Nearly four years ago, on the eve of the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, The New Republic published my expose of newsletters published by Texas Congressman Ron Paul. The contents of these newsletters can best be described as appalling. Blacks were referred to as “animals.” Gays were told to go “back” into the “closet.” The “X-Rated Martin Luther King” was a bisexual pedophile who “seduced underage girls and boys.” Three months before the Oklahoma City bombing, Paul praised right-wing, anti-government militia movements as “one of the most encouraging developments in America.” The voluminous record of bigotry and conspiracy theories speaks for itself.
And yet, four years on, Ron Paul’s star is undimmed. Not only do the latest polls place him as the frontrunner in the Iowa Caucuses, but he still enjoys the support of a certain coterie of professional political commentators who, like Paul himself, identify as libertarians. Most prominent among them is Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan, who gave Paul his endorsement in the GOP primary last week, as he did in 2008. But he is not alone: Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner recently bemoaned the fact that “the principled, antiwar, Constitution-obeying, Fed-hating, libertarian Republican from Texas stands firmly outside the bounds of permissible dissent as drawn by either the Republican establishment or the mainstream media,” while Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic argues that Paul’s ideas cannot be ignored, and that, for Tea Party Republicans, “A vote against Paul requires either cognitive dissonance—never in short supply in politics—or a fundamental rethinking of the whole theory of politics that so recently drove the Tea Party movement.”
To be sure, these figures, like the broader group of Paul enthusiasts, don’t base their support on the Congressman’s years-long record of supporting racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and far-right militias. Quite the opposite: Like the candidate himself, they manage to mostly avoid making any mention of his unsavory record at all. It’s an impressive feat of repression, one that says volumes about the type of enthusiasm Paul inspires.
Ultimately, Paul’s following is closely linked with the peculiar attractions of the libertarian creed that he promotes. Libertarianism is an ideology rather than a philosophy of government—its main selling point is not its pragmatic usefulness, but its inviolable consistency. In that way, Paul’s indulgence of bigotry—he says he did not write the newsletters but rather allowed others to do so in his name—isn’t an incidental departure from his libertarianism, but a tidy expression of its priorities: First principles of market economics gain credence over all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity. His fans are guilty of donning the same ideological blinders, giving their support to a political candidate on account of the theories he declaims, rather than the judgment he shows in applying those theories, or the character he has evinced in living them. Voters for Ron Paul are privileging logical consistency at the expense of moral fitness.
But it’s not simply that Paul’s supporters are ignoring the manifest evidence of his moral failings. More fundamentally, their very awareness of such failings is crowded out by the atmosphere of outright fervor that pervades Paul’s candidacy. This is not the fervor of a healthy body politic—this is a less savory type of political devotion, one that escapes the bounds of sober reasoning. Indeed, Paul’s absolutist notion of libertarian rigor has always been coupled with an attraction to fantasies of political apocalypse.
A constant theme in Paul’s rhetoric, dating back to his first years as a congressman in the late 1970s, is that the United States is on the edge of a precipice. The centerpiece of this argument is that the abandonment of the gold standard has put the United States on the path to financial collapse. Over the years, Paul has added other potential catastrophes to his repertoire of dark premonitions. In the early 1990s, it was racial apocalypse, with Paul dispensing “survivalist” tips to the readers of his newsletter like the admonition to stock up on guns and construct fall-out shelters. More recently, he has argued that America’s foreign policy was a “major contributing factor” to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, an argument that has earned him admiration from some liberals. The 2008 financial crisis, the Obama administration’s continuation of many Bush anti-terror policies (and the launching of the Libya War), and the formation of the Tea Party have all boosted Paul’s image as a prescient sage.
And so it’s not hard to see why Paul’s more ardent supporters stand by him: They too find it seductive to believe that the United States is on the verge of utter collapse. The benefit of indulging in such visions is that it sets the stage for the arrival of a savior: This is the role that Paul himself plays, of course. Fiercely independent, uncorrupted by the “establishment,” speaker of unpopular truths, only Paul is capable of saving the country. What are a handful of uncouth newsletters really worth when the stakes are so high?
What’s important to realize is that this sort of political myopia is endemic to libertarianism. The movement’s obsession with consistency is actually a mark of paranoia. If you’re already persuaded by Paul’s suggestions that fiat money is what ails our economy, that our country’s foreign policy is rotten to its very core, it’s tempting to take the next step and interpret his failure to be nominated as the result of political persecution. Sullivan, thus, complains of a deliberate media blackout against the Texas Congressman, blaming “liberals who cannot take domestic libertarianism seriously and from neocons desperate to keep the Military Industrial Complex humming at Cold War velocity.” There is a bitter irony of course in the fact that a movement so devoted to individual responsibility is so apt to be on the search for others to blame. Paul of course is the prime example: Here is an absolutist libertarian who advocates the ideals of individual rights and responsibility, yet cannot own up to the words that were published under his name, instead blaming it on a variety of as yet unnamed aides.
Some Paul supporters acknowledge the newsletters but dismiss them as “old news,” arguing that there is no trace of the racist and conspiratorial ideas he promoted for decades in his speeches today on the campaign trail. But while it’s true that Paul has not said anything explicitly racist in public, the same cannot be said for his promotion of conspiracy theories. He appears regularly on the radio program of Alex Jones, perhaps the most popular conspiracy theorist in America (profiled by TNR in 2009), where he often indulges the host’s delusional ravings about the coming “New World Order.” He continues to associate with the John Birch Society, the extreme-right wing organization that William F. Buckley denounced in the early 1960’s after it alleged that none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Asked about the group in 2007, Paul told the New York Times, “Oh, my goodness, the John Birch Society! Is that bad? I have a lot of friends in the John Birch Society.” Indeed, Paul delivered the keynote address at the organization’s 50th anniversary dinner in September. In May, Paul said President Obama’s order to execute Osama bin Laden “was absolutely not necessary.” This statement earned a rebuke from Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, a movement one would presume would be quite favorable to Paul. “If there is any doubt that Ron Paul should not even get near the Oval Office, even on a tour of the White House,” Phillips said, “he has just revealed it.”
If Paul is responsible for conjuring the apocalyptic atmosphere of a prophet, it’s his supporters who have to answer for submitting to it. Surely, those who agree with Paul would be able to find a better vessel for their ideas than a man who once entertained the notion that AIDS was invented in a government laboratory or who, just last January, alleged that there had been a “CIA coup” against the American government and that the Agency is “in drug businesses.” Why, for instance, do these self-styled libertarians not throw their support to former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who, unlike Paul, can boast executive experience and doesn’t have the racist and conspiratorial baggage? At this late stage, that Ron Paul’s supporters haven’t found an alternative candidate says more about them, and the intellectual milieu they inhabit, than it does about the erstwhile publisher of racist newsletters.
James Kirchick is a contributing editor for The New Republic.