What Rand Paul Needs to Learn From France’s Far-Right Political Dynasty
What’s “Dad, shut the hell up?” in French?
That’s what Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, essentially told her father, the party’s founder and patriarch Jean-Marie, last week. Le Pen père was on French television explaining his infamous comments from 1987 that the Nazi gas chambers were but a mere “detail” of European history. The comments, he told the interviewer, “were the truth.” Four days later, speaking to a far-right weekly, he praised Marshal Philippe Pétain, the wartime collaborationist leader. Then, having just expressed his admiration for a man many consider to have been a traitor, Jean-Marie had the audacity to question the loyalties of France’s current prime minister, Manuel Valls, who was born in Spain. “What is his real loyalty to France?” Mr. Le Pen said. “Has this immigrant been converted?”
Marine was having none of her father’s antics. “Jean-Marie Le Pen seems to have descended into a strategy somewhere between scorched earth and political suicide,” she said, distancing herself. “His status as honorary president does not give him the right to hijack the National Front with vulgar provocations seemingly designed to damage me but which unfortunately hit the whole movement.” Party insiders say that Marine may move to expel her father from the movement he founded over four decades ago. Earlier this week, he quit his campaign as a candidate in upcoming regional elections.
There’s a lesson within this French familial spat for one of America’s own right-wing political dynasties: the Paul clan. Like Jean-Marie, Ron Paul, a former Republican congressman and presidential candidate, has a rich history of spreading bigotry and conspiracy theories (see his rancid newsletters) and is a stalwart defender of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In January, the website of Ron Paul’s eponymous think tank posted an article claiming that the murderous assault on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo showed “many of the characteristics” of a “false flag” operation. This was remarkably similar to Jean-Marie’s claim, made to a Russian newspaper, that “The shooting at Charlie Hebdo resembles a secret service operation but we have no proof of that.”
Unlike Rand’s French analogue, Marine — who is currently leading in polls to become president of France in 2017 — the recently declared American presidential candidate has yet to make a decisive break with his father. Yet distancing himself from Dad is precisely what Rand needs to do if he ever wants to win the Republican primary, never mind the presidency.
This will not be an easy task. No matter how hard he might try to distinguish himself from Ron and his out-of-the-mainstream views, Rand will always be associated with his father, and for good reason. It was Ron’s national support base of libertarian activists — many of whom he had cultivated through subscriptions to his newsletter — that earned Rand enough money and media attention to buck the GOP establishment and defeat their preferred candidate for a Senate seat in Kentucky in 2010. It’s doubtful that another ophthalmologist — especially one with such eclectic views as Rand — would have been able to win that seat, never mind mount a serious presidential campaign, were he not the son of a political figure with a cult-like following. While claiming to be his own man, Rand has been highly selective in how he relates to his father politically, stressing their similarities when it’s beneficial and righteously, sometimes angrily, declaring his independence whenever Ron goes off the reservation and Rand is called to account.
Dismissing his father isn’t just the right thing to do morally, but politically as well. As much as the Pauls may not like it, the Republican Party base remains hawkish and interventionist. Those policy preferences have become even more pronounced over the past year, as the rise of Islamic State, a revanchist Russia, and expanding Iranian hegemony have convinced many Americans that the current administration’s attempts to palliate its adversaries is a fool’s errand. For months, President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy approval ratings have been in the doldrums, and Rand has taken notice. He has tried to move with the tide, hiring a handful of establishment GOP foreign-policy advisors and occasionally sounding tough about America’s enemies. But as long as Ron is around defending a Russian dictator and saying things like it’s “foolish” to fight the Islamic State, Rand’s likelihood of winning the nomination will remain about as high as the chances of the United States adopting the gold standard.
Rand can’t have it both ways. Either he firmly and conclusively cuts Dad off from his political career or he accepts the fact that people will associate his views with those of his father. Considering the fact that Ron appeared prominently at Rand’s campaign kick-off (and that Rand’s campaign paid for an expensive charter flight to get him there) it appears that the son has chosen the latter course.
This isn’t surprising. Stubbornness to the point of duplicity appears to be the quintessential Paul family trait. It’s a bit much to take for a father and son duo that purports to tell it straight, unlike those denizens of the “Washington machine” whom Rand assailed in his announcement speech on April 7. To this day, more than seven years after I exposed the full potpourri of insanity and hatred contained in his newsletters, Ron has yet to offer satisfactory answers as to who wrote them and the extent of his involvement in their publication. Indeed, Lew Rockwell, Ron Paul’s former chief of staff, who is widely assumed to have authored most of the newsletters’ controversial content, today serves on the advisory board of his former boss’s think tank, as clear a sign as any that the elder Paul feels no compunction whatsoever about associating himself with the sentiments expressed in those documents.
Yet even if Rand does distance himself from his father, the damage may be done. There is every indication that Rand, despite the outward appearance of being more moderate than his father, has a not altogether different worldview. Every now and then the mask slips: There was that time the freshly-minted Republican candidate told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that he opposed the 1965 Civil Rights Act’s impositions on private property. Or when he told a group of students that America went to war in Iraq because Dick Cheney wanted to fill Halliburton’s coffers. It’s hard to conclude that a man who marinated for so long in Ron Paul’s toxic milieu of white nationalists and anti-government extremists didn’t absorb some of their beliefs, or that none of the craziness rubbed off on him.
At the same time, there is no area in which Rand has tried (however half-heartedly) to distinguish himself from his father more than in the realm of foreign policy. Whereas Ron once told an Iranian propaganda network that the Gaza Strip resembled a “concentration camp,” Rand introduced a bill attempting to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, a sign of overcompensation on his part as such a move is only supported by the most right-wing pro-Israel groups. Nonetheless, it’s sometimes hard to tell where Ron’s views end and Rand’s begin. Both men have spoken out vociferously against the administration’s drone program (with Rand once speculating, in the midst of a 13-hour filibuster, that the president of the United States might send Hellfire missiles raining down upon unsuspecting Americans sitting at “a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky”). And while Rand has tried to hew a tougher line on Russia than his father, he did chide his fellow Republicans for being “stuck in the Cold War.”
Here, there’s a telling resemblance to the ordeal of Marine Le Pen and the National Front’s paterfamilias. The French far-right party has a reputation for being racist and anti-Semitic — due to the simple fact that it is composed of lots of racists and anti-Semites. Despite Marine’s attempts at a revamping, she is burdened with a following, 48 percent of whom, according to a 2014 poll, believe “Jews have too much power in the media.” As the Hudson Institute’s Benjamin Haddad recently argued, Marine’s elbowing her father out of the National Front’s political operation amounts to a cosmetic, rather than a substantive change. While Marine may not say the kinds of outrageous things that her father is infamous for spouting, she too is unapologetically pro-Russian. Like Paul father and son, she also tries to play a double game, surrounding herself with madcap personalities as if to send a signal to her base that, while the face of the party may have changed, the spirit remains the same. Take Aymeric Chauprade, a foreign-policy advisor, who has expressed belief in various 9/11 conspiracy theories and claimed that Russia has become the “hope of the world against new totalitarianism.” There are many more such characters within her party ranks.
Ultimately, promoting xenophobia and an atavistic yearning for a pre-immigrant, non-Jewish, Catholic France is the National Front’s raison d’être. It is the reason why increasing numbers of French — in a time of economic stagnation, political uncertainty, and fears of cultural decline — are attracted to the party. For both the Pauls and the Le Pens, politics is the family business, and both tribes have made a good living. For even if Rand doesn’t win the GOP nomination, he will nonetheless have a long and successful career as a libertarian gadfly, emulating his father, who made a fortune off of the newsletters he now claims never to have read. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the intertwined fate of the Le Pen and Paul dynasties, it is that there is always good money to be made by the avaricious in the selling of paranoia to the credulous.