Magazine | January 23, 2012, Issue

Courting the Cranks

Murray Rothbard is still hurting the Right

For most of the past century, left-wing fringe nuttery in American politics came in one color: red. Say what you will about Communism — and go ahead and start with 100 million murders, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the permanent intellectual and moral scars inflicted on much of Europe and Asia — Marxism-Leninism had a conveniently centralizing effect. From union goons to environmental radicals to Occupy Wall Street, even today it’s still pretty much one dinky degree of separation between the mainstream Left and the wretched remains of the Communist Party USA and other historical appendages of the Kremlin, a more or less unbroken chain of Rosenbergs and Alger Hisses and Harry Dexter Whites. On the other hand, right-wing fringe nuttery, which never attached itself to a European totalitarian movement, is one big bag of political Skittles: a rainbow of fruit flavors, a fair sampling of which can be found floating around the Ron Paul movement, thanks in no small part to two of the Right’s great confectioners of kookery — Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell.

Ron Paul’s less-pathetic-than-expected presidential campaign has brought fresh attention to his newsletters and the occasionally odious sentiments expressed therein, which were first brought to general public attention by the journalist James Kirchick, writing in The New Republic in 2008. Kirchick’s report inspired two distinct responses. The first can be summarized: “Eek! A Jew!” Save your crayons, kids, unless you can account for such verbatim sentiments as “Gay, Zionist Jew James Kirchick bashes Dr. Ron Paul” and “The people that hate Ron Paul are the same people that hate Jesus. They are New World Order/Illuminati/Zionists/Satanists.” I’ve been around the far right and far left long enough to know that “neocon” and “Zionist” are how well-schooled kooks pronounce “dirty Jew.” And that was the response of the great Paulite unwashed.

The second response, that of the respectable libertarian world, the “Orange Line Mafia” in Washington and its affiliates in sensitive and sober intellectual enclaves from Manhattan to Orange County, was: “Heavens! How could this be?” Ron Paul’s own response was a variation on that theme: Libertarians can’t be racists, he argued, because libertarians are individualists, and racism is a collectivist idea. Which is all fine and good and dandy, but doesn’t get us very far toward answering the question of how precisely those un-libertarianly racist sentiments ended up in a newsletter published by the country’s most influential libertarian politician. Oops! is not the answer we’re looking for. The answer is: It was all part of a plan. A very stupid plan.

That plan was hatched by one Murray Rothbard, a brilliant man and in many ways an admirable one. He was a tireless exponent of the Austrian school of economics and had a real talent for exposing the self-interested motives of self-proclaimed patriots and esurient servants of the public weal who spent the post-war era building what he dubbed the “welfare-warfare state.”

He was also the Right’s example par excellence of what happens when political positions calcify into ideology and then metastasize into mania. Taking inspiration from the Vietnam-era anti-war movement and the rise of David Duke, he hoped to build a hippie-redneck coalition to resurrect the program of the 1930s Right, and his opening bid was the “total abolition of the New Deal, the whole kit and kaboodle of the welfare state, the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act, going off gold in 1933, and all the rest. . . . Some would stop at repealing the New Deal. Others would press on, to abolition of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, including the Federal Reserve System and especially that mighty instrument of tyranny, the income tax and the Internal Revenue Service.” Okay, your average conservative-libertarian type might be thinking, so far, so awesome. Then Rothbard adds: “Still others, extremists such as myself, would not stop until we repealed the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789, and maybe even think the unthinkable and restore the good old Articles of Confederation.” They may not be Topic A in the nation’s political discourse, but Rothbard had a thing for the Articles of Confederation — not because they represented, in his mind, a good blueprint for government, since he denied that there could be such a thing. He regarded the Articles as overly statist but greatly preferable to their hideous and lamentable replacement, i.e. the Constitution of the United States, the ratification of which he described as a “statist coup d’etat” backed by the villain he called “Generalissimo Washington.” Lincoln and FDR get even worse treatment. It is worth noting that while Ron Paul promises to restore the American constitutional order, his most energetic partisans have as their intellectual North Star a man who despised the Constitution and hoped for its overthrow. (Free advice: Do not bother asking Ron Paul partisans about this. Take it from one who knows.)

#page#Always keen to distinguish himself from the mid-century Right — he loathed National Review, and wrote about the magazine acidly and obsessively — Rothbard had no time for the libertarian-minded conservative, or even for the fellow anarchist who out of patriotism “reveres the American government as the ‘freest in the world’” while “he worships the Founding Fathers . . . loves and admires the two major enforcement goon-squad arms of the State: the army and the police . . . supports their clubbing, beating, and torturing of dissenters and opposition movements to the State. Totally ignorant of the American guilt for the Cold War and of the long-time expansionist nature of U.S. imperialism, he supports that Cold War in the belief that the ‘international Communist conspiracy’ is a direct military threat to American liberties. Critical of Establishment propaganda in domestic affairs, he yet has allowed himself to be totally sucked in by the Establishment propaganda about the Communist bogey. Hence, he supports the American military. . . . Although a self-proclaimed libertarian, he shows no concern whatever for the genocidal American murder of millions of . . .” — but you get the point: He talked about the Communists approximately the way Ron Paul talks about the jihadists and the atomic ayatollahs. He believed that American militarism supplies its own enemies, and that everybody would just leave us the heck alone, and invite us on a jolly little picnic or something, if only we would follow his foreign-policy prescriptions, which were to have no foreign policy, because foreign policies are for states, and we weren’t to have one of those, either.

William F. Buckley repaid Rothbard’s attentions with a famous obituary that begins, “Murray Rothbard had defective judgment,” and goes on to recount that in the 1950s Rothbard “physically applauded Khrushchev in his limousine as it passed by on the street. He gave as his reason for this that, after all, Khrushchev had killed fewer people than General Eisenhower, his host.” (Rothbard regarded Ike’s defeat of Senator Taft at the 1952 convention as a key moment in the rise of the wrong kind of Right.) Rothbard, WFB wrote, ended his days with “about as many disciples as David Koresh had in his little redoubt in Waco. Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom, and yes, David Koresh believed in God.”

As you might imagine, forging a functioning political coalition out of Americans who believe that history’s great villains are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and the boys who stormed the beaches at Normandy, and who want nothing more than to restore the Articles of Confederation as a stepping stone toward achieving total, blissful anarchy — and building that coalition around conservatives — turns out to be kind of hard. And that is where Rothbard really went spectacularly wrong. In his more rigorous mode, Rothbard is defensible as a political theorist; agree with him or not, his critique of the state is compelling and intellectually coherent. As a political strategist, however, he was a disaster, and he continues to hobble the libertarian movement from beyond the grave. Part of that is a consequence of his puritanical consistency-at-all-costs approach to politics, which cannot account for the actual variations of human experience and political conditions.

But a big part of it was biographical, too. As talk-radio listeners will appreciate, the more populist elements of the Right are wont to wag their fingers accusingly at pundits who are “trapped in the Beltway” or are Manhattan-dwelling elitists who seldom sally forth into the Real America. But Rothbard was in fact for many years a virtual prisoner of New York City, stricken by a range of phobias — bridges, tunnels, airplanes — that made it all but impossible for him to travel. (He was also terrified of elevators, which made life in Manhattan inconvenient. One former colleague relates an amusing story about the near-impossible task of getting Rothbard to attend a reception for Robert Nozick on the 108th floor of the World Trade Center. Led pale and terrified from the elevator, Rothbard greeted his fellow libertarians: “I bring you greetings from Planet Earth.”) Rothbard knew Ayn Rand (and had the good sense to recognize her for a cult leader), he knew Mises and Nozick and other high-grade intellectuals, but he was not, to say the least, exactly up to his armpits in Real Americans. Still, he wanted to build a populist movement, and he needed allies. And, like many New York intellectuals before and since, he believed that Real Americans are basically boobs. When he noticed that former Ku Klux Klan kingpin David Duke seemed to be getting some traction in Louisiana, he was rapt: Eureka! There is the comrade in liberty for whom I have been pining lo these many years. He celebrated the emergence of this new avatar of “right-wing populism,” and, when Duke went down in ignominy, Rothbard wrote mournfully:

#page#Well, they finally got David Duke. But he sure scared the bejesus out of them. It took a massive campaign of hysteria, of fear and hate, orchestrated by all wings of the Ruling Elite, from official right to left, from President Bush and the official Republican Party through the New York–Washington-run national media through the local elites and down to local left-wing activists. It took a massive scare campaign, not only invoking the old bogey images of the Klan and Hitler, but also, more concretely, a virtual threat to boycott Louisiana, to pull out tourists and conventions, to lose jobs by businesses leaving the state. It took a campaign of slander that resorted to questioning the sincerity of Duke’s conversion to Christianity.

That’s right, America — a campaign of “fear and hate” in which the Klansman was the victim, not the perpetrator, and a political movement that has no room for Lincoln or Washington but welcomes the pillowcases-on-their-heads set, and nobody could quite figure out why that never caught on. Rothbard added: “There was nothing in Duke’s current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleo-libertarians.” And that’s the problem with Rothbardism — and Ron Paulism — in a nutshell: I want to abolish the Fed, some KKK wacko wants to abolish the Fed, ergo we’re on the same team, as if everybody who opposes smoking ought to make common cause with Adolf Hitler: Sure, the Holocaust was awful and all, but Hitler was really good on smoking. And those autobahns are pretty sweet! Note that it was precisely judgment that WFB found Rothbard to lack, and, as it turns out, those who had the judgment to question the sincerity of Duke’s conversion were right to do so: Today, you can find him at the “White World’s Future” conference or hitting the Holocaust-denial circuit with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Beyond the Duke campaign, Rothbard found inspiration in a variety of comprehensively bananas causes: the militia movement, neo-Confederates, and the like. A few months before the Oklahoma City bombing, he had the bad sense to celebrate a “glorious phenomenon” that included

an erupting “county militia” movement . . . extensive civil disobedience by county sheriffs. . . . The Committee of the 50 States, a states’ rights group, has been resurrected to push the Ultimatum Resolution, proclaiming the dissolution of the federal government when the national debt reaches $6 trillion. . . . In addition, there are various flourishing separatist and secessionist movements: for example, the desire of southwestern Nebraskans and northwestern Kansans to get out from under the despotic controllers and taxers of their “Eastern” big cities, such as Omaha and Wichita. Staten Island wants to secede from horrible New York City, and Vermont wants out of the U.S. Southern secessionists are on the march again, in such new organizations as the Southern League and Peaceful Secession, and grassroots anti-immigration groups are booming in California, Texas, Florida, and other states. . . . Finally, permeating all sectors of this variegated right-wing movement, there is a healthy and intense abhorrence of the Federal Reserve.

Secessionists, militias, David Duke: all fantastic on the Fed.

It is not coincidental that it is anti-Semitism generally and Holocaust denial specifically that form the ideological nougat holding this particular nut-cluster together. In Rothbard’s view, the state is evil, and war is the characteristic activity of the state. Therefore, there can be no “good wars.” But to your thinking American, not every war looks like an obviously fraudulent excuse for Leviathan to gorge on the pillage buffet. The Civil War was a horror, but then so was slavery. And Americans are to this day, damn their eyes, sort of proud of shellacking Hitler and Tojo. Rothbard was having none of that: “Lincoln was a master politician, which means that he was a consummate conniver, manipulator, and liar. The federal forts were the key to his successful prosecution of the war. Lying to South Carolina, Abraham Lincoln managed to do what Franklin D. Roosevelt and Henry Stimson did at Pearl Harbor 80 years later — maneuvered the Southerners into firing the first shot.” That we should think of the Japanese imperial army as the cat’s-paw of the FDR administration is prima facie bonkers, but Rothbard has a story he wants to tell. The Holocaust tends to get in the way of the Hitler-was-an-innocent-bystander view of history, and so Rothbard found himself making common cause with the “revisionist” historians of the Third Reich. That sort of revisionism has two main expressions: One is the view furthered by, among others, Pat Buchanan in his Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, which holds that World War II was just another case of the British Empire’s fecklessly trying to look out for its own interests while being enabled by America’s “Anglophile elite.” (Rothbard, like the LaRouche nuts, also wrote suspiciously of “Anglophiles,” and a week after the 9/11 attacks, Rockwell’s website ran a cautionary remembrance by the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute about the runup to World War I: “The Anglophile Willies Find Us a War.”)

#page#Rothbard and his faction fully embrace the first form of revisionism and are culpably indulgent of the the second, which specifically denies that the Holocaust actually happened or holds that it was in some way exaggerated. It is this that explains the association of Rothbard, a secular Jew, with the likes of James J. Martin, the libertarian revisionist and publisher who ended his career with a stint on the editorial board of the Institute for Historical Review, as slimy a bunch of anti-Semites as you will find outside of a United Nations conference. It is very much the same impulse that today allows the Ron Paul movement to make common cause with the conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society: Sure, they’re a bunch of space cadets, but they’re great on monetary policy.

The main vector of contagion transmitting Rothbardism to the Ron Paul movement is Lew Rockwell, formerly Ron Paul’s congressional chief of staff and believed by many libertarians to be the author of the controversial passages in the Ron Paul newsletters. (Rockwell denies this.) Rockwell has had a long career on the right. He worked at  Hillsdale College and is the founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and he has probably done more than any other figure to keep alive Rothbard’s dream of a grand far-right/far-left alliance, with the David Duke populists and the John Birch Society and the Fed obsessives joining up with the Vietnam-vintage anti-war Left. As the current state of American libertarianism suggests, Rockwell is every inch as defective a political strategist as Rothbard, but without his mentor’s energy or scholarly flair. What Rockwell lacks in intellect, he makes up for in savagery. Like Rothbard, he is happy to associate with the worst sort of cranks, among them the late Joseph Sobran, who spent the end of his career hobnobbing with the aforementioned slimy anti-Semites of the Institute for Historical Review. After WFB fired Sobran from National Review because of his Jewish obsessions, Rockwell provided him with an outlet. Sobran’s later output was characterized by such gems as this: “History is replete with the lesson that a country in which the Jews get the upper hand is in danger.” Don’t tell it to the people of the American West: One of the zanier proposals floated by Rockwell’s website is to achieve peace in the Middle East by establishing a “New Israel” straddling the Nevada–Utah border and relocating Israelis there, a kind of Navajo reservation for Jews (perhaps with a casino?), a Zionist entity near Zion National Park.

That sort of flippancy is hardly the exception on Planet Rothbard and its satellites. Writing about the film Schindler’s List, Rothbard complained that “the only criticism of the film has come from reviewers who claim that the movie is not pro-Jewish or anti-Gentile enough.” (How anti-Jewish is a Holocaust film expected to be?) Informed that some film-goers had left the theater because of a group of black teens jeering at the concentration-camp scenes, Rothbard asked, “So what does Spielberg expect, if he won’t make shooting scenes sufficiently realistic?” and he pined for the day when the Holocaust is just another historical curiosity and we “can put it all behind us.” Rockwell, for his part, does not much appreciate the differences between the United States and Nazi Germany — recent headlines include “Heil Obama!” and “Towards a National Socialist America.”

For a man who professes to carry forward the intellectual legacy of the erudite Professor Mises, Rockwell writes a lot of lowbrow and barely literate sub-Chomskyite dreck: “Like Rome, England, and other empires, the U.S. divides to rule. In Arab countries, the subjects of the latest conquests, this is done geographically and tribally. The U.S. establishes ‘freedom and democracy,’ that is, mass killing, puppet tyrannies, and control of the oil. Some human beings like to murder and torture. Serial killers, we call them in the private sector. Mr. President, Madam Secretary, General, Mr. Director, we call them in the government.” All of which sounds more Temple U. than Hillsdale to me.

Like his mentor Rothbard, the rebarbative Rockwell, who used to contribute occasionally to National Review, is particularly scathing on the subject of your favorite magazine, which he and his acolytes will never forgive for having exiled the Birchers and the other conspiracy nuts and Jew-fever sufferers from the conservative movement. I’m probably a little low in the National Review food chain to say so, but: You’re welcome.

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