Exploiting the Rubes: How Ron Paul Once Betrayed Those Who Trusted Him

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The conservative movement frequently exploits its rank-and-file. Libertarians should demand better from their champions.

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Given the lonely role Ron Paul plays critiquing U.S. foreign policy and civil-liberties abuses, the mostly upstanding way he's conducted himself during this year's GOP primary, and his lonely opposition to the War on Drugs, I wish it were possible to pronounce his career a model. Alas, his vital advocacy on behalf of liberty and against the initiation of force is but a part of his story. A month ago, I grappled with the racist newsletters he published. It now emerges that the Texas congressman was aware of their content at the time (contrary to his claims), if you believe the multiple former employees who've affirmed as much and have no apparent reason to lie. Stoking and exploiting racism for financial, political, or ideological gain is a serious moral failing. I'll refrain from making the point at length only because Rod Dreher, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Megan McArdle have already done it so capably. As Dreher notes, "Racism is a demon that is very difficult to tame, and nearly impossible to corral once give free reign." Paul wronged victims of that demon most.

Though his most ardent supporters refuse to attach any import to the newsletters, they've been wronged too. In most ways, Paul is unlike figures in movement conservatism like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Roger Ailes, and Tom Phillips. But in this one way he is like them: posing as an ideologically pure truth-teller, he painstakingly developed a trusted brand -- and then he cynically used it to exploit the ignorance of the people who trusted him. On the right, you'll often hear theories about how conservatives are disrespected by cultural elites. The open secret is that elites in ideological movements most egregiously mistreat their own allies. And they don't pay for doing so, because when you demonstrate to the conservative rank-and-file that one of their champions is lying to them, it's bizarrely deemed anti-conservative.

Despite my high regard for today's Ron Paul fans, whose anti-war, pro-civil liberties, anti-drug-war priorities I share -- and though I wouldn't urge them to vote for anyone else, save Gary Johnson in the general election -- I anticipate that showing how Paul wronged his own supporters with his newsletters will elicit similar antagonism. Instead, his fans ought to demand an apology from their champion, acknowledge his flaws, and make the case that his voice is important anyway.

That case is persuasive!

So is this indictment:

...People close to Paul's operations said he was deeply involved in the company that produced the newsletters, Ron Paul & Associates, and closely monitored its operations, signing off on articles and speaking to staff members virtually every day.

"It was his newsletter, and it was under his name, so he always got to see the final product. . . . He would proof it,'' said Renae Hathway, a former secretary in Paul's company and a supporter of the Texas congressman's.

And from later in the same Washington Post article:

A person involved in Paul's businesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid criticizing a former employer, said Paul and his associates decided in the late 1980s to try to increase sales by making the newsletters more provocative. They discussed adding controversial material, including racial statements, to help the business, the person said.

"It was playing on a growing racial tension, economic tension, fear of government,'' said the person, who supports Paul's economic policies but is not backing him for president. "I'm not saying Ron believed this stuff. It was good copy. Ron Paul is a shrewd businessman.''

In other words, Paul and his associates deliberately exploited the prejudices and fears of folks who trusted them -- warning about dangers in which Paul did not believe -- to make more money. Calling out complicity in racist content is reason enough to hold Paul accountable. But if his supporters need a different reason, here's one: if libertarians don't send a strong signal that "exploiting the rubes" is wrong, they'll eventually end up with champions as corrupt and cannibalistic as the ones in conservatism.

A naive rank-and-file conservative might think that, if powerful people were exploiting them using ideological cover, someone at National Review or The Weekly Standard or The Claremont Review of Books would let them know. Those institutions conduct themselves defensibly (as far as I know), but despite their general eagerness to draw attention to instances of conservatives being treated unfairly, they never did much to warn their readers about Glenn Beck's gold scheme, or Eagle Publishing's editorial meddling, or the Human Events advertising emails that help pitch dubious medical cures to their elderly subscriber base.

Conservatives have a habit of showing undue loyalty to people at the top of hierarchies: Richard Nixon. George W. Bush. Donald Rumsfeld. There's no shortage of examples. I'd hoped that pathology explained the movement's curious reluctance to expose people who are hurting its rank-and-file.

Alas, it turns out that some libertarians are vulnerable to the same flawed mindset (while others, like the ones at Reason magazine and the Cato Institute, have admirably confronted the Paul newsletter story head on, even as they continued to advocate for non-interventionism and civil liberties). Newsletters aside, there's a lot to like about Ron Paul. But besides apologizing to the groups he denigrated, he should apologize to his libertarian supporters, explain why the "exploit-the-rubes" strategy tempted him, and warn the rank-and-file against falling for it in the future.

His supporters ought to demand no less.


Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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