Diagnosing Ron Paul

I wrote this post back in 2008, in light of reports concerning newsletters bearing his name.  It seems relevant again, so I’m rerunning it below:

The consensus among respectable, establishment libertarians (to the extent there is such a thing) is that Ron Paul is probably not much of a racist, but that he tolerated the racism in his newsletters because they kept the money flowing.  This might be right, but it might be more complicated than that.

Suppose you’re Ron Paul and you’ve just read the Austrian Economists and Ayn Rand and they seem awfully right.  America is in trouble.  Socialism is spreading and freedom is waning.   Fiat currencies, foreign entanglements, military-industrial influence are destroying the country.  These things seem obvious to you, but most people don’t seem to care.  And if you’re Ron Paul, you do care—to the point that it becomes an obsession.   All of the elected officials ignore these issues and fight along the margins.  No one wants to end the taxation of income, they just want to adjust it.  No one wants to abolish federal agencies, they just want to use them for slightly different ends.  And no one, absolutely no one, wants to talk about the gold standard.

Somehow you are elected to Congress.  Maybe it’s because the people in your district in Texas care about fiat currency and personal liberties.  But more likely, it’s because you’re a doctor who seems nice and honest and sincere, and your campaign literature includes your wife’s recipes.  Now you’re in Congress, so someone is going to have to take your seriously, right?  But they don’t.  Because it’s not enough to be in Congress.  You have to advance through committees.  You have to play politics.  You have to vote yes when the party tells you to vote yes.  Then maybe people will take you seriously, and you’ll be invited onto the Sunday morning shows to talk policy.

Well, you’re Ron Paul, so you don’t play politics, and so you don’t vote yes.  You vote no.  Over and over again.  And no one takes you seriously.  They call you Dr. No, and they think you’re a kook.

But some people are paying attention to what you’re doing.  No, not anyone normal.  Not anyone mainstream.  But outsiders.  Guys in militias, and maybe anarchists, and conspiracy theorists.  They want to hear your ideas.  They invite you to speak to them.  You’re a Congressman, and that’s a big deal to them.  And they respect you for all the reasons most people regard you as a kook.

Sure, you don’t agree with everything they say.  But it’s a chance to speak to people.  To spread the word.  If Tim Russert would have you on Meet the Press, you’d do it in a heartbeat, but Tim Russert isn’t calling.  Alex Jones is.  Yes, he advocates in support of crazy conspiracy theories, but he has an audience too.   What’s the harm in talking to them?  There’s no harm in spreading ideas.

So you go on the Alex Jones show.  He says a bunch of crazy stuff and you don’t agree with it, but you don’t contradict him either.  It’s not that you’re a coward, so much.  It’s just that you’re  … polite.  It’s his show and he’s hosting you.   And he’s nice to you.  Tim Russert isn’t nice to you.  Neither are the reporters at the New York Times or Washington Post.

Years go by, and the only people who are interested in you are the fringe groups.  They volunteer to run an organization for you.  Send out newsletters.  Help raise cash for your campaigns.  Yes, their views are provocative, but they are nice to you. They help you.  They believe in you.  They’re friendly with you.  Maybe they’re even friends with you. 

And then its 2007, and you’re running for President, and something strange happens.  In one of the debates, you talk the idea that terrorist blowback could be anticipated from American actions overseas.  It’s not a controversial statement, really, except the Republican party is crazy patriotic during times of war and everyone on stage pounces on you.  And suddenly, maybe for the first time in your political career, you don’t look like the crazy person.   Suddenly, a lot of people see you as being the lone voice of reason on a stage full of crazy people.  And suddenly you’ve got a giant and growing following that dwarfs anything you’ve ever known.

Most of this new following is young and smart and cultured.  And they don’t like the crazies and the kooks and the conspiracy theorists and the racists and the militias.  So when the New Republic digs up all of the old stuff in your newsletters, these new folks are petty mad.  Disappointed, really.  Because they thought you were better than all of that.  And you are, really.  At least your ideas are.  

All these new fans want you to prove that you aren’t a racist or a kook by disowning the racists and kooks that have been with you for so long.  And it would be easy to do, really.  But to do this, you’d have to sell-out people who have been nice to you for twenty years or more.  You’d turn on old friends just to make new ones.  And that doesn’t seem polite.  It doesn’t seem right.  Yes, Tim Russert will talk to you now.  But Tim Russert wasn’t there for so many years, when Alex Jones was.  Time and Newsweek might run a story or two on your fundraising, but Lew Rockwell was writing articles about you for years and years and years.  Are you going to turn on them?  To do so would be impolite.  Unprincipled, even.

But the problem is maybe you should never have associated with these people in the first place.  You wanted to get your message out so badly, you were willing to overlook the problems of the megaphone.   But the megaphone matters.  It determines how your message will sound.  And the megaphone you chose for so many years sounded really crummy.

I don’t think it’s the money that got Paul into this mess.  It’s the fact that he cared more about his message than his own credibility.

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