenir mart, and two massage outfits, one Korean, one Japanese, lighting up the night. In the distance, you could see the huge towers on the Strip, the gaudy big beasts — the Luxor Pyramid, Caesar’s Palace, the Stratosphere, searchlights piercing the sky.

Gaudy Vegas, the adult playpen, demolished and remodelled twice in half a century, mixing adult sin with childhood fantasy. You can stay at Circus Circus, the first, now faded, family-run casino, put up in the late 1970s, to try and draw families into Vegas, or you can stay at Excalibur, a Kryalesque faux Arthurian fantasy, or half a dozen other playpens.

Down on Industrial Road, it’s more, well, industrial. Thirty dollar motels, convenience stores with slot machines, strip-mall brothels under the guise of reflexology, cut-price Vegas, where the hardcore punters stay, mingling with the residents, the million or so people who’ve come here over the past decades to make the beds and BLTs, deal the cards and suck the d-cks. Here, the unreal Vegas is a rumour on the skyline, as distant from the gridded, jerry-built city that serves it as Spokane or Toledo. Here, the only reason you’d be around, if you were from the Strip was for American Shooters, one of the half dozen places in Vegas where you fire any weapon you like.

Forget pistols and rifles — here all you need is ID, a credit card and can you rip off a thousand rounds from an Uzi or a Thompson or a half-dozen other models. Last time I was here I went to the one place like this where you can fire a Kalashnikov, weapon of liberation and global mayhem, a gun most such shooting galleries won’t offer on account of its Soviet affiliations. The galleries themselves have wide lanes, and long barriers separating one shooter from another, on account of all the amateurs. For good reason — when you engage the Kalashnikov, you are utterly unprepared for the kick backwards, no matter how many times you have read about the kick backwards. It is not merely a kick-back into the soft of your shoulder.

Instead, it is the gun taking over, a force you try and corral and direct with the curve of your body, the fantasy becomes real, and out of control. After you fire three bursts you get control of it, and then it goes again. After firing the gun I had more sympathy for movies where the hero outruns a line of machine gun fire. The galleries put their machine guns in restraints that control it — were it not so, it would spray a wide arc over everyone else’s targets. The gun is in control. The gun speaks. So most of these places are less shooting ranges than theme parks, part of the endless simulacrum of Vegas, and of America. They’re decked out that way too, painted in camouflage colours, the guns displayed on the wall, the female attendants decked out in tight plunging singlets and camo pants, like they were the armed wig of Hooters.

The crowd for Paul was eight deep, surging into the foyer. I got swept in and then staked a pitch. The Paul entourage swept in about a minute later, pushing all before and around them. A roar went up from the outside as the candidate arrived, the klieg lights went on and everything was dazzling. The wizened miniature Paul, surrounded by heavy shoulders and big beef came through, modest, shy wife and hot daughter in tow, signing books, staggering a little under the huge push of enthusiasm. The appearance as no more than that.

Paul was going from one entrance to the other through the foyer, on the way to his proper appearance that night — at the Filipino Veterans Hall, the home of the “leathernecks”, the native-born Filipinos who fought on the side of the US in the second World War. There, as we surged in, there was a more staid, less aggro tableau — ancient photos on the wall, old honours, and, on the stage, three or four ancient leathernecks, slim, wrinkled Asian men in battle-dress. The crowd went silent, mingling with the citizens of Vegas’s Little Manila. This was not a place for vainglory. This was a place where people had paid their dues.

Like all Ron Paul events, this was artfully chosen, a vets event that wasn’t one. The US invaded the Philippines before WW1. The colony lasted nearly 40 years. The initial cause was “progressive” — to throw out the Spanish. The subsequent occupation killed nearly a million Filipinos, an early example of the tender mercies of US assistance. Those who knuckled under got the same short shrift — the Philippines never gained statehood, as they hoped, and those who fought in the US against the Japanese were denied benefits by the Congress of 1946. The men on the stage had fought in Korea, in Vietnam, and one or two of incomparable antiquity, in WW2.

They were quiet, still and old, genuine warriors, the ultimate contrast to the microwaved, trans fat aggression available at American Shooters, across the car park. Right from the start, Paul could honour them and chide the hypocrisy of American militarism — “look, you know I’m not a guy who believes in entitlements, but this is one government bill we should honour,” he said to cheers. “This was promised by Harry Truman, the 1946 Congress denied it, and we should honour it.”

The moment and the speech was pure Paul — for three months he has been running one of the canniest, most artful campaigns the US presidential campaign has ever seen. From New Hampshire to Pahrump, Nevada, back to Mountain Iron, Minnesota, Paul has played every angle, and it has yielded rewards. He is openly and deeply loathed, not merely by the Republican establishment, but by the imperial sections of the GOP Right and the Tea Party. Building on the sudden movement that arose from his candidacy in 2008, Paul, his lieutenants, and a whole series of people he has never met and never will, have put together one of the most extraordinary insurgent campaigns of recent times.

From the stage of eighteen Republican debates, he has denounced US militarism in language and analysis that is identical to hard left anti-imperial analysis of Noam Chomsky and is far to the “left” of anyone in the Democratic Party. He has told Jewish voters that Israel should lose all of the six billion dollars in pseudo-foreign aid it receives from the US, and that he is unconcerned about Iran getting nuclear weapons. He has told Florida Republicans that the US should re-open diplomatic relations with Cuba. “What would you say to Raul Castro?” he was asked in Tampa. “I’d say ‘why are you calling?'” he replied. Were he to achieve nothing else, he would earn eternal gratitude for shaking up these boilerplate debates, in which each stuffed suit competes to project yet more American power, more rained-down death.

Tens of millions of Americans have heard a version of the US that has not been current for nearly eighty years — that the US, to be itself, to be faithful to its revolutionary origins, does not have to project power throughout the entire world. In years to come, and whatever happens in this election, this will be one key historical moment of this election — the banging of a wedge into a tightly-fused American conception, of its identity as bound up with global hegemony. That is an extraordinary moment.

Paul trots it out again and again at meetings like the Leathernecks appearance — his simple argument, made by generations of new leftists from Paul Baran up to Mike Davis — that the true purpose of the New Deal and American Keynesianism was the funding of military expansion. Paul’s point is that, without such a capacity to print money, the US could not wage global war. Remove one and you remove the other, more effectively than a half-dozen antiwar movements. “Once we end the Fed we won’t be able to fund all these wars, we won’t be able to be the policeman of the world,” he says.

Some see this as a fake pose. That strikes me as unlikely — for the sweet, sweet paradox of Paul is that a large slice of his support comes from those who carefully and cheerfully disregard his foreign policy reviews altogether. Time and again at Paul events, sampling the punters, the people who turn up, you get the same reaction: “oh well it’s like his talk about ending the Fed, we need to cut a trillion dollars, we can’t spend what we don’t have … but I dunno, I don’t think we can withdraw from all these bases,” a biker for Ron Paul told me in the Mandalay Bay hotel room, where Paul held his first Vegas press conference, a glittering phantasmagoria about as far from the modest republic Paul seems to imagine as the essence of America.

You hear the same thing over and again. Those who will turn up and vote for him in caucuses have constructed a fantasy Ron Paul in their heads, taking large slices of Gingrich and Romney and their assurances that the US will retain global military supremacy, and fused it with the Texas doctor.

This strange hybrid has driven Paul onto a 20% result in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, a pretty good result for a campaign with far less money than the pseudo-shoestring operation of Newt Gingrich. Indeed, the Ron Paul campaign is one of the strangest phenomena of modern times — a campaign whose major participants have almost nothing in common, a bridge under which any number of trolls can live. Paul — or the tight cabal of big men in suits around him — knows that, while their voting numbers come from the right, their organisational staff come from a different place.The people who will get out at four am and put out the road signs, who will turn up at every Romney event and bait and tease the bemused attendees in a hope that a few will be detached — these are the people who have pushed Paul into the next level. For many of them, anti-militarism is their main passion, and Paul gives them all they want. On the ground they are a mixture of right-wing isolationists, truthers, obsessives, Goldniks, and the like. Deeper back, at the organisational level, however, you find a more astute group. At every Paul event, the people handing out the tasks, sending the bodies in this direction and that, are another type of person, seasoned activists. The truth is, Ron Paul’s campaign is being run by sections of the Left.

Not all the left of course, and many people have denounced the investment of effort in the Paul campaign. But there is no doubt that a number of people from the Left have quietly decided that, whatever the grievous sins of the candidate — from race-baiting emails sent out under his supervision in the 80s, to his support for union-busting legislation in southern states — the bargain is worth it. The campaign needs to be at the next level, and that requires the sort of sober organisation that only the Left can provide. They have come to that judgement I suspect, not merely because the Republicans have given an anti-war candidate a megaphone that they can now not wrest from him, but because the Paulites themselves are so mentally disorganised that they are, of themselves, incapable of pulling together any sort of serious showing on their own behalf.

I mean I’ve seen some crackpots in the shoals of right-wing populism, but the Paulites are the most utterly postmodern example of this I have ever seen — their basic internal ideological organisation admits to not even the slightest degree of consistency or anchoring. They are, in this current iteration, overwhelmingly people who have been laid off, or battered by the recession. In many cases the repeated battering appears to have simply driven them mad. Teachers, builders, middle managers and the like, they have played the game and worked hard, and everything has been wiped out for them. Ron Paul’s story is simple and a morality tale, and it can be tattooed on the heart through repetition. Such people require not merely a wage, but something to do in the morning, a way of making meaning from this chaos, and Paul supplies that in spades.

None of it even fits together. The first Paulite I spoke to in any depth in Dublin outside of Manchester, New Hampshire, was a laid-off biology teacher. She wanted a gig again, and appeared to have no way of squaring that with Paul’s oft-stated intent to abolish the Federal Dept of Education. The bloke who drove me back from that gig was a laid-off plumber who wanted affordable health insurance — exactly the type that Obamacare will make available in 2013 — and supported closed shop on large building sites. Both right and left project a fantasy onto these people — either dutiful constitutionalists or demonic petit-bourgeois proto-fascists — but they are neither.

They are the wild, fantastic spray of gunfire in a post-literal society, one in which the conspiratorial enthusiasms of TV entertainment have come to be at the centre of the culture, and where an adult weekend can be had amidst casinos that look like a pyramid, a pirate ship … anything but a place where adults might play. With Mitt Romney taking 40% of the Nevada primary, it should be all over. But Newt Gingrich is still taking a rocket to the Moon, and Rick Santorum is riding round Colorado denouncing contraception, and Ron Paul, the Magus of the sagebrush, moves through the middle of American fantasy, the guns and flatter, drawing the lost boys and girls to him. Whatever he really wants, he’s keeping to himself, but in the distance the lights play the sky and it’s going to be another big night in Vegas.