Ron Paul’s poison pill
No other recent candidate hailing from the party of Lincoln has accused Lincoln of causing a “senseless” war and ruling with an “iron fist.” Or regarded Ronald Reagan’s presidency a “dramatic failure.” Or proposed the legalization of prostitution and heroin use. Or called America the most “aggressive, extended and expansionist” empire in world history. Or promised to abolish the CIA, depart NATO and withdraw military protection from South Korea. Or blamed terrorism on American militarism, since “they’re terrorists because we’re occupiers.” Or accused the American government of a 9/11 “cover-up” and called for an investigation headed by Dennis Kucinich. Or described the killing of Osama bin Laden as “absolutely not necessary.” Or affirmed that he would not have sent American troops to Europe to end the Holocaust. Or excused Iranian nuclear ambitions as “natural,” while dismissing evidence of those ambitions as “war propaganda.” Or published a newsletter stating that the 1993 World Trade Center attack might have been “a setup by the Israeli Mossad,” and defending former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, and criticizing the “evil of forced integration.”
Each of these is a disqualifying scandal. Taken together, a kind of grandeur creeps in. The ambition of Paul and his supporters is breathtaking. They wish to erase 158 years of Republican Party history in a single political season, substituting a platform that is isolationist, libertarian, conspiratorial and tinged with racism. It won’t happen.
But some conservatives seem paradoxically drawn to the radicalism of Paul’s project. They prefer their poison pill covered in glass and washed down with battery acid. It proves their ideological manhood.
In many ways, Paul is the ideal carrier of this message. His manner is vague and perplexed rather than angry—as though he is continually searching for lost car keys. Yet those who reject his isolationism are called “warmongers.” The George W. Bush administration, in his view, was filled with “glee” after the 9/11 attacks, having found an excuse for war.
Paul is just like your grandfather—if your grandfather has a nasty habit of conspiratorial calumny. Recent criticism of Paul—in reaction to racist rants contained in the Ron Paul Political Report—has focused on the candidate’s view of civil rights. Associates have denied he is a racist, which is both reassuring and not particularly relevant.
Whatever his personal views, Paul categorically opposes the legal construct that ended state-sanctioned racism. His libertarianism involves not only the abolition of the Department of Education but a rejection of the federal role in civil rights from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is the reason Paul is among the most anti-Lincoln public officials since Jefferson Davis resigned from the U.S. Senate.
According to Paul, Lincoln caused 600,000 Americans to die in order to “get rid of the original intent of the republic.” Likewise, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 diminished individual liberty because the “federal government has no legitimate authority to infringe on the rights of private property owners to use their property as they please.” A federal role in civil rights is an attack on a “free society.” According to Paul, it is like the federal government dictating that you can’t “smoke a cigar.”
The comparison of civil rights to the enjoyment of a cigar is a sad symptom of ideological delirium. It also illustrates a confusion at the heart of libertarianism. Government can be an enemy of liberty. But the achievement of a free society can also be the result of government action—the protection of individual liberty against corrupt state governments or corrupt business practices or corrupt local laws.
In 1957, President Eisenhower sent 1,000 Army paratroopers to Arkansas to forcibly integrate Central High School in Little Rock. This reduced Gov. Orval Faubus’ freedom. It increased the liberty of Carlotta Walls LaNier, who was spat upon while trying to attend school. A choice between freedoms was necessary—and it was not a hard one.
Paul’s conception of liberty is not the same as Lincoln’s—which is not a condemnation of Lincoln. Paul’s view would have freed African-Americans from the statism of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act. It would have freed the occupants of concentration camps from their dependency on liberating armies. And it would free the Republican Party from any claim to conscience or power.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email firstname.lastname@example.org.