By Joe Conason
The latest evidence of simmering racial resentment on the American political fringe showed up Monday in a Facebook post by a California man who urged the assassination of the president and his two daughters in obscene, racist language. Aside from the Secret Service, there was little reason for most of us to pay attention to this sick boob—except that he was identified as a local political leader of the tea party and an avid supporter of Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas Republican who now seems likely to place first in the Iowa presidential caucuses.
To those who have followed Paul’s long career as a failed presidential candidate—these campaigns have become a family business—the appearance of yet another racist nut job in his orbit is scarcely news. The newsletters that earned millions of dollars for him from gullible subscribers over the decades were often soiled with vile invectives against blacks and other minorities. He is a perennial favorite of the John Birch Society and kindred extremists on the right. He once refused to return a donation from a leader of the Nazi-worshipping skinheads in the Stormfront movement.
What is it about the kindly old doctor that attracts some of the most violent and reactionary elements in society to his banner?
For many years, Paul was merely an outlying crank in the ranks of the Republican Party—a “libertarian” who courted the paranoid bigots in the John Birch Society, whose monthly magazine featured his name on its masthead as a “contributing editor.” More than a decade ago, during his 1996 campaign for Congress, the racist ravings in his newsletters were first exposed—the same series of articles that besmirched Martin Luther King and Barbara Jordan and encouraged every racist stereotype about African-Americans as criminals and welfare dependents. He disowns those words now, but back then a spokesman defended them as merely “taken out of context.”
Back then, his rhetorical flirtations with the White Citizens Councils hardly mattered. Almost nobody bothered to listen seriously to his urgings that America return to the gold standard, repeal the income tax and the direct election of U.S. senators and erase all of the advances of the past century in protecting the public from cyclical depressions, poisonous food, water, air and drugs, and the insecurities of poverty, old age and ill health. Most Americans still could remember when this Darwinian ideology influenced policy and knew that the nation was not better off—except for a few robber barons—back in the days before Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated the Progressive Era, beginning a century of reform.
On the far right, including wealthy figures such as the Koch family that once supported the Birch Society and now backs the tea party, there are many who share Paul’s brand of political nostalgia. Kindly and gentle as he appears, Paul has always known how to sound the dog whistle that excites them, whether it was in the race-baiting that adorned his newsletters for years, the claims that medicine served us better before Medicare and Medicaid or the campaign against the Federal Reserve. Although Paul has occasionally disavowed his supporters on the ultra-right when political expediency demanded it, they have never abandoned him—and they won’t, because whether or not he is actually a racial bigot, he shares their disdain for the 20th century.
There is little reason to worry about the policies of a Paul administration, despite his current lead in the Iowa polls. But the rise of the tea party and the vacuum of leadership in the Republican Party have created a space for Paul’s lethal fantasies, which if enacted would return us to the bad old days of mass poverty, rampant pollution, racial supremacy and all the other ills that characterized the America of the robber barons.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com.
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