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Every four years our neighbors to the west get to decide who will oppose the sitting president in the next election, or at least they have the same role in it as the Iowa Cubs have in deciding who plays for the Chicago Cubs. Sometimes they end up with a surefire Starlin Castro type, like Obama or W; sometimes they go all in on a Josh Vitters equivalent like Mike Huckabee. This year's veteran minor-league fixture putting up big numbers is Ron Paul. John Kass:

Since August, the media has desperately avoided mentioning Paul, a fact noted during the summer in a hilarious rip by liberal comic Jon Stewart and a few days ago by the conservative journalist Neil Cavuto, proving that intellectual honesty is not and never has been a partisan affair.

I think that depends on what you mean by "media." Stewart's point is that cable news has avoided talking about Ron Paul. I don't have cable, but I live on the Internet, where people love talking about Ron Paul. (People share all kinds of unusual new ideas on the internet, contra Cass Sunstein.) I suspect cable news has avoided talking about Ron Paul for the same reason cable news doesn't talk about indie movies or sabermetrics or anything extremely popular among a limited segment of the population; the Ron Paul beat has heretofore not been a bullet train to ratings.

Now that Paul is leading in Iowa polls, the talking heads have gotten around to talking about him. The lesson, as always, is to be careful what you wish for.

I've seen Paul fanatics, who are legion on Internet comment threads, accuse those who bring up Paul's racist (among many other things) Ron Paul Survival Report, Ron Paul Investment Letter, and other early Ron Paul zines, of being tools of the RNC or the DNC. The funny thing is that the deepest research done on Paul's indie publishing empire has been done by those who would have the most reason to support him (and, it follows, the only national journalists with much interest in Paul to date): libertarian writers and fellow travelers like Julian Sanchez and Dave Weigel, who investigated "Who Wrote Ron Paul's Newsletters?" in 2008. Steve Chapman, who was voting for libertarian candidates before Weigel was a gleam in his mother's eye—literally, I think, Weigel's 30 years old—refused to vote for Paul in 1988 because "he had shown a disturbing habit of disseminating repulsive bigotry." And further: "He's made a habit over the years of appealing to paranoid conspiracy-mongers, like those at the John Birch Society, and his anti-Israel views have occasionally verged on anti-Semitic."

You can actually look at the scans of Paul's newsletters here. Racist rhetoric is only the half of it. There's homophobia ("the reporter–who certainly had an axe to grind, and that's not easy with a limp wrist"; "[gays] enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick [i.e. getting AIDS]"), stock conspiracy theory ("In his speech to fellow Bohemians, Reagan advocated the old Trilateralist agenda item of four-year terms for Congressmen"—okay, the Reagan bit is pretty novel), a bizarro defense of chess legend and legendary antisemite Bobby Fischer ("all the makings of an American hero"), and much, much more. I don't think Paul's stances against the drug war and Pentagon funding are the only reasons the GOP is loathe to embrace Paul; no one much likes talking about the crazy uncle.

Paul's defense is that he disavows the various Ron Paul newsletters, didn't write them, and furthermore had no idea what was in them. There are two options: 1) he's lying, which is bad 2) he's not lying, which is at best embarrassing. If the latter is true, that also means he's been lying about them, at least by omission:

In 2001, Paul told the magazine Texas Monthly that the language in the newsletters wasn't his, but his campaign staff told him not to say others had written it because it was "too confusing."

"I could never say this in the campaign, but those words weren't really written by me," he said. "It wasn't my language at all. Other people help me with my newsletter as I travel around."

I'll grant his point that it's confusing.

This has become a point of tension for Paul newbies trying to square the stringently anti-war and anti-drug-war candidate with the man whose name is at the top of all these newsletters, the text of which is sometimes written in the first person. To generalize a bit, here's what seems to be the most common defense:

Jilani is a writer for the liberal blog Think Progress, and not actually a Paul supporter; as such, I think he makes a reasonable stand-in for the in-roads Paul has made among progressives. And he legitimately raises good questions: if you think the drug war is racist, or at least is a substantial cause of racial disparities in America, is it better to vote for someone with the screaming skeletons in Paul's closet over someone with no history of racist and paranoid rhetoric who will continue it?

Granted, it's more complicated than that. Paul's belief in individualism extends to his opposition of the Civil Rights Act, which he explained in 2004:

Mr. Speaker, I rise to explain my objection to H.Res. 676. I certainly join my colleagues in urging Americans to celebrate the progress this country has made in race relations. However, contrary to the claims of the supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the sponsors of H.Res. 676, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government unprecedented power over the hiring, employee relations, and customer service practices of every business in the country. The result was a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty; it also failed to achieve its stated goals of promoting racial harmony and a color-blind society. Federal bureaucrats and judges cannot read minds to see if actions are motivated by racism. Therefore, the only way the federal government could ensure an employer was not violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to ensure that the racial composition of a business’s workforce matched the racial composition of a bureaucrat or judge’s defined body of potential employees. Thus, bureaucrats began forcing employers to hire by racial quota. Racial quotas have not contributed to racial harmony or advanced the goal of a color-blind society. Instead, these quotas encouraged racial balkanization, and fostered racial strife.

Of course, America has made great strides in race relations over the past forty years. However, this progress is due to changes in public attitudes and private efforts. Relations between the races have improved despite, not because of, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, while I join the sponsors of H.Res. 676 in promoting racial harmony and individual liberty, the fact is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not accomplish these goals.

So if you want to support Paul in tearing down governmental policies you see as sewing racism, you have to sacrifice the government's ability to rectify racial disparity through policy. It's not an uninteresting choice.

And if you take Paul at his word that he's not a racist, it raises another interesting question: what the hell was he thinking? The most compelling explanation I've read comes from Weigel and the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates: the Ron Paul Survival Report and its associated publications were sheer, naked opportunism.

Weigel ties it to the history of the libertarian movement:

The answers, largely, were in a 2008 article that Julian Sanchez and I wrote for Reason. This is the key historical detail, explaining how Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell, Paul's friends and allies in his 1988 takeover of the Libertarian Party, came to believe that the sort of people who joke about blacks and welfare checks should be Hayekians.

Remember, it was in 1988 when Steve Chapman took a pass on Paul as the Libertarian presidential candidate. Weigel explains that what was happening to the small party then is similar to the GOP's longer-running "southern strategy":

The most detailed description of the strategy came in an essay Rothbard wrote for the January 1992 Rothbard-Rockwell Report, titled "Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement." Lamenting that mainstream intellectuals and opinion leaders were too invested in the status quo to be brought around to a libertarian view, Rothbard pointed to David Duke and Joseph McCarthy as models for an "Outreach to the Rednecks," which would fashion a broad libertarian/paleoconservative coalition by targeting the disaffected working and middle classes.

That's about as grossly opportunistic as it gets: selling to the "rednecks" of the Paleo movement. (Well, at least we can take comfort that there was bias against poor white people too.)

Coates convincingly compares this to the early days of the southern strategy, which led a previously fair-minded judge named George Wallace into becoming one of the most notorious, inflamatory politicians of the 20th century, along with a host of lesser-known Southerners:

I could easily believe that Ron Paul holds no more particular disdain for blacks than George Wallace or John Patterson. These were not evil men. They were good people, who consented to evil in the pursuit of power.

Looking at it through this lens, one can see why the GOP takes such pains to avoid Paul, and why Paul's best defense is denying any knowledge of the newsletters' contents. If he wrote them, that means he is, or was, a paranoid racist. If he didn't write them but signed off on them, he was the worst sort of craven opportunist, which is devastating to Paul's position among his supporters as the sole candidate utterly devoted to his own moral compass. If he neither wrote nor read them, he was a damn fool, which is the least of those sins. That's his story, and it's the only one he's giving us to vote on.

Update: If you were wondering how on earth a newsletter larded with racist dogwhistling could be of advantage to anyone, this helps explain.


Photograph: chrismeller (CC by 2.0)