Rand Paul: The Kinder, Gentler Southern Avenger

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Rand-Paul-CrazySince his election to the Senate as a Tea Party doyen in 2010, Rand Paul has had an awful lot to prove. And apologize for. Son of libertarian gadfly Ron Paul, the quixotic, two-time presidential aspirant who rankled the establishment with the sound and fury of his conspiracy-tinged battle cries, Rand Paul has labored mightily to be, in his words, “a different kind of Republican.”

Paul makes much of his straying from Republican orthodoxy, what with his curiously incongruous appeal to weed-smoking, drone-loathing isolationists. Yet his so-called libertarianism has its limits. He’s as ardently anti-abortion as his evangelical brethren and though relatively agnostic as to thwarting marriage equality, he still remains personally opposed to it, preferring fidelity to his southern heritage and letting the states decide. In a bit of conservative cognitive dissonance, however, Paul has been a welcome voice on racial disparities in drug sentencing. As Paul told a mainly white audience in Shelbyville, Kentucky in 2014:

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Three out of four people in prison are black or brown. White people do drugs too, but either they don’t get caught or they have better attorneys or they don’t live in poverty. It’s an inadvertent outcome, and we ought to do something about it. As a Christian, I believe in redemption. I believe in a second chance. I think drugs are bad. I think even marijuana is deleterious. However, a 20-year-old kid who does make this mistake ought to get his right to vote back, ought not to be locked up in jail for 10 or 15 years.

Yet there are limits, too, to Paul’s concerns about race. He has questioned the merits of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which famously led him into a dust-up with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow), and, like his father before him, has maintained some unseemly alliances.

Back in 2013, the Washington Free Beacon revealed that Paul had employed an incendiary personality, Jack Hunter, as his “social media director.” Hunter, who was known for his moniker — The Southern Avenger — has a weakness for the Old Confederacy, and displayed it in his efforts as a white supremacist shock jock and an editorial writer for various Southern newspapers. Whatever misgivings Paul may have on half-century-old civil rights laws, Hunter’s neo-Confederate longings make Paul seem like Fannie Lou Hamer by comparison.

Before the ensuing firestorm cost Hunter his job and Paul, in many quarters, his credibility, Hunter served as the ghostwriter for Paul’s 2011 manifesto, The Tea Party Goes to Washington. This coincided with numerous comments by Hunter, both in print and on-air, in which the Civil War was referred to as “The War for Southern Independence.” Here’s a Hunter quote from 2004:

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Although Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth’s heart was in the right place, the Southern Avenger does regret that Lincoln’s murder automatically turned him into a martyr.

Never mind that Paul has burnished his anti-imperialist bona fides with anti-drone filibusters on the Senate floor and fulminations against the NSA and the surveillance state, Hunter found Southern resistance to be the kissing cousin of sectarian terrorist movements. In a newspaper column headlined “How Can Southerners Defend the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?” Hunter wrote:

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Those who still believe President Bush made the right decision in invading Iraq say it was worth it to defend ‘human rights.’ Lincoln wrapped his imperialism in moral language to justify the indefensible, a war of aggression to satisfy corporate and political interests. Today, Presidents Bush and Obama have continued this tradition, waging foreign wars for corporate and political interests.

He further made the bizarre and bogus claim that

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Nineteenth century Southerners naturally felt it was their duty to repel foreign armies in their own backyard. These Southerners were considered ‘terrorists’ during the war and ‘insurgents’ after the North declared ‘mission accomplished’ in 1865.

If this all sounds loopy and cringe-worthy, it’s worth recalling that Ron Paul also kept company with cranks, racists and conspiracy-theorists. In his regularly published newsletter (variously called The Ron Paul Political Report and The Ron Paul Survival Report), his musings were a vituperative blend of racial stereotyping, anti-Semitism and rampant homophobia, and often pedded the hate-drenched and invidious propaganda of the far-right fringe. His greatest hits were gems:

Those who don’t commit sodomy, who don’t get a blood transfusion, and who don’t swap needles, are virtually assured of not getting AIDS unless they are deliberately infected by a malicious gay.

The Ron Paul Survival Report published this particular doozy on the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing:

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It was only a few days after the World Trade Center bombing before Mohammed A. Salameh was arrested. Is he guilty? Who knows? Some people think this a frameup by anti-Arab interests. … We now know what one homemade bomb can do to a large city—one billion dollars of damage. Whether it was a setup by the Israeli Mossad, as a Jewish friend of mine suspects, or was truly a retaliation by the Islamic fundamentalists, matters little. The cities have become centers of violence, whether through the daily and routine terrorism of crime, political bomb terrorism, or the terrorism of mob behavior as in Los Angeles.

Most of these sentiments saw the light of day during Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in 2008, and he disavowed them, refuted them and blamed ghostwriters for them (natch). Rand Paul attributed Hunter’s antebellum attitudes to the stuff of youth and indiscretion — and even defended him. He rationalized:

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But can a guy not have a youth and stuff? People try to say I smoked pot one time, and I wasn’t fit for office.

But for a GOP candidate who addresses the devoutly liberal campus of Berkeley and offers conciliatory speeches to the Urban League, Paul’s alliances and apparently longheld views belie his larger claims about being a “big tent” Republican. Like his fellow candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and even the self-proclaimed “moderate” Jeb Bush, Paul undermines his appeal to millennials and civil liberties voters with his adherence to age-old Puritanical nonsense — nonsense that threatens to marginalize the GOP as little more than a reactionary Southern redoubt. As he told Robert Draper of The New York Times Magazine in August 2014:

If you tell people from Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia, ‘You know what, guys, we’ve been wrong, and we’re gonna be the pro-gay-marriage party,’ they’re either gonna stay home or — I mean, many of these people joined the Republican Party because of these social issues. So I don’t think we can completely flip. But can we become, to use the overused term, a bigger tent? I think we can and can agree to disagree on a lot of these issues. I think the party will evolve. It’ll either continue to lose, or it’ll become a bigger place where there’s a mixture of opinions.

From his opposition to marriage equality — more precisely, it “offends” him — to his bone-deep opposition to abortion (he supports The Life at Conception Act, which will make into law just what you think it will), Paul is always struggling to thread the libertarian needle. If anything, he isn’t a “different kind of Republican” so much as a shrewd politician. Opposing the War on Drugs and lamenting our bungled invasion of Iraq may make him more superficially palatable, but it doesn’t alter the fact that he’s just another bargain-basement right-winger, this one wearing a touch of civil-liberty lip-gloss. He’s a Southerner, a rightist and no libertarian.