Wearing gray slacks and a white t-shirt, Rand Paul took a seat in the Capitol physician’s office last week to get a Hepatitis A booster. This wasn’t just about his physical health. He was there with a reporter to do damage control over his earlier remarks on vaccines. Paul had said on national TV that he was aware of “many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” The comment was a disaster for Paul and opened up serious questions about the viability of his candidacy. But while he likely will weather this storm, the episode does shed light on the conspiracy theories that have defined Rand Paul’s worldview and his rise to political power.
Time and again, in one incident after another, Paul has shown that his worldview is colored if not controlled outright by the idea that America’s very existence is constantly threatened by shadowy conspiracies both foreign and domestic. It is hardly surprising that someone who embraces such radical ideas would also adopt the conspiratorial anti-vaccine position.
A distrust of the scientific validity of vaccinations is part of a broader conspiratorial worldview. “Almost by definition, conspiracy theories are irrefutable; rejections by scientific authorities just become part of the conspiracy,” notes science journalist Chris Mooney, and “analyses of anti-vaccine views, undertaken by analyzing their expression on the web or on YouTube in particular, have found them to be highly conspiratorial in nature.” A study by psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, a specialist in conspiracy theories, noted that, “People who tend toward conspiratorial thinking are three times more likely to reject vaccinations.” The “vaccines cause autism” story is typically framed as a conspiracy in which, as journalist Laura Helmuth characterized it, “government epidemiologists and other scientists, conspiring with the vaccine industry, have covered up data and lied about vaccine ingredients to hide this fact. Journalists are dupes of this powerful cabal that is intentionally poisoning children.”
Rand Paul’s embrace of vaccination skepticism is a reminder, just when he’s trying to enter the presidential race, of his tawdry background growing up with and propagating an array of conspiracy theories.
Though he avoids talking about it now, Paul has repeatedly railed against the Bilderberg Group’s quest for world government, a conspiracy to create a North American Union that would replace the dollar with the Amero currency, and a United Nations effort to take away Americans’ guns. Today he is trying, as the New York Times framed it, to move away from his father’s shadow and towards the political center. Paul may not talk about these conspiracies today, but his vaccine comments remind us just how central conspiracy theories are to his worldview.
For Rand Paul, a belief in conspiracy theories dates back to his time at Baylor University where he worked with his father, Ron, to found the Young Conservatives of Texas, a group that sought to split from William F. Buckley’s more moderate Young Americans for Freedom. Paul was a leader in the chapter at Baylor. After bringing in his father as an adviser, the father-son duo worked to propagate conspiracy theories. As Ryan Lizza chronicled for The New Yorker, they screened “The Incredible Bread Machine,” a film centered on how IRS agents would hunt down Americans. The speakers they invited to campus included Johnny Stewart, who helped pioneer the conspiracy theory that the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations were running the country, and Kitty Werthmann, a conspiracy theorist infamous for comparing Obama to Hitler.
Rand grew up inheriting much of his father’s conspiratorial worldview, in which secret cabals run out of the East Coast were seeking to destroy the country. Rand Paul came of age when his father was writing mind-bogglingly cosnpiratorial newsletters that warned about the Trilateral Commission. When asked whether he even read the newsletters, Rand has literally turned his back on reporters.
In his own rise to political power in Kentucky, Paul fully embraced conspiracies. The first strand in Paul’s conspiratorial thinking focuses on secretive cabals, such as the Bilderberg Group, that were disloyally selling America over to a world government for their own profit.
During his 2010 run for the Senate, Paul warned Kentuckians about such conspiracies. “[The Bilderberg Group] want[s] to make it out like they just want to help humanity and world government would be good for humanity,” he said. “Well guess what—world government’s good for their pocketbook. They’re very wealthy and they use government to make more money for themselves, and that’s where you expose them.” During the campaign, he said, “We should expose people who are, you know, promoting this globalist agenda for personal gain and for financial gain at the expense of the rest of our country and at the expense of our republic.”
Lately, Paul has tried to distance himself from these conspiracy theories. “Build a Burger would be a great name for a fast food chain,” the head of Rand PAC replied when asked about the comments.
Paul’s argument about the Bilderberg Group can be best understood as part of a populist tradition that seeks to capitalize on anger about economic stagnation in the heartland by blaming secret conspiracies on the East Coast. Though he didn’t specify who “they” are in his tirade against the “very wealthy” who are using world government for their own profit, he didn’t need to, because he was playing into a trope that voters could easily understand. “There was something about the Populist imagination that loved the secret plot and the conspiratorial meeting,” historian Richard Hofstadter noted in his canonical Age of Reform. “There was in fact a widespread Populist idea that all American history since the Civil War could be understood as a sustained conspiracy of the international monetary power,” he continued.
Though Paul never specified the Jews as the “they,” in the Bilderberg Group conspiracy, that implication is barely beneath the surface. The Anti-Defamation League has pointed out the conspiracy gained traction in the anti-Semitic newsletter The Spotlight, and was consistent with a depiction of Jews as secretly running the country. Paul’s depiction of a disloyal group taking advantage of the rest of the country fits with traditional anti-Semitic ideas about Jews being a fifth column intent on making profits without any loyalty to nation.
Hofstadter noted that “populist anti-Semitism was entirely verbal. It was a mode of expression, a rhetorical style, not a tactic or a program,” and this is a perfect example of what he meant. Without mentioning Jews, Paul was depicting a disloyal moneyed East Coast elite that threatened his heartland constituent—that these elites were “the Jews” was implicit. Unfortunately for Rand, his father made a more explicit anti-Semitic reference when he said the “Rockefeller Trilateralists” were pushing world government. The kernel of the idea is unmistakably the same for father and son, and in a dangerous populist tradition, both Ron and Rand Paul vowed to stand up for the real Americans against this disloyal—and implicitly Jewish—elite.
The second strand in Rand Paul’s conspiratorial thinking focused on the threat from world government, such as the United Nations or the North American Union, that was intent on taking over America.
Paul was intent on giving credence to fears about world government. “Some of the fears of world government are legitimate,” he said in an interview during his run for the Senate. “When you hear about the ‘Amero,’ a new North American money,” he said, “you might say that those people are just conspiracy theorists. But if you said the same thing about the euro 30 years ago they would have said, ‘Oh, you’re crazy, we’ll never get rid of the pound and those currencies, and lo and behold we have a euro currency. So some of the fears of world government are legitimate.”
While aware that these ideas could make him sound like a conspiracy theorist, Paul was undeterred. Speaking in 2008 on behalf of his father’s presidential campaign, he told supporters as he warned of the looming NAFTA superhighway: “So, it’s a real thing, and, when you talk about it, the thing you just have to be aware of is that, if you talk about it like it’s a conspiracy, they’ll paint you as a nut.”
For Paul, being depicted as a conspiracy theorist merely meant that you were speaking truths that others found to be taboo. He sees himself as a truth-teller unlike the politicians “that evolve to the top of the Republican and the Democratic Party [who] end up being the people who don’t believe in anything … and they get pushed around by the New World Order types.” Who precisely these “New World Order types” are, he doesn’t say. The conspiracy functions best when the conspirators are not identified.
This fear of world government led Paul deep into the territory of worrying about black helicopters. In opposition to the U.N. Small Arms Treaty, Paul sent out an email laced with caps lock in 2011 saying that it was a “massive, GLOBAL gun control scheme” that was “designed to register, ban and CONFISCATE firearms owned by private citizens like YOU.” This was in line with his 2010 campaign’s “Sovereignty” platform, in which he warned that America must not be “subservient” to “foreign bodies” such as the U.N. and pledged to conduct a foreign policy “without funding or joining international organizations. The US Government must answer only to the Constitution and the citizens protected by it.” The conspiracy was completely fabricated. But, as Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent observed, Paul was happy to let his “approach to a problem [gun violence] that continues to claim American lives be dictated by a group that is happy to traffic in strains of paranoia that rival U.N. black helicopter fantasies.”
Indeed, Paul has flirted with the idea that Americans may need to turn their guns on the government. Talking about a time when money becomes worthless because of the Federal Reserve conspiracy, Paul was hopeful, because the odds that people will “give up their gold [is] about as likely as they will be to give up their guns anymore and I think that’s the one good thing we have going on in America—there’s a lot of still independent spirit in the countryside.”
While Paul stopped short in that comment of advocating violence against the U.S. government, he has fear-mongered about a time when “we will have an army of armed EPA agents—thousands of them,” who will come after Americans and he propagated Alex Jones’s lie that the National Weather Service was stockpiling hollow-tip bullets. Paul wanted the anti-government survivalists on the fringe to embrace him and he made his case clear without having to say in explicit terms that citizens should be prepared for a day when they turn their guns on their government.
Though Paul has toned down his conspiracy theorizing, he has continually taken the advice of those with fringe political beliefs during his rise to power. Paul said he learned about the Bilderberg Group from Alex Jones, one of Paul’s influential backers in the 2010 Senate race during which Paul was a frequent guest on Jones’s radio-show. Jones is a noted 9/11 truther and has been a major defender of both Ron and Rand Paul.
In 2010, Paul’s own spokesman, Christopher Hightower, was forced to resign after it came to light that he maintained a blog suggesting that American foreign policy was responsible for 9/11. In 2013, Rand Paul’s foreign policy adviser, Jack Hunter, resigned in the wake of revelations that he maintained a neo-Confederate blog in which he claimed the North had committed “genocide” against the Confederacy.
Repeatedly, Paul has severed his ties to these individuals once their fringe views become widely publicized. But with each new revelation about a Paul’s intimate’s crackpot theories, it becomes increasingly hard to accept his repeated claims that he was unaware of their extremist beliefs.
To fully understand Paul’s asinine vaccine comments, we have to understand the conspiratorial nature of his worldview. This isn’t a one-off issue for Paul. Growing up under the tutelage of his father, Paul has embraced and espoused a conspiratorial worldview where “official” truths are to be doubted in favor of explanations based on secretive plots. Paul’s rise to power was based on the populist tradition of “weaving a vast fabric of social explanation out of nothing but skeins of evil plots,” in Hofstadter’s words.
Such views have always existed at the political fringe, but they become dangerous when they come close to finding a home in the Oval Office. And of course Paul doesn’t want us prying into his deep, disturbing history of embracing conspiracy theories just when he’s trying to mainstream his views for the presidency. Because if we did get a good look at the nonsense he’s been preaching for years, we might then realize just how unqualified he is to be president.
Sam Kleiner is a fellow at the Yale Law Information Society Project.