Although it feels like a memory from the distant past, it wasn’t so long ago that I was at CPAC, watching Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul thrill a rapt audience of conservative activists with a romantic speech extolling liberty and slamming President Obama for failing to dismantle the post-9/11 national security state. I remember how quiet and still the crowd was while Paul spoke, and I remember how that surface-level calm was periodically interrupted with wild cheers whenever Paul delivered an especially well-crafted applause line.
In reference to mass surveillance, indefinite detention and secretive drone strikes on American citizens, for example, Paul quoted William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist, and asked the congregation, “Will you, America’s next generation of liberty lovers, will you stand and be heard?” The answer was a resounding yes.
But as much as they loved imagining themselves as the modern heirs to a 19th century liberation movement that reached its apogee through the expansion of presidential and federal power, these assorted conservatives and libertarians were even more thrilled by the sections of Paul’s speech castigating President Obama for being insufficiently dedicated to protecting Americans’ civil liberties. “I don’t question President Obama’s motives,” Paul said, “but history will record his timid defense of liberty.”
A specific instance of timidity that Paul had in mind was Obama’s decision to sign the NDAA, despite his misgivings that it infringed on the right of habeas corpus. “When Congress passed legislation allowing for the indefinite detention of an American citizen without a trial,” Paul said, “[Obama] shamefully signed it while promising not to use such a power.” In Paul’s eyes, this was clearly not enough. “A great president,” he claimed, “would have risen to the occasion. Instead of merely suggesting that he wouldn’t use this dreaded power, a great president would have taken pen in hand and vetoed this abomination.”
CPAC agreed; a great president (maybe a President Paul?) would ignore the politics, brush off the fear-mongers and simply do what was right. “Some things are worth fighting for,” Paul said, before reminding the crowd that he had filibustered against targeting Americans with drones and sued the president over the excesses and usurpations of the National Security Agency. “It is decidedly not a time for the faint of heart,” he warned. “It is a time for boldness and action. The time is now. Stand with me. Let us stand for liberty.” Paul then left the stage, carried to the exit on a wave of applause emanating from the hundreds of conservative activists, all of whom were on their feet.
It was an inspiring moment. But as I watched the CPAC attendees talk amongst themselves about how wonderful Paul’s speech had been, I imagined how a candidate Chris Christie or Ted Cruz would savage Paul as soft on terror in a GOP presidential primary, and I was reminded, in a completely different context, of that infamous Bill Clinton quote: “This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
Watching this week as the right worked itself into a jingoistic and vengeful fury over Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, I couldn’t stop turning back to that fairy tale — the belief that the hysteria, paranoia and fear that defined American politics in the immediate years after 9/11 was a thing of the past; the confidence that U.S. politics had mellowed and matured, that demagoguery over Islamic terrorism was no longer a central component of the GOP’s campaign playbook. Back when Benghazi was, nearly two years later, still dominating the news cycle, I thought this was fanciful. But today, in the wake of attempts to portray Bergdahl as a traitor-turned-jihadist, and in response to one breathless report after another parroting Taliban propaganda as if it were news, it seems to me to be downright absurd.
Yet what is, at this point, even more absurd is Paul’s claim to the moral high ground in the debate over terrorism and civil liberties, and his implicit suggestion that he, unlike Obama, would protect sacred rights, regardless of politics. If either were true, and if Paul’s talk of rolling back the national security leviathan was more than a mere cudgel with which to bash Obama and court the millennial vote, the presidential aspirant would have said something, anything, during the past week to push back against Republicans’ Bergdahl demagoguery. Because, as should be obvious to us all, the frenzy of outrage and terror the right unleashes every time it sees a chance to portray Democrats as soft on terrorism is the chief political impediment to closing Guantanamo Bay, reining in the NSA, doing away with indefinite detention, and reversing every other infringement on civil liberties that’s occurred in the years since September 11, 2001.
If Paul — or fellow travelers like Nick Gillespie of the libertarian magazine Reason — were serious about ending our government’s semi-permanent state of war, they wouldn’t revel in the right-wing freak-out, making lame jokes about Walter Cronkite and MAD Magazine (or promoting ones about how Democrats are like terrorists) simply because they think the outrage is bad for a president they hate. They’d make an attempt, at least one, to remind their fellow right-wingers that this kind of wild-eyed tribalism is the very sentiment that allowed George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to massively expand the national security industrial complex and ignore basic civil liberties (the right to not be tortured to the point of insanity being chief among them). And it’s the reason why Obama and his fellow Democrats have repeatedly shied from closing Gitmo, lest a former prisoner kills an American and thus gives Republicans a chance to call Democrats feckless peaceniks who fail to understand the dangerous world in which we live.
Instead, however, Paul, Gillespie and dozens of other “liberty loving” right-wingers like them have either cheered on the mob or stepped quietly aside, hoping to let the throng do its dirty work and waiting to later pick up the pieces of whatever is left. To call this cynical is not enough; because of how fundamental the civil libertarian creed is to Paul’s brand, such a degree of hypocrisy transcends run-of-the-mill cynicism and becomes something much worse: fraud. So next time you hear Rand Paul exhort a sympathetic crowd to “stand and be heard” in defense of liberty, just remember what he said during the past week of mania, when the presumption of innocence was abandoned and the desire to close Gitmo was depicted as a nefarious plot to “free the terrorists.” The answer is, not a damn thing.