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Paleo Wacko

The roots of Rand Paul’s radicalism.

In 1984, Ron Paul ran for the United States Senate. It was an audacious gamble. Paul, who represented Texas’s twenty-second congressional district, had to give up his safe House seat to compete in the state’s Republican Senate primary. What’s more, his chief opponent was Phil Gramm who, despite having recently switched from being a Democrat, had the support of Texas’s GOP establishment. And, while Paul’s unusual brand of far–right-wing politics—he was for returning to the gold standard and against a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.—was a good fit for his congressional district near Houston, it was a tougher sell elsewhere, even in Texas. “It wasn’t often that Phil could portray himself as part of the mainstream,” recalls political consultant John Weaver, who worked on Gramm’s campaign, “but, thanks to Dr. Paul he was able to do that.” In the end, Paul’s gamble backfired. He lost the Senate primary, receiving only 17 percent of the vote, and went off into the political wilderness, not returning to the U.S. House for another 13 years.

But Paul’s disastrous Senate campaign did achieve one thing: It served as the political coming-out party for his son Rand. The third of Paul’s five children, Rand had been an avid student of his father’s political teachings. “As a young lad, he sat at his father’s knee and learned all he could,” says longtime Ron Paul campaign aide Jean McIver. By the time he got to Baylor University, Rand was a font of small-government dogma, conversant on the evils of the Federal Reserve and a floating currency. “Rand was pretty much a carbon copy of his dad,” recalls John Green, who belonged to a Baylor secret society called the NoZe Brotherhood with Rand. “He started drinking the Kool-Aid at an early age.” So, in 1984, when Ron Paul was called back to Washington for a House vote and had to miss a scheduled joint appearance with Gramm, he turned to his 21-year-old son to fill in for him. In front of 300 people, Rand Paul gave his first political speech. “I listened to him pretty closely,” says Gramm, “and I remember the young man did quite well.”

The speech did not immediately launch Rand Paul on a political career. A few months later, he started medical school at Duke University (where Ron, who was a practicing ob-gyn before going into politics, also got his medical degree) and eventually went on to become an ophthalmologist in Bowling Green, Kentucky. But his devotion to his father—and to his father’s politics—never waned. Over the years, he continued to pitch in on his father’s campaigns, none more so than Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential bid, for which Rand traveled to ten states and appeared on hundreds of radio shows on his father’s behalf. This year, Rand decided to make his own audacious gamble and run for the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. Like his father in 1984, Rand found himself competing in the Republican primary against a former Democrat who nonetheless had the support of the state’s GOP establishment. But, unlike his father’s gamble, Rand’s paid off. After beating Trey Grayson in the GOP primary on May 18, Paul is now the odds-on favorite to win the general election in November. If he does, he would become perhaps the most ideologically radical senator in U.S. history.

Ron and Rand Paul are often described as libertarians, but their politics represent a distinct—and peculiar—strand of libertarianism known as paleolibertarianism. While libertarians and paleolibertarians both start from the same limited government premise, paleolibertarians take that ideology in a decidedly populist, right-wing direction. Paleolibertarians’ enemy is not just big government, as the leading paleolib thinker Murray Rothbard explained in a 1992 essay (unearthed by Reason reporters Julian Sanchez and David Weigel in 2008), but rather, the “unholy alliance of ‘corporate liberal’ Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.”

Paleolibertarianism’s intellectual hub is an Alabama-based think tank called the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which Rothbard helped found in 1982. (Rothbard had studied under its namesake, a famous Austrian libertarian economist.) Another one of the von Mises Institute’s founders, and its current chairman, is Lew Rockwell, who served as Ron Paul’s congressional chief of staff from 1978 to 1982 and remained one of his top advisers for years afterward. Rockwell, who has frequently brought the von Mises Institute into alliance with neo-Confederate groups such as the League of the South, has written in favor of racial separatism; and, in 2008, after The New Republic’s James Kirchick discovered numerous racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic passages in Ron Paul’s old newsletters, Reason’s Sanchez and Weigel reported that Rockwell was their likely author. (Rockwell has denied this.)

Ron Paul has served as a “distinguished counselor” at the von Mises Institute, which has published his books. And, while Rand Paul has never had any formal associations with the organization, it’s clear that its leaders have played a key role in his intellectual development. “I tell people when they ask me if I know Lew Rockwell that I used to ride to work with Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul back in the late 1970s, maybe early 1980s,” Rand told Rockwell in a radio interview last year, “and I got to hear all kinds of great conversations on the way to work about philosophy, politics, religion, you name it, and I guess I was always very, very interested in that.” Similarly, in a videocast Paul did lamenting the fact that he never met Ayn Rand, he said, “One of the ones I was lucky enough to meet through the years was Murray Rothbard, and, when he came to speak to interns in the early 1980s in Washington, I was privileged enough to drive him back to the airport and got to talk to him about things.”

Their influence on Rand Paul is readily apparent today. From his (now retracted) opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to his claim that passage of cap-and-trade legislation will lead to the creation of “an army of armed EPA agents, thousands of them,” Paul, like his father, exhibits all the hallmarks of a paleolibertarian—including an affection for conspiracy theories. In 2008, for instance, while campaigning in Montana for his father’s presidential bid, Paul gave voice to a loony idea—shared by his father—about the construction of a NAFTA superhighway and the creation of a single currency, the Amero, for a North American Union. “It’s gonna go up through Texas, I guess, all the way to Montana,” Paul said of the superhighway. “So, it’s a real thing, and, when you talk about it, the thing you just have to be aware of is that, if you talk about it like it’s a conspiracy, they’ll paint you as a nut. It’s not a conspiracy. They’re out in the open about it. I saw the YouTube of Vicente Fox talking about the Amero. . . . I guarantee you it’s one of their long-term goals to have one sort of borderless, mass continent."

None of this should be surprising. Having learned his politics at his father’s knee, Paul has had no opportunities since those early days to unlearn them. While Paul’s professional life as an ophthalmologist has presumably exposed him to many things, his political life—dedicated as it has been, until now, to his father’s career—has been spent entirely inside his father’s suffocatingly cramped paleolibertarian universe. “He lives in an information bubble,” says Chip Berlet, who studies right-wing movements for Political Research Associates. 

The Senate, of course, has not been immune to radical ideologues. In 1895, South Carolina sent the white supremacist “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman to Washington. From 1935 to 1947, one of Mississippi’s senators was Theodore Bilbo, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. And the 30 long years Jesse Helms spent as a North Carolina senator put something of a dent in the Senate’s self-image as the world’s most deliberative body. And yet, these ideologues were, for their times and places, depressingly not that radical—as they represented widely held beliefs among their constituents. Paul does not.

In a way, he would be better situated in the House of Representatives, which has always had its share of radical members, from Mississippi’s John Rankin in the middle of the twentieth century to Michele Bachmann today to, well, Ron Paul. By winning a Senate primary—which his father was never able to do— Rand Paul has made family history. Now, he stands poised to make a bigger sort of history as well.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic. You can follow him on Twitter at @zengerle.

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