Late in the fall of 2007, I called up an obscure radio host named Alex Jones. At the time, Jones was known mostly for brandishing a megaphone outside the annual Bilderberg conference, shouting obscenities at its influential participants, as well as for his cameos in the art-house films of fellow Austin native Richard Linklater. It was years before Jones’s rants about chemtrails and the NAFTA Superhighway would be uploaded onto YouTube, where they would eventually find an audience of millions, nor had he yet made a fortune on his own line of dietary supplements and “brain pills.” To watch his documentary about the supposed plot hatched by George Pataki, David Rockefeller, Queen Beatrix, and others to exterminate humanity, Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement, I had to purchase a DVD.
My reason for contacting this all-American curiosity was that I was reporting a story about the then Republican congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul for The New Republic. (Paul had been a frequent guest on Jones’s radio show for years.) I had obtained a trove of newsletters that the libertarian gadfly had intermittently published from the late 1970s through to the mid 1990s, which were chock-full of conspiratorial, racist, and anti-government ravings. According to passages published under Paul’s name, Martin Luther King Jr. “seduced underage girls and boys,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency “intends to wipe out state jurisdictions by setting up the ten federal regions so beloved of the Council on Foreign Relations,” and gay victims of AIDS “enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick.” Collectively, the bulletins revealed an exceptionally sinister side of the man whose ardent supporters and much of the media portrayed as a principled, if slightly cranky, “straight talker.” My exposé of the newsletters and broader investigation into Paul’s history of associations with all manner of groups and individuals on the extreme right, entitled “Angry White Man,” was published by The New Republic on the day of the 2008 New Hampshire primary.
Ten years ago, the notion that Ron Paul—or anyone espousing his worldview—would ever come close to becoming the president of the United States was extremely far-fetched. Never mind his far-out proposals to revive the gold standard or abolish the Federal Reserve; Paul was an outspoken opponent of foreign policy interventionism in general and a strong critic of George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, untenable positions for anyone hoping to win a GOP presidential nomination at the time. Paul ran once more for president in 2012, and retired from Congress early the following year.
I’ve been put in mind of my past work on Alex Jones, Ron Paul, and the strange milieu they inhabit by the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump first appeared on Jones’s radio show in December 2015, was a frequent guest over the course of his insurgent presidential campaign, and maintains contact with the man who, among countless other moral obscenities, claims the Newtown school massacre was a “hoax” designed to increase popular support for gun control. Trump, according to Jones, often publicly repeats information Jones tells him “word for word.” And so it is that an extreme right-wing conspiracy theorist I interviewed in order to add some color to a piece about a fringe politician has, in course of a decade, become a trusted confidant of the president of the United States.
Long before Donald Trump emerged as the most prominent purveyor of a racist conspiracy theory concerning the country’s first black president, played political footsie with white supremacists, condemned “globalism,” sold himself to the masses as a guru of personal enrichment, attacked American allies as scroungers, and made overtures to authoritarian regimes like Russia, there was Ron Paul. The ideological similarities between the two men, and the ways in which they created support, are striking.
Decades before right-wing chain emails—never mind Twitter—fringe political figures and movements used a more prosaic tool for gaining adherents: direct-mail newsletters. Subscribers to Paul’s various publications (which appeared under titles such as the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, and the Ron Paul Investment Letter) could learn how “order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began,” how AIDS was spread through the US Postal Service, and read favorable coverage of unsavory personalities like the Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott and the white supremacist Jared Taylor (described innocuously as a “criminologist”).
Paul’s strategy was to appeal to voters on three bases—racial animus, anti-elitism, and nativism. From the beginnings of his political career in the late 1970s, Paul diligently amassed a nationwide following among the remnants of what was the pre-World War II “Old Right”: isolationists, gold standard nostalgics, New Deal opponents, and racists. In later years, Paul would add right-wing, apocalypse-fearing “survivalists” (now also known as “preppers”) as well as anti-government militia members to his base; his newsletters referred to cult leader David Koresh as a “reasonable person” and lauded the rising militia movement as “an encouraging sign that the end of government as we know it may be near.”
No conspiracy theory was too weird, and no person too far beyond the pale, for Paul (or, arguably, his presumed ghostwriter Lew Rockwell) to endorse. The Holocaust-denying chess champion Bobby Fischer was “very politically incorrect on Jewish questions, for which he will never be forgiven, even though he is a Jew.” Officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were “jackbooted thugs.” There were even kind words for David Duke, referred to affectionately as “The Duke.” Sound familiar? The anti-government hysteria and sympathy for the militia movement Paul expressed in his newsletters reverberate in Trump’s attacks on the “Deep State” and likening US intelligence practices to Nazi Germany. When Trump starting using “globalist” as an epithet on the campaign trail, it brought back memories of Paul, who also deployed the word as a term of abuse. And years before an Intelligence Community assessment would conclude that Kremlin-controlled cable network Russia Today had participated in an influence operation designed to help Trump win the presidency, Paul was a frequent guest on that network, and continues to appear there.
Paul also shares with Trump a reputation for financial flim-flammery. In a letter hawking his Ron Paul Investment Letter, Paul warned readers that a US government redesign of the currency was part of a plot to track Americans. “These totalitarian bills were tinted pink and blue and brown, and blighted with holograms, diffraction gratings, metal and plastic threads, and chemical alarms,” he wrote, calling the money, “a portable inquisition.” Only by subscribing to his newsletter—for a mere $99—could readers “save their family.” They would also get his guidebook, “Surviving the New Money” (a $50 bargain!), and access to an “unlisted phone number of my Financial Hotline for fast breaking news” (a $25 offer). Another solicitation offered readers “the unique Ron Paul Privacy Card,” which is presumably as valuable as a degree from Trump University.
Though Paul is often called an orthodox libertarian, his ideology is more accurately described as paleolibertarian, which shares the limited government principles of traditional libertarianism but places a heavier emphasis on conservative social values, white racial resentment, and isolationist nationalism. It is, in many ways, a forerunner of today’s alt-right, and Paul himself has proven to be something of a gateway drug to even more extreme political movements. Tony Hovater, the neo-Nazi subject of a much-discussed New York Times profile last year, recalled that his fascist awakening began in 2012, when, as a supporter of Paul’s presidential campaign, he watched the Republican National Convention implement rule changes designed to favor eventual nominee Mitt Romney. Among the eclectic interests of Nicholas Young, the thirty-eight-year-old former Washington, D.C., Metro police officer who tried to assist the Islamic State, were Islamic radicalism, Nazism, neo-Confederacy, and… Ron Paul. In a piece about the part played by online subcultures in the radicalization of alt-right activists, Buzzfeed News’s Charlie Warzel noticed how so many individual stories “followed a similar pattern: steadfast libertarians—as the Times piece claimed Hovater was at one point—who found their way to the message board through an errant link and stayed awhile for the off-color jokes only to be drawn in by the political arguments,” eventually becoming full-blown neo-reactionaries.
Paul’s ideologically purist admirers balk at the comparison to Trump. The president, they say, is the furthest thing from a limited government, non-interventionist libertarian; on the contrary, he’s a big government, authoritarian militarist. Yet, while the two men certainly have their ideological differences, they possess paranoid temperaments that attract the same type of people. Last May, Kentucky Republican Congressman Thomas Massie, one of the House’s more libertarian-leaning members, observed how supporters of Ron Paul, his son, Senator Rand Paul, and Massie himself all ended up voting for Trump in the Republican primaries. “I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans,” Massie told the Washington Examiner. “But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas—they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.”
The appeal of Paul and Trump to such Americans is not so much their specific policy ideas as their anti-establishment temperament and rhetoric, and, more specifically, a feverish anti-elitism that inevitably leads to conspiracy-mongering. And it’s this commonality that distinguishes Paul from the other three-time presidential candidate with whom Trump is often compared: Pat Buchanan.
Much has been said about the ideological affinities between Trump and Buchanan, not least by Pitchfork Pat himself. “The ideas made it, but I didn’t,” the former Nixon and Reagan aide triumphantly told Politico Magazine last year. While Trump and Buchanan certainly share an aversion to free-trade deals and entanglements abroad, it’s Paul who is the closer analogue by virtue of that most poisonous trait he shares with the commander-in-chief: a penchant for conspiracy theories. Watching many of Trump’s interviews again after re-reading Paul’s newsletters, I noticed that Trump often sounds like a crasser, less-informed, Queens-inflected echo of Paul.
Although my reporting had clearly, and deservedly, damaged Paul’s reputation, I never once believed I was saving the republic by exposing the real Ron Paul—for the man never had a chance of winning the presidency. And when, during that same 2008 presidential race, a young Illinois senator named Barack Obama emerged on the scene and some right-wing personalities started raising questions about the validity of his birth certificate, I waved away their political import, seeing them as merely the sort of racially-tinged, cheap political attacks that would be directed at any African-American politician of such stature. I was wrong. Among the many lessons of Trump’s rise is that what’s left to fester in the fever swamps can soon spread much further.
In 2013, three months into Obama’s second term, Public Policy Polling found that more than a third of Republicans believed “a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government,” that is, the New World Order conspiracy Paul had been harping on for decades. Just as exposure to Ron Paul has acted as a gateway drug to more extreme political subcultures, so did birtherism serve as an appetizer for the candidate who has also claimed global warming is a Chinese hoax, suggested Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination, entertained the notion that vaccines cause autism, and promised voters that, if elected, “you will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center.” By the time Trump finally admitted that Obama was actually born in America, it was too late: a 2016 YouGov/Huffpost poll found that a majority of GOP voters didn’t. According to the 2016 American National Election Study, the best determinant of whether someone was a Trump voter was not their party affiliation, economic status, or race but whether they believed Obama to be a Muslim. Today, in their refusal to entertain information that puts the president in a bad light, pro-Trump pundits and everyday supporters demonstrate a willingness to believe the most ridiculous conspiracies—for instance, that Democratic Party email accounts were not hacked by Russians trying to help Trump, but were rather leaked by a DNC staffer named Seth Rich, who was in turn killed by the Clintons for his treachery. At one point during the Alabama Senate race, 71 percent of in-state Republicans did not believe the allegations of sexual assault leveled against GOP nominee Roy Moore.
Why did Trump succeed where Paul repeatedly failed? Trump’s unique attributes as a famous, charismatic television personality certainly account for much of his victory. So, too, does Trump’s razor-like focus on immigration, an issue where Paul did not stake out a hard-right stance. But another significant factor has to do with the way in which a changing media environment made easier the dissemination of conspiracy theories. When Ron Paul started his political career in the 1970s, Americans’ understanding of the world was largely shaped by three television networks, a few national broadsheets, a handful of preeminent newsweeklies, and their local newspapers. A select priesthood of journalistic gatekeepers effectively determined what qualified as news.
“Over the course of the century, electronic mass media had come to serve an important democratic function: presenting Americans with a single shared set of facts,” writes Kurt Andersen in his new book about the uniquely American penchant for magical thinking, Fantasyland. By the 1990s, however, the rise of the Internet, conservative talk radio, and Fox News “were enabling a reversion to the narrower, factional, partisan discourse that had been normal in America’s earlier centuries.” Whereas in Paul’s era, Americans suffering under the paranoid style of politics had to subscribe to a whole patchwork of snail-mail newsletters (many of which can be found within the vast archive of right-wing extremist political literature where I located Paul’s oeuvre), today, one need only to log onto Alex Jones’s Infowars site or read the president of the United States’ Twitter account to discover the nefarious activities of those really pulling the strings of global events.
There’s no point in pining for a lost era when a small group of journalistic elites determined the national conversation; and the democratization of media has brought many benefits, not the least of which is empowering marginalized voices that had traditionally been ignored. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that, while the Internet has given everyone a platform to tell their own stories, many abuse that new power. One result of this media fragmentation is that Americans today live in entirely different information spaces, where the conception of what’s true or false depends upon what cable network one views, radio show one listens to, or website one reads. In this sense, America is beginning to remind me of places I have traveled to in the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, where part of the country yearns to join the European Union and another believes Europe is a homosexual-fascist despotism.
In 1964, when the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace mounted a longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, the TV networks didn’t even cover his campaign announcement and The New York Times put the news on page eleven of an inside section. Half a century later, when another highly improbable figure—who, unlike Wallace, had never even held elective office—glided down the escalator of his Manhattan skyscraper to declare his presidential candidacy, the media covered him obsessively and has never looked away. It is not just that we live in a country where celebrities can become presidents, as the many, ostensibly serious people advocating that Oprah Winfrey challenge Trump indicate. We live in a country where the very archetype of the tinfoil-hat-wearing crackpot, whose claim to fame is standing on a street corner shouting obscenities, can have the ear of the most powerful person in the world.