Ron Paul has worked very hard through two presidential campaign seasons to cross the line from being the Republican Party’s token libertarian gadfly to emerging as a legitimate leadership figure with a chance of winning the nomination in 2012. In his quest he has been both helped and hindered by his own followers. On the one hand their devotion to Paul and their enthusiasm are amazing, giving him an edge in fundraising and promotion which none of the other Republicans can match. On the other hand, a fraction of those enthusiastic supporters are just plain nuts and their statements and beliefs have been used against Paul by his critics inside his party, in the other party and in the media.
Ron Paul is in no way responsible for the beliefs and delusions of his followers in the same way that Jodie Foster was not responsible for John Hinckley’s attack on Ronald Reagan. It might be different if he encouraged them or deliberately pandered to them, or shared their more radical obsessions, but he has not done that, and has often made very clear where he disagrees with them. Bizarrely they seem oblivious to this and in many cases are convinced that Dr. Paul shares their beliefs no matter how often he clearly states that he does not.
One striking example of this is his relationship with the 9/11 “truth” movement, the tumultuous cabal of conspiracy fanatics who advocate an assortment of bizarre and contradictory theories about the attack on the World Trade Center, each one more implausible than the last. Many Truthers are outspoken Ron Paul supporters and are absolutely convinced that he agrees with their beliefs, despite all evidence to the contrary. When confronted with direct statements disagreeing with them from Dr. Paul their cognitive dissonance kicks in and they translate what he says into something different which fits their delusions.
In a recent discussion a Truther said to me “I watched a video on national TV where he (Ron Paul) renounced the official version of 9/11 and called for more investigation. He even said that he couldn’t rule out an inside job.” Yet when challenged to produce a video of this statement he could not provide a link to one. What he and other truthers progably actually saw was one of several television interviews like the one below:
In these interviews Paul criticizes the 9/11 investigation, but not on the basis that they came up with the wrong explanation for the attacks. What Paul always focuses on in these interviews is his concern that the investigation did not look at root causes of the attacks in our foreign policy or the incompetence of government agencies which failed to prevent the attacks. Nowhere does he ever support any alternative theory on the 9/11 attacks.
That’s a provocative and potentially controversial position for him to take, but it’s decidedly not the same as advocating or in any way supporting any of the popular conspiracy theories. Paul’s views still fall within the political norm and they don’t in any way endorse any alternate interpretation of the basic facts of the events of 9/11.
Because there is this common perception among his own supporters that he holds beliefs which he seems not to, he ends up being asked about it a lot. Those supporters are delusional, so they pretend his answers denying their movement don’t exist and for his part, Paul seems puzzled and annoyed that the rumors persist, as you can hear in this radio interview:
Paul has even rejected 9/11 conspiracy theories in a presidential debate, early in the 2008 election. But in this case, as often happens, when offered an opportunity to speak directly to his supporters and urge them not to continue to promote delusional ideas which hurt his candidacy dy association, his natural inclination to support free thought and free speech lead him into the error of appearing tolerant of their beliefs. Despite having every reason to whack them on the knuckles and send them to bed without dinner, he’s too tolerant and too nice a guy to be firm with them, even if it may well cost him the presidency again in 2012 as it did in 2008.
A lot of this is a function of wilfull denial of reality, a kind of cognitive dissonance where the truthers are absolutely divorced from reality. In this video truthers ask him about the conspiracy and he gives a reasonable and compelling explanation for why their theories are irrational, because the government is too inept to have actually carried out a conspiracy on that grand scale, and that if anything went on it was just a coverup of government incompetence.
Clearly some people get the mssage, but a core group among his followers won’t accept the truth about 9/11 even from a revered leader like Paul. The response you can see on the message thread which goes with the video shows how delusional his truther followers are. One writes “yeah sure.. he can’t say it was a total inside job even though IT WAS. You have to be cautious about these harsh comments.” Another rationalizes away Paul’s statements saying “I think Paul suspects that it was an inside job too, but he doesn’t want to cross that line, for it would completely ruin his presidential aspirations.”
Even though Paul is clearly rejecting the 9/11 conspiracy theories in these statements, that core group of crazy followers can’t accept the possibility that he disagrees with them and they have convinced themselves that Paul, who they revere for his truthfulness, is lying to protect himself and actually agrees with them no matter how many times he denies it.
There’s no question that Ron Paul’s relationship with the truthers, as with other fringe groups, is a mostly one-sided relationship. They like Paul, but he clearly doesn’t like them very much. He finds himself involuntarily saddled with a cadre of fanatical nuts who follow him around and end up associating themselves with his campaign and no matter what he says and does he can’t get rid of them. They don’t realize they’re dragging him down to defeat by tainting hm with their lunacy and he’s too nice a guy to tell them to go to hell.
It’s really a tragic situation and the irony of it is painful. Inevitably, when the behavior of his followers causes Paul to come up short in his last and greatest campaign in 2012, after the fact those followers will gather over a beer and blame his defeat on the grand conspiracy they also blame for 9/11, never understanding that it was them and their actions which doomed their hero, because they could not bring themselves to shut up and accept reality and listen to what he was actually telling them.
A version of this article originally appeared on Blogcritics.org