Until now, the question had been whether or not Rand Paul shared his father’s wild beliefs. The two have campaigned extensively for each other, though Rand was conspicuous in his absence at the launch of his father’s think tank earlier this year.
As Rand Paul’s national profile continues to rise, one question has dogged the Republican senator from Kentucky: Is he is father’s son, ideologically speaking, or his own man? Or, to put it more bluntly, how far has the apple fallen from the extremist tree?
There are two probable answers. Perhaps Rand is indeed an independent thinker who, while sharing the broad, small government and non-interventionist leanings of his dad, is not a crank. Or, Rand is indeed a crank, yet one whose ambitions outweigh his ideological convictions. In other words, Rand knows that, in order to succeed on the national stage—he is widely expected to make a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016—he can’t let his freak flag fly.
Since Rand’s emergence on the national stage several years ago, I’ve been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But in light of a blockbuster report by Alana Goodman of the Washington Free Beacon, I now lean more toward the latter. Goodman reports that one of the senator’s closest aides and the co-author of a 2011 book, Jack Hunter, spent years as a neo-Confederate activist and radio host. From 1999 until last year, Goodman reports, Hunter was the host of a South Carolina radio program whose alter ego was “The Southern Avenger.” Hunter, who would sport a Stars-and-Bars mask during public appearances, praised John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln—whom he compared to Saddam Hussein. Earlier, Hunter had been a leader in the League of the South, a secessionist organization.
In light of his waffling over the question of whether he would vote in favor of the Civil Rights Act, Rand Paul’s extensive relationship with Hunter raises legitimate questions about his fitness for any public office, never mind the presidency. (Among many other creepy causes endorsed by Ron Paul in various stages of his career, defending the Confederacy was a prominent theme in his newsletters.)
In 2010, Paul the younger hired Hunter to ghostwrite The Tea Party Goes to Washington, a manifesto for drastically reducing the size and role of government. The two grew close during the writing process, and the following year, Paul hired Hunter to be his social media director. According to a profile in the current issue of the Washington Monthly, Hunter is one of the senator’s three closest advisers on foreign policy, despite having no experience whatsoever in that field. While Rand Paul has managed to avoid entangling himself with most of the contentious figures in his father’s orbit, Hunter is a connecting thread: he served as Ron Paul’s official campaign blogger in 2012.
In his current role as adviser to Rand, Hunter has provided a window into what the senator really thinks—suggesting that his feints at moderation are just that: a ruse. In January, for instance, he suggested in a blog post that Rand’s tough statements in support of America’s defense relationship with Israel (the sort of routine remarks that anyone seeking high office in the United States would make), was nothing more than “a little rhetorical concession.” In that same blog post, Hunter reassured his readers, “the philosophy hasn’t substantively changed,” between father and son, though “the methods and style most certainly have.”
In other words, while Ron may have been more honest in expressing extreme views (an honesty that did not extend to owning up to what was published under his name for so many years), Rand is attempting to slide quietly under the radar of mainstream public opinion until the time is ripe, at which point he will presumably unleash his inner, radical libertarian.
Goodman’s report comes at an important time. Over the past year, Rand has emerged as one of the most influential voices within the Republican Party on foreign policy. The Washington Monthly profile attributes this newfound prominence to a hijacking by neoconservatives of the Republican Party, leaving Paul as the closest thing resembling an heir to the establishment, “realist” tradition that allegedly used to dominate the party. While it’s true that the Bush administration—responsible for launching two massive land wars and the enlargement of the national security state—left the GOP split between more hawkish and dovish factions, Paul’s rise does not owe itself to any particular expertise or the salience of his views (for instance, Paul has repeatedly and erroneously claimed that the U.S. “armed” and “funded” Osama bin Laden before declaring him an enemy). Rather, his foreign policy offerings have been little more than headline-generating publicity stunts, the sort of populist, to-hell-with-them nationalism bound to generate enthusiasm from extremists on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum. His hours-long March filibuster, in which he darkly warned of the president launching drone attacks on innocent Americans biding their time “in a café in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky,” was waged to prevent a nonexistent threat. Likewise, Paul’s obsession with ending all foreign aid is not only loony, it seizes upon a minuscule aspect of the federal budget (1%) which Americans erroneously believe constitutes a massive portion (27%).
What seems to distinguish the Pauls is not so much a difference in worldview, but that Rand is not quite willing to go, at least publicly, where his father has dared to tread. So while Ron Paul will say bluntly that Iran “does not threaten our national security,” Rand will only go so far as to state that a containment policy should be considered with regard to the Islamic Republic’s quest for nuclear weapons. And while both Pauls support a massive reduction in the scope of America’s global military posture, it is Ron who misleadingly labels the entirely voluntary deployment of our troops overseas as constituting some sort of “empire.” And while Ron Paul makes explicit arguments backing the Confederate cause, his son keeps his own voice quiet while hiring those who share the belief.
The difference between Paul the Elder and Paul the Younger, then, appears to be in tone, not substance.