Rand Paul in Retrospect

We are being treated to many – all too many – prognoses of Rand Paul’s presidential campaign and its untimely demise: Bonnie Kristian over at Rare.us blames the rise of ISIS, the latest foreign bogeyman to scare our laptop bombardiers into hiding under their beds: Nick Gillespie blames Donald Trump, the all-purpose piñata of the moment, but otherwise Rand did just fine. Perhaps the most thoughtful of all is Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, who sees the problem but comes up with the wrong solution.

But we’ll get to all that in a moment.

I try not to repeat myself, but when dealing with Sen. Rand Paul it seems unavoidable. Indeed, in order to diagnose the disease that ate away at the heart of what could have been the most successful libertarian – and staunchly anti-interventionist campaign – ever, I have only to quote myself, writing way back in July:

“[T]he Rand Paul that we were all hoping for – someone who would stand up to the War Party and refute their propaganda – is no more, if he ever existed in the first place. Instead of refuting the lies he’s joining in the telling of them – and in doing so, he’s crossed the Rubicon as far as libertarians and all those who oppose war with Iran are concerned.

“What makes a sad situation far worse is that Sen. Paul’s turn toward the neocons hasn’t helped him one bit: instead, it’s hurt him. In the past few months his support, once in the double digits, has been cut in half. The latest PPP poll has him down to a mere 4 percent. This dramatic drop coincides precisely with his efforts to appease people who are never going to support him. His campaign’s effort to ‘broaden the base’ has in reality marked a turning away from the base of supporters who were brought into politics and the GOP by his father. Not a very smart strategy, but then again the know-it-all ‘professionals’ running the campaign think they’re being ‘realistic.’ And yet: what good is a self-described pragmatism that turns out to be not very pragmatic?”

I said essentially the same thing even earlier, all the while encouraging Sen. Paul when he was right: but you get the idea.

Sen. Paul began to believe the hype he had generated in the mainstream media, back when he was polling double digits and was effectively the frontrunner. His goose was cooked when President Obama echoed all that “most interesting politician in Washington” hyperbole – it went right to his head. He began to believe that the movement his father had created and so carefully nurtured would follow him anywhere, and that his goal was to straddle the fence between libertarianism and “movement” conservatism. But as Dan McCarthy points out so effectively, there already was a Ted Cruz, who is a much cannier politician than Rand, and all the pilgrimages to Israel and all the meetings with Bill Kristol would never get the neocons off his back. Instead of taking them on, he capitulated to them – and in this election year, weakness is a vote-killer.

As right as Dan is about the strategic and tactical errors made by Rand’s campaign, he is dead wrong about the alternative: a simple comparison between the vote totals won by Ron Paul and Rand Paul should be sufficient to make that case conclusively. Dan avers that instead of being more like Ron, Rand should’ve been more like … Dwight Eisenhower. We need to go after the “Eisenhower Republicans,” he says – which raises the question: Are any of those guys still alive?

Rand should have run a campaign more along the lines of the one his father ran, with one big difference. Ron is a nice guy, even a gentle one. He patiently explained the principles of liberty to youthful audiences and had them roaring “End the Fed!” It was a libertarian activist’s dream come true. But Dan is right that it wasn’t enough: after all, he didn’t win, did he? He didn’t even come close. What was missing was the one element essential to any successful revolutionary, especially in these tumultuous times, and that is demagoguery.

Oh boy, I can hear all those jaws dropping: what is he saying? What can he mean? Here’s what I mean:

“For many years now, demagogues have been in great disfavor. They are not sober, they are not respectable, they are not ‘gentlemen.’ And yet there is a great and growing need for their services. What, exactly, have been the charges leveled against the demagogues? They are roughly three in number.

“In the first place, they are disruptive forces in the body politic. They stir things up. Second, they supposedly fail to play the game in appealing to the base emotions, rather than to cool reason. From this stems the third charge: that they appeal to the unwashed masses with emotional, extreme, and, therefore, unsound views. Add to this the vice of ungentlemanly enthusiasm, and we have about catalogued the sins of the species demagogue.”

That’s good old Murray Rothbard, the founder of the libertarian movement, writing at a very dark time in the history of libertarianism: it was 1954, the very idea of limiting government power was almost completely unknown, the neocons were celebrating “the end of ideology” (an earlier domestic version of the “end of history”), and there was no real libertarian movement (or peace movement) to speak of. The dominant intellectuals were fully supportive of the Holy Trinity of Empire, Big Government, and Big Business, and the Old Right of Bob Taft had been displaced by the mush-mouthed internationalism of … yes, Dwight David Eisenhower. What was a libertarian to do? Why, wish for someone to break the circuit of statist “centrism” and challenge the status quo. In short, Rothbard was hoping for a libertarian populist to arise, in short: a demagogue!

“… All demagogues are ideological nonconformists and therefore are bound to be emotional about the general and respectable rejection of what they consider to be vital truth. But not all ideological nonconformists become demagogues. The difference is that the demagogue possesses that quality of mass attraction that permits him to use emotion to stir up the masses. In going to the masses, he is going over the heads of the respectable intellectuals who ordinarily guide mass opinion. It is this electric, short-cut appeal direct to the masses that gives the demagogue his vital significance and that makes him such a menace to the dominant orthodoxy.”

Now there is a demagogue in the presidential race, one who fits perfectly into the definition cited above, and we all know who he is. Yet Trump is hated by libertarian intellectuals, as well as by the liberal and conservative elites. This in spite of the fact that he’s stolen a good many elements of the libertarian foreign policy platform. As I’ve pointed out here and here, he alone opposes a new cold war with Russia. Bonnie Kristian says the alleged rise of ISIS somehow derailed Rand Paul’s campaign, and yet Trump – the GOP frontrunner – is telling yuuuuuge audiences that we should let Putin take care of ISIS, and he’s getting yuuuuuge applause. He’s telling us that our shiftless “allies” are taking advantage of us – and isn’t this just a popularized version of the libertarian/anti-interventionist critique of foreign aid? Why, he asks, are we protecting Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the Middle East – while “they’re screwing us over”? He wants out of Europe: forget Ukraine, he says.

Of course, libertarians have been saying this for ages – but The Donald, like the demagogue he is, says it and gets listened to. Is he a consistent anti-interventionist? He’s not a consistent anything, and that’s the problem with many demagogues, and especially Trump – he’s 80 percent emotion and (at best) 20 percent program.

Yet Trump’s particular peccadilloes are beside the point, the point being that the broad themes he’s pushing – an unaccountable elite, a complicit media, an incompetent self-sacrificing downright suicidal foreign policy – are pages torn from the libertarian book. This is true even on the immigration issue, which both Ron and Rand pushed before Trump seized on it in a big way.

Rand Paul was so busy trying to impress the Beltway pundits, and sucking up to the very elites he was supposed to be overthrowing, that he forgot why he was running in the first place – or, to be fair (for a change), it seemed like he forgot. He began to sound like every other Republican politician, mouthing platitudes about “Big Government” and tiptoeing around his own father, hoping GOP voters would mistake him for a conservative.

It didn’t work because it didn’t deserve to work.

Yes, but what, you ask, is the alternative?

Trumpismo is not an alternative, but a purely negative phenomenon: it is against the elites, against the status quo, but only the gods know what it will bring us if it triumphs. No, I don’t agree with the hysterical leftists – and their libertarian doppelgangers – who insist Trump represents the rise of “fascism.” These people are so coddled, and simultaneously so addled, that they have no idea what real fascism consists of: it is, in short, a fist in the face. That isn’t Trumpism, not by a long shot.

The real danger isn’t Trump, but his Establishment competitors, first and foremost Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her regime will combine the worst aspects of progressivism in a single package: an escalation of our foreign policy of global interventionism and the concomitant march of the Leviathan State at home. The yapping warmongers of the GOP – Cruz, Rubio, Bush, etc., ad nauseam – are just as bad if not worse, with Rubio potentially the most dangerous.

The rise and fall of Rand Paul’s presidential ambitions present us with a lesson: the danger is that we fail to learn it, and instead compound failure with yet more error. The opportunists among us will “learn” that they didn’t sell out fast enough and soon enough, and they’ll jump on the Cruz bandwagon-to-nowhere, abandoning libertarianism altogether. Our sectarians will retreat to their fortified compounds, secure in the knowledge of their own spotless virtue: forgetting that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day so it didn’t fall in a day, they’ll be waiting for The Big Collapse that will somehow not take them down along with the rest of society. 

The real lesson of Rand Paul’s fate is the strategic and tactical incompetence and immaturity of the libertarian movement: their failure to recognize that politics is all about Us versus Them, their inability to understand the key role played by emotion, their blindness when it comes to understanding the dual nature of American nationalism, and the cultural prejudices of the libertarian intelligentsia which make the foregoing errors almost inevitable.

But don’t despair! There is hope: the movement created by Ron Paul and his team is alive, albeit not well at the moment. Yet recovery is not only possible, it is very likely. The intellectual heritage of the libertarian movement is solid, and intact, in spite of the errors of some of its leading practitioners. Now is the time to examine the mistakes of the past, analyze what led to them, and forge ahead: this is how people – and ideological movements – live, learn, and grow.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].