Senator Rand Paul and the Illusory Politics of the “Lost Cause”

            Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has recently publicly defended a senior staff aide, Jack Hunter, who was lately discovered to have delivered a series of radio talks/speeches embracing extreme neo-Confederate positions a decade ago and to have offered similar views in his political column much more recently. Paul refused to fire Hunter, who resigned on July 21st of his own accord. It seems incredible even to be discussing such a stance as Hunter’s 150 years after the end of the Civil War, let alone describing its embrace by an important staff member for a senator who has hinted he may vie for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. Yet, that is where matters stand today.

            Hunter’s remarks constituted attacks, associated with a thread of libertarianism, on Abraham Lincoln and the national government on the pretense that the president led a treasonous, murderous and unneeded war against the South that was contrary to the Constitution. This is utter nonsense on all counts and it is frightening for what it reveals about Paul and the movement his father, former U.S. Representative Ron Paul, established and whose banner he is seeking to carry forward. That Rand Paul believes he can or should defend anyone who publicly espouses such views suggests either profound misjudgment or calls into question his own understanding of the American regime. In any case, his father has publicly embraced such views in the past.

            Hunter’s perspective essentially repudiates the United States Constitution and its reliance on popular sovereignty and the nation as the only viable agent of that united sovereign. This is not a stance or an argument about what services the national government should provide versus those which might most appropriately be undertaken by the states, nor even a debate about the reach of government action at whatever scale, but a wholesale attack on the idea of the nation itself and the popular sovereignty it embodies. It is not even a reasonable questioning of specific steps Lincoln took during the Civil War and whether those were within his executive powers. This, on its face, is shocking, but Paul has gone further, as a sitting Senator sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States, by defending his aide’s arguments on the grounds they were justified because Hunter was serving as a radio “shock jock” when he offered them.

            In reality, these were the calculated arguments of an adult who was not playing a “role,” but was passionately pressing claims, resting ultimately on a deep misunderstanding of the character of American governance and on an implicit racism or worse, that his (now former) supervisor has yet to repudiate. Hunter surely has the right to believe what he wishes and to say what he believes, but the matter takes on a new level of urgency when a United States Senator defends him rather than decry his views. Michael Gerson, a conservative syndicated Washington Post columnist, has recently written that Paul’s actions should disqualify him from any serious contention for the Republican nomination since one must regard them as extraordinarily extreme or representative of profoundly poor judgment or perhaps both. I certainly agree.

            Paradoxically, however, Gerson also suggested in his commentary that this episode has undone Rand Paul’s rapid rise in his party and that it represents a veering from his demonstration of “serious populist skills in cultivating those fears (of federal power) for his political benefit.” I could not disagree more heartily with this embrace of what I take to be ethically indefensible mobilization tactics.

            Taken as a whole, this episode reveals at least three trends afoot in American politics now and their confluence makes for a volatile brew. First, as I noted above, it is remarkable that our nation has Senators and Representatives in Congress who embrace Hunter-like views concerning the character of our polity (if not Paul himself, which remains unclear, there are others, including Paul’s father, who have and do). They reveal, to put the best gloss on the matter, a profound misunderstanding of our regime and its design and of popular sovereignty itself. This episode and its defining characteristics suggest lawmakers uninterested in governance, but desiring to reinterpret the Constitution to suit their wild flights of imagination and ideology. This scenario is unnerving as these individuals wield power and represent constituencies either aware of their perspectives and supportive of them or oblivious to them and therefore, in effect, being misled and used by their leaders. Either of these options is cancerous for our polity.

            Second, I am ever more concerned about populist claims that prey on voter ignorance and fears to garner votes. Republicans have enjoyed this sport on immigration, on the economy and on crime, among other issues and often have tied their claims to an attack on specific groups or on governance as they offered them. Democrats have behaved similarly regarding Social Security and other social benefits programs, but have not assailed governance in so doing.

            Like other pundits, Gerson has come to accept elected officials’ use of such strategies because “they work” and in his recent column the political analyst even applauded Paul for his adroitness in pressing them. It is hardly naiveté, however, to note that this emperor has no clothes and the popular legitimacy of democracy is at stake in this supposed game. Indeed, for Rand Paul, such “populist “support apparently allows him to have employed individuals on his staff who represent not simply radical, but deeply inimical views of our regime’s foundations.

            Finally, it seems reasonable to ask what comes next for voters convinced by Paul and his fellow Tea Party leaders that their national government, which represents their sovereignty, is their worst enemy and that they need assume no responsibility for its course other than to fear and malign it. In so doing, they daily undo their own sovereign status even as their leaders support individuals pressing claims for a supposed Elysian ante-bellum South. This is a reprehensible politics of fear, fanciful and cruel nonsense and irresponsibility. Senator Paul should explicitly repudiate it and its purveyors immediately.