HOUSTON — Rand Paul wants to lead the United States. On Saturday in Texas, his father was speaking at a conference about how to leave it.
“A lot of times people think secession, they paint it as an absolute negative,” said former representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.). After all, Paul said, the American Revolution was a kind of secession. “You mean we should have been obedient to the king forever? So it’s all in the way you look at it.”
This weekend was a crucial one for Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky and undeclared candidate for the presidency. He was in California, trying to line up donors at an opulent retreat organized by the billionaire Koch brothers.
At the same time, his father — retired after 12 terms in Congress and three presidential runs — was in the ballroom of an airport hotel here, the final speaker at “a one-day seminar in breaking away from the central state.” He followed a series of speakers who said that the U.S. economy and political establishment were tottering and that the best response might be for states, counties or even individuals to break away.
“The America we thought we knew, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a mirage. It’s a memory. It’s a foreign country,” Jeff Deist, Ron Paul’s former press secretary and chief of staff, told the group. “And that’s why we should take secession seriously.”
The contrasting scenes this weekend illuminate the odd situation of the Pauls as the 2016 campaign season begins. They are a father and son tied together — but running in opposite directions.
Rand, 52, is contemplating a presidential run — at its heart, an act of optimism. He is moderating some hard-line positions and introducing himself to donors and voters. At the same time, Ron, 79, has embraced a role as libertarianism’s prophet of doom, telling his supporters that the United States is headed for catastrophes — and might actually need catastrophes to get on the right track.
Which puts Rand Paul in the unusual position of trying to win over the country while his father says it is going down the tubes.
Asked by a reporter whether he was worried about making trouble for his son’s presidential campaign by talking about secession here, Ron Paul deflected the blame to the press: “If we had decent reporters, there would never be any problems. You think you could ever meet one? Have a heart, buddy.”
A spokesman for Rand Paul said he was not available to comment for this story. Both Pauls have said that if Rand Paul runs for president, his father will not campaign with him.
But supporters of the two men are concerned that Ron Paul’s continued activism will weigh on his son, even if they never appear onstage together. They worry that Rand Paul may have to repeatedly draw and re-draw the lines between his father’s views and his own.
“If I were Ron, and my son were running for president, and we were in the same situation, I would shut up,” said Walter Block, an economics professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. He rated Ron Paul a 98 on his personal scale of libertarianism and Rand Paul a 70, and said he supported them both.
“Ron is a millstone around Rand’s neck, in the sense that he’s not helping him — or, at least, he’s not helping him be Rand,” Block said. “Because Rand is a compromiser, and Ron and ‘compromise’ don’t belong in the same sentence.”
The two Pauls share many political positions. Both, for instance, have concerns about National Security Agency surveillance. But the son has called for reforming the agency’s practices, while the father wants to kill the NSA. Both Pauls are skeptical of overseas wars. But the father wants to pull all U.S. forces out of the Middle East, while the son has supported using U.S. warplanes to strike at the Islamic State, believing the group is a threat to American installations in the region.
The most important differences, however, are in the solutions they see to the nation’s problems.
Rand Paul’s solution is Rand Paul: a new president, with the right ideas and the guts to make the system work.
“All is not well in America. America is adrift. Something is clearly wrong,” Paul said in his downbeat response to President Obama’s upbeat State of the Union address last week. “America needs many things, but what America desperately needs is new leadership.”
Ron Paul’s solution, it appears, is to invite more calamity so that Americans are forced realize that the system is broken.
“Sanity will not return to U.S. leaders until our financial system collapses — an event for which they are feverishly working,” he wrote in an online column this month. The same column included predictions of greater inner-city strife, increased casualties among American armed forces overseas, and a dangerous escalation of tensions with Russia. “Before we can actually restore our liberties, we most likely will have to become a lot less free and much poorer,” he wrote.
Those opposing worldviews — one looking up, the other looking for rock bottom — have led the two Pauls to enunciate sharply different outlooks on American politics. Last year, for instance, the younger Paul campaigned for Republicans in 30 states before the midterm elections. On Election Day, his father said he didn’t expect much to change.
“We don’t have true democracy,” he told the Kremlin-based Russia Today network (although he said that his son was one of the forces for good in Washington). “We have a monopoly of ideas that are controlled by leaders of two parties, and though they call it two parties, it’s really one philosophy.”
And on Saturday, he came to Houston to talk about secession.
The event was organized by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an Alabama-based think tank named after an Austrian economist whose writings are highly respected by libertarians. Ron Paul is a member of its board.
“We’ve been conquered. We’ve been occupied by the state, with its phony veneer of democratic elections,” Deist, the day’s first speaker, said, contending that the federal government has taken on powers the Founding Fathers never envisioned. He continued: “Why not seek out ways to split apart, rationally and nonviolently? Why dismiss secession, the rational alternative that’s staring us in the face?”
Other speakers offered a number of definitions for “secession.” They said individual states could break off, notwithstanding the experience in the Civil War (“Lincoln violated the Constitution” to keep the union together, one speaker said). States could even break off and join other countries, if they wanted.
“If Texas wanted to secede and join Mexico, I think they can do that. There’s nothing stopping them,” said Brion McLanahan, another speaker.
“I think Mexico is in many ways far freer than the United States,” Deist agreed.
But the speakers said that there were other ways to “secede,” beyond convincing your state to go it alone. Individual people could “secede” by doing such things as home-schooling their children, not going to mainstream colleges, owning gold and foreign currencies, and stockpiling food, fuel, firearms and cash (“seceding from dependency,” that was called).
In theory, speakers said, every American could just secede from the others, creating a nation where no one was subjugated to anyone else’s rule.
“What do we do for national defense?” someone in the audience asked.
“National defense is largely a myth. In other words, my fears for my family from Mr. Putin are far more remote than my fears of Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner,” Deist said, meaning Russian President Vladimir Putin and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). He conceded there was one problem with this plan: “The thorn . . . is that nuclear weapons exist,” and somebody would have control over them, Deist said. “But secession is not perfection. It’s not utopia.”
Paul speech, the day’s last, was titled “Secession and Liberty,” but the focus was largely on the latter. Paul spent relatively little time on the mechanics or morality of secession, instead talking about the virtues of a smaller federal government and the ways in which big governments impose war on peace-loving people.
Paul’s son — the one headed to California — was mentioned only once onstage. “We have five children. There’s one involved, I think, in politics. I can’t remember his name . . .” he said, as the audience laughed.
Rand Paul will need to broaden his appeal far beyond his father’s hard-core supporters if he hopes to win the GOP nomination his father never could. But some members of that core said he was losing them by adopting policies closer to the GOP mainstream.
“He is the ‘Star Wars, Episode I,’ ” said Kent Ohler, 38, who records sound for TV and movies. He meant that the younger Paul was like the long-anticipated but largely disappointing sequel to the “Star Wars” movie franchise. “You have to like him to some degree, just because the name’s still stuck [on him]. But at the end of the day, he’s just not freakin’ right.”
Ohler and his younger brother Adam, sitting next to him, took the analogy further: Rand Paul’s endorsement of Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election was his “Jar Jar Binks” — comparing the Romney endorsement to the annoying alien that many “Star Wars” aficionados said made the “Phantom Menace” prequel irretrievably bad.
Chris Williams, 23, of Austin was at the same table, trying to find a way to make sense of the differences between father and son.
“Would it be so bad for one guy to totally fake and pretend, like a neocon, and then revert” to his true libertarianism? Williams asked.
“Like a libertarian ‘Manchurian Candidate’?” asked Kent Ohler.
“It’s dumb. It’s so many layers,” Williams said, realizing his idea wouldn’t work.
David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.