Back in March, after his drone filibuster, we hit Peak Rand Paul when it looked like the senator's libertarian-infused ideology could make him a rare Republican with crossover appeal outside the reactionary right. "Liberals Should Proudly Cheer On Rand Paul," was the headline on David Sirota's column here at Salon. A Gallup poll found a whopping 79 percent of Americans agreed with the gist of Paul's position on drones, including a strong majority of Democrats and independents.
But today, we're reminded of why Paul will never be able to gain much traction outside the libertarian-right without a big change: His shocking blind spot on race. Rand Paul is not a racist, but his strident refusal to distance himself from people in his orbit who are, and apparent inability to understand why he should, is embarrassing and politically self-destructive.
The latest episode in Paul family's saga with white supremacy comes from John Harwood, who interviewed Paul for NPR. When Harwood asked the senator about Jack Hunter, who co-authored Paul's book and served on his staff before getting fired when his arguably racist views came to light, the senator bristled. Paul agreed that some (though he did not specify what) of what Hunter wrote was "stupid," Paul mostly defended his former longtime aide. "He was unfairly treated by the media, and he was put up as target practice for people to say he was a racist, and none of that's true," the senator said. "None of it was racist."
To refresh, Hunter was, until way, way back in 2012, a radio shock jock and conservative writer who called himself "the Southern Avenger" and wore a Confederate flag luchador mask. Hunter praised the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, decried Hispanic immigration, and warned that "a non-white majority America would simply cease to be America," among many, many other things.
Chris Hair, who edited Hunter at the Charleston City Paper, wrote recently that "Jack is the most common kind of racist, the one that doesn’t realize that he is one."
Whether you consider Hunter or the Southern Avenger racist or not, everyone -- including Paul -- agrees that much of what he said was offensive. Politics 101 dictates that you distance yourself from someone toxic like Hunter as quickly and strongly as possible. Barack Obama had to do that with with his former reverend, Jeremiah Wright, even though Wright never co-authored a book with Obama or worked on his staff. (There's probably something to be said about why a black presidential candidate had to go to such lengths to separate himself from Wright, while a white senator has largely overcome a similar controversy by doing nothing.)
Even if Paul can't understand why Hunter's writing might be considered racist (which he clearly can't), he certainly understands the politics of the situation and could at least pay lip service to the concern. But Paul, instead, chose to defend Hunter, despite the political exposure. This blind spot on race (and we'll be charitable and assume it's not something worse) is the Achilles' heel of Rand Paul's efforts to reach beyond his base, as it was to his father, who sent dozens of nakedly racist newsletters under his name.
Why might Paul be willing to pay a political price to defend Hunter? One reason might be that Paul and his fellow "libertarian populists" long ago made a deal with the devil. The real author of Ron Paul's racist newsletters was probably his former chief of staff, Lew Rockwell, David Weigel and Julian Sanchez reported at the time.
Rockwell had, for years, schemed to transform libertarianism into a viable political force by constructing a coalition with paleoconservatives around a shared hatred of the "unholy alliance of 'corporate liberal' Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America." (For underclass, read: black people, other minorities.)
Indeed, what really ticked off Paul was when Harwood asked him about an Economist column that argued that "right-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics, which is why the only notable libertarian-leaning politicians to generate real excitement among conservative voters have risen to prominence through alliances with racist and nativist movements."
"There is no greater defender, truly, of minority rights, if you consider minorities to be the color of your skin or the color of your ideology, than myself," Paul told Harwood.
"The logic of southern white supremacy and the logic of libertarianism run along very similar lines. They both express themselves in terms of opposition to federal power and support for states’ rights," Jon Chait wrote last month.
As Weigel, one of the longest and most knowledgable Paul watchers, has repeatedly argued, none of these race controversies seems to draw down Paul's support. That certainly seems true for his base. But if Paul hopes to win over disaffected liberals or any substantial portion of minorities, he'll need to be willing to distance himself from the ugliest parts of his base.