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Ron Paul Redux: The Texan Congressman Has an Unlikely Intellectual Heir
Vivek Ramaswamy is running on Paul’s regressive libertarian populism
Wikipedia. Creative Commons. Gage Skidmore
We are back from our summer break. Much has happened in the world—and in our little nook— in the two weeks we were off.
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Remember that moment in the Republican presidential debate when one brash guy voiced some unorthodox positions, and the other candidates hastened to express their vigorous disagreement? Probably not. I mean, the debate took place in 2011, and that controversial Republican, Ron Paul, has largely faded from memory.
When he ran for the GOP nomination in 2008 and 2012, Paul came across as a rumpled gadfly voicing unvarnished opinions that put him on the fringes of the party. But today, at 88, he can look with pride on an ideological heir who is young, handsome and slick– and happens to be in perfect harmony with the modern Republican Party: No, not Rand Paul, Ron’s son, the three-term Republican Senator from Kentucky. It is the practicing Hindu and son of Indian immigrants: Vivek Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy doesn’t look or act like the avuncular Texas obstetrician. Educated at Harvard and Yale, with a glib confidence and a physique suited to playing tennis shirtless, Ramaswamy could hardly be more different. But that’s on the surface. Put him and Paul together in a room and they would find plenty to agree on. Not only do both self-identify as libertarians, they represent the same flavor of populist paleolibertarianism. The main difference is that Paul was starkly at odds with the prevailing ideology of the GOP back then. Ramaswamy, on the other hand, is fluent in the language of today’s very different GOP.
Comrades In Arms
Paul railed against the federal government and particularly the central bankers at the Federal Reserve. He abhorred multilateral institutions, affirmative action, foreign aid, welfare, and environmental protection. He denounced NAFTA as a step toward a North American Union. He vowed to cut federal spending by $1 trillion in his first year and abolish five cabinet departments. His newsletter described Martin Luther King Jr. as “the man who replaced the evil of forced segregation with the evil of forced integration.” Paul later claimed that he didn’t write or approve such statements in the publication that bore his name. But his followers ate them up.
You can hear distinct echoes of much of this in Ramaswamy.
The 38-year-old pharmaceutical tycoon says he would eliminate the Department of Education, the IRS, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the FBI, part of his unlikely plan to get rid of 75% of the federal workforce. He has said he would cut off aid to Ukraine and, in time, to Israel too – though he later reversed himself on the latter. Like Paul, he claims the “climate change agenda is a hoax.”
When a white gunman killed three Black people in Jacksonville, Florida, Ramaswamy, who likewise opposes affirmative action, put the blame not so much on the perpetrator but on racial preferences for creating “a new wave of anti-Black and anti-Hispanic racism in this country.” He suggested his running mate might be Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is notorious for his anti-vaccine disinformation, popular in certain libertarian circles.
Carrying Water for Trump
Ramaswamy says, “I don't think Donald Trump was the cause of Jan. 6,” ignoring a Himalayan pile of evidence confirming that he was thoroughly complicit in the Capitol insurrection. Without knowing the evidence that will emerge during Trump’s criminal trials—which Ramaswamy smears as “politicized prosecution”—he promises to grant the former president a full pardon. Oh, and he describes Trump as “the best president of the 21st century,” despite his unprecedented effort to overturn a free and fair democratic election.
Paul, meanwhile, has said little—if anything—about Trump’s role in inciting the Capitol mob. He has, however, slammed the Jan. 6 Congressional hearings as “insurrection theater” perpetrated by “desperate Democrats.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Ramaswamy outlined the following bizarre scenario if he were certifying the last election instead of Mike Pence: “Here’s what I would have said: ‘We need single-day voting on Election Day, we need paper ballots, and we need government-issued ID matching the voter file.’. . . In my capacity as president of the Senate, I would have led through that level of reform, then on that condition certified the election results, served it up to the president — President Trump — then to sign that into law. And on January 7th, declared the re-election campaign pursuant to a free and fair election.”
And then he would have ridden away on his purple unicorn. Ramaswamy’s alternative was not only idiotic but impossible, a tribute to either ignorance of the Constitution and the legislative process or breathtaking dishonesty. Paul had a reputation for being a kook given his many offbeat crusades. But Ramaswamy seems determined to outdo him.
On immigration too, Ramaswamy and Paul are remarkably aligned with each other and at odds with policy libertarians, who paleolibertarians deride as establishment elites. Paul was against a border wall—at least he said he was—whereas Ramaswamy, borrowing from Trump, has pledged to “close the southern border.” But Paul talked incessantly about eliminating the incentives for “illegal immigration,” to wit, easy welfare and easy birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented. In the same vein, Ramaswamy has pledged to push a constitutional amendment ending birthright citizenship if elected.
Ramaswamy: No Anti-War Warrior
But that’s not the only thing in the constitution Ramaswamy wants to amend. He’d also raise the voting age to 25, which would disenfranchise 31 million people—more than the population of Texas. That’s one way to address the Republican Party’s low esteem among 18-to-24 voters, 65% of whom voted for Joe Biden in 2020, though he may not have considered the electoral vengeance they would exact as soon as they turn 25.
Ramaswamy’s measure combines the anti-democratic with the coercive. Young adults could gain voting rights by passing a civics quiz or by spending six months in the military or “first responder service”—his goal being to “revive civic duty among Americans.” He has also advocated compulsory universal service for high school students on summer breaks in his book, Woke Inc.
Much of this, along with Ramaswamy’s embrace of the Monroe Doctrine as a warning to foreign powers such as China that “America comes First and that our hemisphere is not to be encroached by our adversaries,” would not thrill the Paulistas whose version of America Firstism consists of not spilling American blood for foreigners. Nor would they likely go along with Ramaswamy’s proposal to use military force to “annihilate the Mexican drug cartels” or his suggestion to make a firm commitment to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.
But paleolibertarian Paul fans would be four squares behind Ramaswamy on ceding Ukraine to Putin – the only Republican on the debate stage in favor of doing so.
Mainstreaming the Fringe
They would also be open to Ramaswamy’s conspiratorial turn of mind. Paul has tried to distance himself from the kooky theories peddled under his name in his newsletter—like when in the grimmest days of the AIDS epidemic, it accused gays of plotting to “poison the blood supply”—but Paul himself is on the record claiming that the U.S. government knew about 9/11 in advance but kept it a secret. In a similar vein, Ramaswamy also hinted at federal involvement in the attack but recanted later.
When Paul ran for the GOP nomination, his views were effectively disqualifying. In 2012, his best showing, he finished third in the Iowa caucuses and second in the New Hampshire primaries. He eventually ended up with 8% of the convention delegates, putting him fourth in the overall race. But like Pat Buchanan before him, he was never halfway plausible as the Republican presidential nominee. His role was provocateur, taking bold positions that let his rivals unite in denouncing him as dangerous and irresponsible.
Ramaswamy likewise found his opponents ganging up on him in the first Republican debate, with Nikki Haley, Chris Christie and Mike Pence doing their best to read him out of the race. But his views, despite their similarity to Paul’s, can no longer be derided as conservative heresy. In fact, his rivals seemed to be the ones defensive with GOP voters, which is no surprise given Trump retains the allegiance of 59% of them, according to a post-debate poll.
Ramaswamy isn’t likely to win the nomination. But if he loses, it won’t be because his views are too extreme for the party faithful who remain under the spell of Trump’s toxic populism. That’s why Ramaswamy has shrewdly declared, “I’m in this race to take the America First agenda far further than Donald Trump ever did.”
To that end, Ramaswamy has put out a 10-point statement of his convictions which include “God is real,” “there are two genders,” “reverse racism is racism,” and “an open border is no border,” all intended to signal his vehement opposition to the left.
Paul was against the cultural left too but he didn’t make that the center-point of his campaign because the GOP then wasn’t fighting the culture war 24/7. But post-Trump, the party is fully consumed by the leftist enemy and so what was implicit in Paul is now explicit in Ramaswamy.
In retrospect, Paul was less an outlier than a forerunner. In his candidacy were the seeds of a new version of a populist libertarian conservatism—rooted in a suspicion of ties with the rest of the world, racial paranoia, rejection of cultural liberalization, hostility toward almost every major national and international institution, a propensity for red-pill fantasies and a distrust of democracy.
What was fringe in Paul’s time is now the dominant strain in the GOP—and Ramaswamy is determined to be its champion.
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