One of the most bizarre things about the Republican presidential primary contest is the popularity of Ron Paul.
The Texas congressman has been a libertarian standard-bearer for more decades than that economic philosophy has been popular or tolerated, even in conservative circles.
Along the way, Mr. Paul has developed a reputation as a principled ideologue, especially when he is contrasted against chameleons like fellow front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Because Mr. Paul espouses social-political theories that young people in the first throes of infatuation with Ayn Rand's dreary melodramas take seriously, he is as close as many of them will ever get to the long-dead founder of Objectivism.
Mr. Paul has become an avatar of enlightened self-interest, even while maintaining a friendly, if not necessarily avuncular, demeanor. He's like a prickly old uncle who shows up at a family gathering after years in exile ready to pass on his version of the family's twisted history to the next generation. His outsider status in the family appeals to our sense of adventure and curiosity. The fact that he is feared adds to his charm.
Still, it is Mr. Paul's irascibility and impatience with Republican orthodoxies that accounts for much of his popularity with the young people canvassing rural Iowa for him.
Even liberals appreciate Mr. Paul's heretical gumption when he mocks the drug war, the Iraq war and our wasted decade in Afghanistan. When he rails against the assault on American civil liberties by a national security state-stoking paranoia, there are more than a few nods in his direction from the Democrats' amen corner. Even Jon Stewart keeps it friendly and superficial whenever Mr. Paul visits "The Daily Show."
For agreeing with liberals on the folly of foreign wars and for his advocacy of a return to the gold standard, cessation of aid to Israel and abolishing the Federal Reserve, the Republican establishment has rejected Ron Paul as a serious contender for the nomination, regardless of how well he does in Iowa. Still, he's poised to either win the first Republican contest of 2012 next week or place a strong second. That would create embarrassment for the GOP on many levels.
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Mr. Paul's support among white nationalists, various militia movements, John Birch Society dead-enders, incorrigible anti-Semites and old-fashioned bigots trolling the Internet for a champion is finally becoming an issue. Media scrutiny of the newsletter he's published over the decades has prompted Mr. Paul to acknowledge that some of his support comes from the most unseemly and racist elements of society, but he insists he has never supported their causes in return.
"We understand that Paul is not a white nationalist, but most of our people support him because of his stand on issues," Donald Black of the racist website Stormfront told The New York Times. That endorsement should be damning enough, but one only needs to read what was published with Mr. Paul's blessings to see why extremists want him to be president.
"I've urged everyone in my family to know how to use a gun in self-defense. For the animals are coming," said one anonymous piece in "The Ron Paul Survival Report," referring to "urban youth who play whites like pianos." Fear of a race war is a recurring theme in the newsletters, though Mr. Paul isn't known for resorting to racial invective to make his points. That doesn't mean he doesn't look the other way when others do it. He also claims not to know who wrote the most offensive pieces in his own newsletter.
One article referred to the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as "Hate Whitey Day." There were equally touching pieces over the years about AIDS victims and so-called "homosexual conspiracies."
Many of Ron Paul's newsletters purport to reveal plots to suspend the Constitution. They raise fears about a movement toward one world government and the machinations of the Israeli lobby. By any standard, Mr. Paul regularly wrote -- or published -- opinions and theories that disqualify him for consideration to any high or low federal office.
It isn't likely that many of Mr. Paul's more idealistic young supporters or admirers in liberal circles are aware of his unsavory history as a publisher or the fact that they are fellow travelers with some of the worst characters this country has ever produced. Mr. Paul can't bring himself to fully disavow the racists who support him because they've stuck with him longer than just about anyone.