Did Ron Paul’s popular presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 kick-start the racist alt-right? No, they didn’t. But some are trying to say they did.
This conversation began with Matt Lewis’ thought provoking “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline” on The Daily Beast Wednesday, in which Lewis ponders if the explosion in popularity of libertarianism over the last decade also served as a breeding ground for today’s new generation of young white nationalists. My answer to Lewis is that while it is true many in the alt-right once identified as libertarian, the overwhelming majority of libertarians did not veer in that direction and explicitly reject white nationalism.
For every Christopher Cantwell, the now-infamous one-time libertarian who went on to become a white nationalist and potential inmate, there are arguably thousands more also inspired by Ron Paul who remain far more interested in smaller government, less war, free markets and individual rights.
There is no “pipeline.” A slow drip, at best. Regardless, when it comes to racists, libertarians should always make clear, in no uncertain terms, that we are not them.
Then Lewis got around to Ron Paul:
Like any emerging ideology, the alt-right didn’t just materialize out of nowhere. There were forerunners crying in the wilderness who were generally viewed as harmless kooks. “The paleo-libertarian seed that Ron Paul, Murray Rothbard, and Lew Rockwell planted in the 1990s has come to bear some really ugly fruit in the last couple of years as elements of the alt-right have made appearances in various libertarian organizations and venues,” writes Steve Horwitz, an economist who writes at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.
The Ron Paul Revolution might not have amounted to much electorally, but it would be wrong to underestimate the impact he has had on libertarianism and the alt-right. “In a way, Ron Paul is the guy who lit the fuse,” Nick Gillespie says. “And he embodies some of those contradictions [between libertarianism and the alt-right].” Gillespie tells me that Richard Spencer came up to him at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and said that he was activated into politics because of Paul. Gillespie sees Paul’s legacy as very mixed, as someone who was “simultaneously… positing this very libertarian worldview, but then he’s also speaking to people’s fears and anxieties.” If one were looking for the missing link to explain this phenomenon, Ron Paul (and his paleolibertarian allies) would be a good place to start.
Nick Gillespie responded to Lewis with his own piece:
I told Lewis that Ron Paul’s high-profile presidential runs in 2008 and 2012 played a role too. When I started at Reason in the fall of 1993, I’d say that most people came to libertarianism via exposure to some mix of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, along with some Robert Heinlein, F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and institutions such as Cato, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Institute for Humane Studies, and Reason. But over the past decade or so, there’s no question in my mind that Dr. No is probably more responsible than any individual for raising libertarianism’s visibility and reach…
Paul really did simultaneously embody an attractive, idealistic version of libertarianism and an appeal to populist paranoia that is very evident in alt-right fears about porous borders, encroaching Sharia law, and foreign control of America’s economic and cultural life.
Where do I begin?
Here, actually: When it comes to anything regarding racism and Ron Paul, there are two groups of libertarians you might think would want to defend the man that has done more to popularize their philosophy than anyone else – ever – but more often they seem to like adding fuel to the fire: Left or centrist-libertarians who inhabit one side of the liberty divide, and conservative paleo-libertarians who represent at least a portion of the right-leaning part of the movement.
Since I’m one of the few libertarians not at war with either faction (their constant infighting is so tedious), and sees positives and negatives about both sides, allow me to explain why Ron Paul is not responsible for the rise of the alt-right.
Steve Horwitz, a left libertarian cited by Lewis, has posted negative things about the Pauls for many years, both Ron and Rand, despite the fact that far less people would even know who Horwitz is and other prominent libertarians if not for the Paul family. That said, Horwitz is not wrong about Rothbard and Rockwell’s dalliances with paleoconservatives in the 1990s, how that racially troubling movement (I identified as paleoconservative back then and know the history well) was a precursor to the alt-right and how both men’s relationship with Ron Paul at least bring his name into the conversation.
Nick Gillespie is a well known centrist libertarian quoted by Lewis, who has been very friendly to both Ron and Rand Paul since the liberty movement exploded in 2007 due to the popularity of “Dr. No,” as Gillespie notes above. Reason has also has some of the best coverage of libertarian Republicans and their issues (a primary focus of Rare as well), even though the magazine is not right-leaning or necessarily even GOP-friendly. Reason continues to be one of my favorite reads for precisely this reason among others.
Gillespie is also not wrong that Ron Paul’s belief in border control and other more socially conservative positions have more overlap with Trump voters and also the alt-right.
Except in how they don’t. This is something so key, and it’s getting lost in these analyses of Ron Paul’s alleged complicity in the alt-right.
Because whatever questionable actions Ron Paul’s friends were taking in the 90s, the Ron Paul “rEVOLution” a decade later was the exact opposite regarding the current discussion about the alt-right. The Pat Buchanan brigades of 1996, the paleoconservatives’ champion, were older and animated by racially-charged issues. The Ron Paul supporters of 2008 and 2012 were overwhelmingly young and with that, exhibited a social tolerance distinctive from their elders, particularly on the right.
This dynamic had a significant impact on me. I explained my journey from paleoconservative to libertarian in a lengthy Politico story in 2013. Central to that path was how Paul’s influence pushed me away from the kind of hateful ugliness we see even more extremely with the alt-right today:
Something else was happening to me around that time—as I listened to Paul, my worldview began to evolve. Paul was serious about border security, but unlike other Republicans, he didn’t seem angry or hateful. Libertarianism, after all, is based on the relationship between the state and the individual, often with little regard for culture or groups. I had always thought this was shortsighted, but I began to change my mind. Ron Paul blamed illegal immigration on government, not immigrants. “If we had a truly free-market economy, the illegal immigrants would not be the scapegoat,” Paul said at the third Republican debate in 2007.
Not the scapegoat? Many conservatives, including me, had spent years scapegoating Hispanic immigrants themselves. Paul never went there. He attacked government, not people.
I had opposed the federal government’s war on drugs for at least a decade, but Paul’s approach shifted my focus on that issue, too. “Blacks make up 14 percent of those who use drugs,” Paul said at a PBS forum in 2007. “Yet 36 percent of those arrested are black, and it ends up that 63 percent of those who finally end up in prison are black. This has to change.” Paul was alone among Republicans in talking about this issue.
At the 2009 convention of Young Americans for Liberty (formerly Students for Ron Paul, for whom I’ve worked), I was one of the featured speakers. During a question-and-answer session, a student asked if I still worried about illegal immigrants “taking over” parts of the country. I was caught off guard, because it was the first time I publicly said, “I’ve changed.” I was becoming embarrassed by some of the views I’d once expressed.
I cannot count the number of liberty movement members I have met over the course of ten years, traveling across the country during both of Paul’s presidential runs and in the years in between, who had a similar journey: Conservatives who once had little reservation about demonizing immigrants, or blacks or Muslims, who due to Ron Paul’s influence had become libertarians and thus embarrassed by their former views. Not to mention the throngs of people younger than me who came to Ron Paul from not only the right, but left, or even many who had been politically apathetic prior. They weren’t right-wingers looking for redder meat. They were attracted to Paul in part because he was the opposite of that kind of politics, which so many had soured on.
On a week where some are pointing fingers at Ron Paul for this newer white nationalism, I could just as easily make the argument that the Paul’s liberty movement is the exact opposite of the alt-right, something Paul touched on himself commenting on the chaos in Charlottesville.
I’m willing to bet there were far more examples within the Ron Paul movement similar to my ideological transformation than libertarians reading racially questionable passages from paleos Murray Rothbard or Hans Herman Hoppe and then joining forces with Richard Spencer.
I don’t even think it’s close.
And remember, Ron Paul himself did not participate in the libertarian-paleoconservative experiment of the 90s. He is constantly blamed simply for having friends who did. Anyone who knows Paul even a little knows he is loyal to his friends. Perhaps he’s at fault for that, but it is also something most would consider an admirable trait.
The closest one can get to tying Paul directly to the hate exhibited by today’s alt-right are the infamous Ron Paul newsletters that caused problems for his campaigns. But as I wrote at Politico in 2013:
During both of his presidential campaigns, Paul was haunted by racist material that appeared in newsletters he had published earlier in his career. But the candidate I came to know was no racist. Former staffers told me that Paul was distraught when he learned what had been published under his name. When parts of the South were still desegregating in the early 1970s, Paul, a Texas obstetrician, delivered a biracial couple’s stillborn child after other doctors had turned them away out of prejudice, the child’s father said in a super PAC-funded ad released in 2011. Paul told them not to worry about the bill.
Ron Paul doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. Even the people who did write those newsletters and dragged his name through the mud would tell you that much.
But those newsletters should serve as a reminder to paleolibertarians today — who apparently either really are the racists left-libertarians and progressives say they are (which I don’t believe) or haven’t learned a damn lesson in the 20 years since the newsletters (which I do believe). These same paleolibertarians continue to either flirt with the alt-right or don’t have a problem with others believing they’re actually racist, which is the same approach they had in the 90s.
They don’t defend Ron Paul against these charges because they believe merely addressing the accusations gives them legitimacy- – as if the entire country wasn’t already talking about Charlottesville and some are now trying to misguidedly and inaccurately lay some of the blame with Ron Paul.
You would think Ron Paul’s oldest friends would speak up, but they rarely do. The Washington Examiner’s Jim Antle explained this mindset among paleolibertarians in a Salon story on the alt-right last year:
“There was this idea that you never let the left set the terms of dialogue,” Antle said. “Even if you may personally think that some of the things people were talking about are bad, by being overly worried about racism, you were playing according to the left’s rules, and you shouldn’t do that.”
As I was putting my notes together for this piece Thursday evening, two well known paleolibertarians were passive-aggressively mocking me on Twitter for signing a pre-Charlottesville letter declaring libertarianism has nothing to do with racists like Christopher Cantwell or Richard Spencer. Telling average Americans — most of whom are still not clear about what libertarianism is — that prominent white nationalists who will be identified in the mainstream press as former libertarians are cretins that do not in any way represent our beliefs… paleolibertarians think this is somehow bad.
This is just how most paleolibertarians think.
So on a week when Ron Paul is being blamed by some for the helping create the alt-right, you have left and centrist libertarians with a bone to pick with paleos eager to include Ron Paul in the mix — and paleolibertarians who believe ever defending themselves or even Paul from charges of racism amounts to selling out to the establishment or political correctness, or whatever. It’s dumb.
Still, Ron Paul, the man and his movement, had nothing to do with today’s alt-right. Period.