The Siren Song of Ron Paul

by Chris Toensing | published January 7, 2012 - 5:27pm

Say Ron Paul were actually elected president. Say that, in his proverbial first 100 days, he used his bully pulpit to push for two things: deep cuts in aid to Israel and other US allies, and elimination of Federal subsidies for alternative energy research. Which of these two objectives would he be more likely to achieve? And, if he achieved both, which would his successor find it easier to reverse?

These questions will never be more than a parlor game, unless the GOP’s eminences grises somehow fail to defeat a man whose newsletter preached open hatred of blacks and gays in the mid-1990s and unless Barack Obama then somehow fails to ride those riled-up, overwhelmingly Democratic constituencies, as well as Jewish and evangelical Christian voters upset by Paul’s comments about Israel and every union under the sun, back into the White House. It is perplexing, in the meantime, to watch intelligent sorts dole out props to Paul for his anti-interventionism (and, in the case of Middle East hands, his criticism of US coddling of Israel). Many seem to feel that, though he has no prayer of winning, the Texas Congressman is doing a service by introducing sensible ideas in forums where they would otherwise not be heard. Matt Stoller, far more interestingly, points out that Paul’s brand of libertarianism highlights the discomfiting (for left-liberals) connections among the New Deal, centralized government and the permanent war economy.

But the provenance of ideas matters. Paul’s ugly prejudices are not background noise. And, unlike many critics of US empire, he really is an isolationist. That is, his skepticism of “foreign entanglements” stems from parochial mistrust of other countries, if not from paranoia about “one-world government.” How could a White House with such a mindset possibly deal productively with innately global challenges like climate change, not to mention the growing competition for finite natural resources, nuclear proliferation or any other issue where international cooperation is the only way to stave off disaster, let alone envision a better world? But forget the extreme scenario of a Paul presidency: Is it really true that his ideas could wind up building support for an innocuous “live and let live” foreign policy?

On the off-chance that Paul got the GOP nomination, it would most certainly matter that his opposition to foreign wars comes from the isolationist bunker. His debates with Obama would not be edifying, for the simple reason (amply illustrated in American history) that right-wing populism drags its centrist opponents to the right. Re: the use of force, in a pinch Obama would simply adopt the “common-sense” Establishment position of declining to “rule it out” and, for good measure, bait Paul into an argument about what America “can do” rather than what it “should do.” Even discussion of the Iraq war, which both would-be nominees opposed, would be unlikely to transcend the usual hand wringing about expenditure of “blood and treasure” because ultimately that is all that right-wing populists care about. Devastation of Iraq? Not Americans’ business (at least not any longer). Respect for international law? Not if it binds the US to something its president does not like.

Meanwhile, the patent nonsense that makes up the bulk of Paul’s platform is being drip-fed into the political mainstream alongside the few sensible ideas.

The prominence of Paul’s candidacy is grotesque, a particularly stark instance of the pathology in US politics whereby counter-hegemonic ideas rarely receive a hearing unless they come from the right. The recurrent “progressive man-crushes” upon Ron Paul are a searing indictment of the Democratic Party, first and foremost, but also of the historical failures of the American left. And the thought that he energizes the young is not remotely encouraging, but more depressing evidence of how poorly Americans are educated about the world in which they live.