In my column for CNN, I discuss what Ron Paul tried to achieve with his infamous newsletters:
Texas congressman Ron Paul now leads among Iowa Republicans and has tied Newt Gingrich for second in New Hampshire. Republican conservatives have cycled through a series of “Not Mitts.” Is it now Paul’s turn?
Paul’s core following has been small but fervid. However, Paul now is gaining a larger following, especially among younger voters attracted by his message of drug legalization and his comprehensive — if utterly wrong-headed — explanation of the country’s economic crisis.
Unexpectedly, young voters seem also to appreciate Paul’s grandfatherly anti-charisma: his self-presentation as a good-natured old codger, charmingly baffled by the modern world. The ill-fitting suits, the quavering voice and the slack-jawed laugh all support the image of an anti-politician, the lone voice of integrity in a sullied word.
There is however a flaw in this benign image of Paul: the now-notorious newsletters published under his name in the early 1990s. Paul collected nearly a million dollars in one year from newsletters suffused with paranoia, racial bigotry and support for the period’s violent militia movements. Four years ago, Jamie Kirchick of the New Republic unearthed partial collections of the newsletters in the libraries of the University of Kansas and the Wisconsin Historical Society. From Kirchick’s subsequent report:
“Take, for instance, a special issue of the Ron Paul Political Report, published in June 1992, dedicated to explaining the Los Angeles riots of that year. ‘Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began,’ read one typical passage.
“According to the newsletter, the looting was a natural byproduct of government indulging the black community with ‘ “civil rights,” quotas, mandated hiring preferences, set-asides for government contracts, gerrymandered voting districts, black bureaucracies, black mayors, black curricula in schools, black tv shows, black tv anchors, hate crime laws, and public humiliation for anyone who dares question the black agenda.’ It also denounced ‘the media’ for believing that ‘America’s number one need is an unlimited white checking account for underclass blacks.’ “
There’s a lot more in this vein.
Paul now claims that he did not write the newsletters, was unaware of their contents at the time and now has no idea who did write them.
It’s fair to say that almost no one who has followed the controversy believes that Paul is telling the truth about any of this. The authorship of the newsletters is an open secret in the libertarian world: they were produced by a community of writers led by Paul aides Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard, who wrote a newsletter of their own at the same time that expressed similar ideas in similar language. The racism of the newsletters — and the elaborate lying subsequently deployed to evade responsibility for the newsletters — say much about the ethics of Paul himself and the circle around him.
Yet Ron Paul is something more (or less) than a racist crank. As Michael Brendan Dougherty aptly observed in the Atlantic last week:
“As crazy as it sounds, Ron Paul’s newsletter writers may not have been sincerely racist at all. They actually thought appearing to be racist was a good political strategy in the 1990s. After that strategy yielded almost nothing — it was abandoned by Paul’s admirers.”
A fellow libertarian offers more detail on Paul’s racism-as-strategy. Paul and his circle aspired “to create a libertarian-conservative fusion … [by] appealing to the worst instincts of working/middle class conservative whites by creating the only anti-left fusion possible with the demise of socialism: one built on cultural issues. … [The strategy] apparently made some folks (such as Rockwell and Paul) pretty rich selling newsletters predicting the collapse of Western civilization at the hands of the blacks, gays, and multiculturalists. The explicit strategy was abandoned by around the turn of the century, but not after a lot of bad stuff had been written in all kinds of places.”