In recent weeks the thundering Ron Paul freight train has kind of derailed. Even though Paul announced that he was could not win and would stop actively campaigning on March 8, his supporters are apparently convinced that he’s still a viable candidate, despite his repeated public statements that they should move on and try to do some good working within the GOP. Nonetheless, many of them are pushing for a final surge and a surprise (and entirely delusional) victory at the GOP convention this summer. Admittedly, Paul is still making a lot of speeches and pushing his agenda, so maybe that’s contributing to their confusion, but he’s made it pretty clear he’s campaigning for his ideas not an office.
Yet if anyone had any question about the viability of Paul as a national candidate, the issue ought to be put to rest by his recent decision to leap boldly onto the electrified third rail of politics and accept an invitation to be the keynote speaker at this fall’s 50th annual convention of the John Birch Society.
For those not already familiar with the John Birch Society, it is a secretive and rather paranoid extreme-right organization which was originally founded in the era of Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts to help root out the communist infiltrators who infested American society. Those communists were easy to spot because they were all immigrants or blacks or Jews, plus the occasional homosexual. The Birchers have always been big on ‘real’ American values and good at finding imaginary windmills to joust at. They borrowed a lot of ideas from their enemies in the process, including much of the methodology and organizational structure of Soviet covert operations of the Stalinist era, with a well developed propaganda machine, multiple front groups, and a cell-like organization.
The Birchers kind of lost their way during the 1980s and 1990s, eclipsed by the rise of the religious right and losing focus with the fall of communism, but today they are back and stronger than ever, riding a wave of conspiracy fanaticism which has grown from seeds they’ve been nurturing for years. They’re still racists and anti-Semites and nativists and isolationists and conspiracy obsessed. Their followers are fanatics and the organization has a lot of the characteristics of a cult. Many participants are intensely religious and the membership has a lot of overlap with groups like Christian Identity. I give them credit for putting up a fairly reasonable seeming front on their website, but if you read their publications, email lists or blogs you see what issues really excite them.
Today they are fighting the same old battle with new names, and the fallen communist empire has just resurfaced in the even more nefarious guise of the ‘new world order’. The idea that America is threatened by a huge, covert, and many-headed conspiracy is selling like hotcakes. You can see their books at booths in the gun shows and flea markets, they’re all over the Internet, and they’ve pretty much taken over the chaotic fringes of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Some ‘patriots’ like Timothy McVeigh find their brand of anti-government populism inspiring, and activists like radio ranter Alex Jones and the ‘9/11 Truth’ movement take many of their talking points from Bircher sources.
During the Republican primaries, Ron Paul made an effort to distance himself from the JBS as concern grew that so many of his most vocal supporters seemed to be coming from the dangerous fringe of conspiracy paranoia and reactionary bigotry. Make no mistake, a lot of good people supported Ron Paul, and the campaign offered a lot of positive ideas for much needed reforms for the nation. But at the same time a lot of the campaign’s energy came from Birchers who saw it as a chance to spread their message of nativism, protectionism, isolationism, and intolerance into the mainstream.
As I rooted for Dr. Paul I often found myself clinging to the fact that endorsements from JBS-related groups and the Aryan Nation and holocaust deniers and David Duke weren’t really Dr. Paul’s fault. He couldn’t choose who endorsed him, any more than he could reject donations from supporters based on their beliefs. After all, it was his principles he was running on, not theirs.
As it turns out, I was just fooling myself. The masks came off last week when Dr. Paul accepted the invitation to speak at the JBS convention and called the group a “great and patriotic organization.” Ron Paul’s supporters can now stop claiming their candidate has any real legitimacy. Paul can also stop his protestations that only a small faction of his followers believe in crazy conspiracy theories, because by embracing the Birchers he has confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions and made it very clear that he is as deeply mired in the culture of bigotry and intolerance as the worst of his followers.
We now know that David Duke and WAR didn’t endorse Paul by mistake. They endorsed him because he shares their beliefs. Despite his pretensions of being a libertarian, Paul is a reactionary extremist of the worst sort. This is not like the lunatic fringe endorsing Paul. This is Paul endorsing the lunatic fringe. With any luck this revelation will motivate his more idealistic followers to sever their ties with the Birchers in the movement and try to find a permanent home among the real libertarians and reformers of the Republican Party. There’s plenty of room and plenty of welcome for them if they leave their Bircher comrades and their intolerance and hate behind.
Dr. Paul’s campaign is over. Maybe his career is too. I hope it’s still possible to salvage some good out of the movement he spearheaded.