The Paulistas are out there and they’re angry. They’re mad about “corporatist” governance, the Federal Reserve and the war in Iraq. More than a few are truthers and they are quick to spring into action when Paul is mentioned in a a negative light. A few bloggers have experimented by posting entries with titles like “Ron Paul, Ron Paul, Ron Paul, Ron Paul” to see what would happen and, sure enough, the Paulistas come out of the woodwork.
Paul’s policy proposals and certainly his style, are paranoid populist rather than libertarian. After all, what’s libertarian about restricting women’s reproductive rights and not allowing GLBT folks to serve openly? What’s libertarian about militarizing the border? Paul’s voting record on trade is not incredibly libertarian either.
In fact, when you strip away the libertarian polish, Paul emerges as an economic and political isolationist. Likewise, most of Paul’s supporters—the people who will actually vote for him—are right-wing populists.
Populism has held a few common theses for the past century or so. First, the emphasis of government action should be the “common man.” Second, government is out of touch with the common man (today, this sentiment often goes hand-in-hand with the notion that government is too large). Third, government is controlled by big business and either a specific special interest or cultural group (Jews, Catholics, etc.) or a coalition of special interests. Fourth, populists hold an idealized and nostalgic perception of the past. In essence, the Paulistas think government is run by a group of shadowy and unaccountable elites who place their pecuniary interests above what is best for the United States.
This is nothing new. Paul is simply the latest exponent of what Richard Hofstadter termed “The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964)”. Writing over four decades ago, Hofstadter observed:
Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.
A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.
In the United States, populism has a long track record of nativism, xenophobia, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Today, this sort of explicit anti-Semitism is unacceptable in mainstream political discourse. But, as many readers of this blog recognize, anti-Semitism tends to be displayed in anti-Zionist or anti-Israel rhetoric. So, rather than saying “Jews have dual loyalties,” populists claim American supporters of Israel or so-called “Likudniks” put the interests of Israel ahead of the United States.
During the New Hampshire Republican debates, Paul blamed U.S. foreign policy for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. While this clearly distanced him from the hardcore truthers (who variously believe that Bush, Zionists, or both were repsonsible for the attacks) these comments definitely endeared Paul to anti-Zionists. But as historian Efraim Karsh has pointed out, the radical Islamists seek to drive the United States out of the region for their own imperial aspirations:
To intellectuals, foreign-policy experts, and politicians alike, ’empire’ and ‘imperialism’ are categories that apply exclusively to European powers and, more recently, to the United States. In this view of things, Muslims, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, are merely objects—the long-suffering victims of the aggressive encroachments of others …This perspective dominated the widespread explanation of the 9/11 attacks as only a response to America’s (allegedly) arrogant and self-serving foreign policy, particularly with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While Paul is certainly not as crazy as Lyndon La Rouche, his followers remind me of the La Rouchies in their zealousness and ability to make themselves seem more numerous than they actually are. The La Rouchies accomplish this by publishing a lot of magazines and newspapers. The Paulistas utilize the Internet. For example, while Paul was polling between zero and two percent, he was overwhelmingly winning web-based assessments of the recent Republican debates.
Thankfully Paul’s minions are a very small, if vocal, minority in the Republican Party. Paul has no chance of winning the Republican primary let alone the general election. So maybe we should cut the Paulistas some slack. As Hofstadter wrote, “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”